MI5 -- British military intelligence -- has taken charge of all British security interests in the North of Ireland for the first time, it was revealed today.
PSNI police chief Hugh Orde has handed over control to the British intelligence agency, which is opening a huge new office building near Belfast.
The transfer of powers took place at midday on Wednesday, it was confirmed today.
It means that for the first time, MI5 will have the dominant role in intelligence gathering, including spying on republicans.
It is claimed the PSNI and MI5 will operate as distinct bodies, with MI5 playing no role in day-to-day policing matters and the PSNI acting only under the guidance of MI5 in intelligence and ‘state security’.
A staff of at least 200 will work out of the new spy station inside Palace Barracks, a military base at Holywood, County Down. The first MI5 agents arrived there this week and it is expected to be fully operational by the end of next month. The building will also serve as a back-up to MI5’s London HQ in case it is ever attacked.
MI5 has operated in Ireland for many years and the organisation has carried out several murders and bombings, including the shooting in February 1989 of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan said MI5 will enjoy carte blanche over intelligence without adhering to safeguards recommended in the 1999 Patten Report on policing, part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. He added that incoming police ombudsman Al Hutchinson would lose powers of scrutiny over extra-judicial state intelligence activities.
“The original Patten Report was clear that the accountable police service should be in the lead on intelligence matters. Under these arrangements, that will not be the case,” he said.
“It is the unaccountable security services who will be in the lead on intelligence policing.”
A raid on republican militarists in County Armagh on Thursday and Friday marked Mi5’s first action in the field. The PSNI, which largely carried out the raid, said it was intended to disrupt “criminal republican dissidents”.
A bomb and other arms were said to have been found in the two days of raids in the Craigavon area.
The operation was one of the biggest ever mounted against the Continuity IRA (CIRA), which remains opposed to the peace process but has carried out few attacks.
Amid a massive deployment of police and military personnel, nine men were arrested. Local republican youths attacked the British armoured vehicles with petrol bombs and stones.