Sinn Féin and the SDLP have clashed over whether a statement by the British prime minister Tony Blair on the role of British military intelligence in the North of Ireland is positive or negative for future polcing plans.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has welcomed the prime minister’s announcement on MI5. The statement indicates Britain’s domestic security agency will remain distint from the PSNI police in the North, although it will be responsible for any policing activity considered to be in the interests of British national security.
To the chagrin of republicans, a major new headquarters for MI5 is being built in Belfast to accomodate the service’s massive personnel requirements in the North of Ireland.
Sinn Féin’s policing spokesman Gerry Kelly said that after intensive negotiations with the British government Sinn Féin had “secured the reversal of the British government’s proposal to integrate the PSNI and MI5”.
While Sinn Féin presented this as a success, the rival nationalist SDLP warned that MI5 would now be unaccountable for their actions under the existing policing structures. Blair partly address this issue when he allowed that the Police Ombudsman would be able to access MI5 files on its local policing activities.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly hailed the statement as a success for his party’s negotiators. He said policing would now be protected from what he called the “malign and corruptive control of MI5”.
Sinn Féin accused the Dublin Government and the SDLP of accepting that MI5 should have a role in “civic policing” in the North of Ireland.
“At St Andrews the British government proposed the integration of MI5 into policing structures in the North, which the Irish Government acquiesced to and which the SDLP claimed as a victory,” said Mr Kelly.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan, however, accused Sinn Féin of making a deal which would prevent the Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan from being able to investigate so-called “national security matters”.
“When MI5 takes over, she will not be able to and will have no power to make them give her information,” he said.
“So when anybody has cause for concern or complaint about national security intelligence gathering, unlike now, there will be nobody credible to turn to,” said Mr Durkan.
Defining the relationship between MI5 and the PSNI in terms of “liaison”, Mr Blair said: “No police officers will be seconded to or under the control of the security service. The small number of police officers who act in a liaison capacity with the security service will be PSNI headquarters staff acting in that role for fixed time-limited periods to the extent that the Chief Constable deems necessary for them to perform their duties.”
And, Mr Blair insisted: “The security service will have no role whatsoever in civic policing.”
MI5 is due to assume the lead responsibility for “national security intelligence” in the North later this year, taking over informers and agents previously handed by the PSNI/RUC Special Branch.
The DUP said the statement was a meaningless restatement intended to comfort republicans, while Mr Blair’s official spokesmen, described it both as a “clarification” and a “qualification”.
Sinn Féin Assembly member for South Down Caitriona Ruane said that the SDLP had been responsible for the MI5 proposal contained in the St Andrews document, which she described as “a mess”.
“This issue boils down to one simple fact. The SDLP accepted the integration of MI5 and the PSNI. Sinn Féin rejected this and has achieved the separation of MI5 from policing. Sinn Féin’s objective is a policing service which serves the people not MI5.”