By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
You probably don’t remember that Mo Mowlam, who was on ‘Martin babe’ terms with our deputy first minister, thought nothing of bugging him and Gerry Adams as they were driven around in 1999.
We know the bugging of Sinn Féin continued unabated into 2004 when the party found a huge, five-feet-long, crude device in Connolly House shortly before Sinn Féin leaders were due to travel to Leeds Castle for talks. They carted it with them for a bit of publicity.
Little did Mowlam know that MI5 was eavesdropping on her too in 1997 and 1998 as she spoke to the Sinn Féin leaders.
Listeners heard her complain to Martin McGuinness in 1998 about how Tony Blair was sidelining her and of his attempts to sack her and replace her with his favourite, Peter Mandelson.
They also listened to Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, refer to a certain unionist MP as “an ass”. He agreed with Martin McGuinness MP that a lot of other unionists fell into that category.
So much for the ‘Wilson doctrine’, as people have taken to calling the convention that MPs can’t be bugged. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have both been MPs since 1997.
Ah well, you might say, they weren’t exactly conventional MPs.
They didn’t take their seats and still don’t, nor do they play a full part in Westminster business, so maybe it depends what you mean by MP?
No, the facts are otherwise.
After all, Mo Mowlam was not just a fully functioning MP, she was a member of the cabinet, someone who authorised eavesdropping on other MPs who happened to be members of Sinn Féin. Nevertheless the security services took it upon themselves to bug her. Were they authorised and if so, by whom?
At the time this activity was exposed in 2003 one MP, Andrew McKinlay, raised the Wilson doctrine with Tony Blair and reminded Blair that he had promised “to make a statement to the house, exceptionally, if and when any member of parliament’s phone was tapped. It is not a question of personality. It is a question of principle. Members of parliament’s telephones should not be tapped, and secondly, the prime minister is in charge of the security and intelligence services and they have been insubordinate in this case and are not subject to the proper controlled security of this place”.
Blair brushed McKinlay aside.
The bugging continued.
In January 2005 the head of MI5, the exotically named Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, told a closed session of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee that MI5 had bugged Connolly House in 2004 and explained with some pride that Sinn Féin “almost had to shred the office to find it”.
You can draw a number of conclusions from this history.
First, ‘Norn Irn’ is a place apart.
No-one in Westminster cares what the security services get up to here. MPs seem to have forgotten all that jiggery-pokery.
“This is the first time I can recall such an allegation being made,” Jack Straw told MPs.
Secondly, bugging was and remains endemic. Sinn Féin found the bugs because they expected to be bugged and often swept their offices searching for electronic devices. They once even asked for a table at Stormont to be dismantled because they suspected it had been hollowed out to accept a bug.
Third, and perhaps more important, the existing procedures for controlling eavesdropping by the host of British intelligence services do not work.
The Commons committee supposed to supervise eavesdropping is composed of party hacks appointed by and responsible to the prime minister. The terms of the inquiry Jack Straw announced on Monday do not extend to making any changes to existing legislation despite the fact that if it hadn’t been for a leak to a newspaper the current supervisory system would never have uncovered the bugging of Siddiq Khan two years ago.
Do you believe that British security services are not still bugging Sinn Féin MPs and of course MLAs?
Does anyone believe that even when justice and policing are devolved to Stormont that local politicians will have any control over agencies such as MI5?
The real question is, who drafts MI5’s agenda for Norn Irn?