When the British government agreed to the expected transfer of powers on policing and justice away from Westminster to locally-elected political institutions, they did a little ‘housekeeping’.
Republicans would be part of those locally-elected institutions, so the British government ensured that responsibility for intelligence gathering was removed from the PSNI and transferred to its security service MI5.
For the first time, this unaccountable British security service now has the lead role in ‘national security’ intelligence gathering in the six counties, without having to adhere to the safeguards recommended in the 1999 Patten Report on policing.
MI5 has operated in the six counties for years now and has been linked to many, many controversial murders and assassinations through collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.
Force within a force
The PSNI and MI5 must operate as ‘distinct and entirely separate bodies’, so the PSNI set up a new unit to work directly with MI5.
The Crime Liaison Intelligence Office is responsible for ensuring that secret information and intelligence flows smoothly between the PSNI and MI5 under new ‘national security’ arrangements. More detailed service level agreements remain secret.
A formal working agreement between the two organisations - an 11-page Memorandum of Understanding published in October 2007 - says liaison is “an essential protection against concerns that some intelligence might not be mutually visible to the PSNI and Security Service”.
It details how the arrangements will work - even the provision that members of the PSNI will be allowed to use the MI5 canteen for their ‘liaisons’.
So much for ‘distinct and entirely separate bodies’.
A section of the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle motion put to the party’s January 2007 Extraordinary Ard Fheis on Policing said the Ard Chomhairle was mandated to appoint Sinn Fein representatives to the Policing Board and the District Policing Partnership Boards to ensure that “political policing, collusion and ‘the force within a force’ is a thing of the past and to oppose any involvement by the British Security Service/MI5 in civic policing”.
Covert ops return, PSNI arsenal increased
Earlier this year, despite meeting the Policing Board just hours earlier, PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde chose to announce to BBC journalists, rather than to the board, that he had deployed a covert undercover unit to assist the PSNI.
The Special Reconnaissance Regiment is the latest transfiguration in a series of shadowy British army covert units which have included 14 Intelligence Company, the Force Research Unit and the Joint Support Group.
These units have been involved in extra-judicial executions, the running of loyalist death squads, and spying and sabotage - including attempts to scupper the Stevens Inquiry into collusion.
In January 2007 Hugh Orde said plastic bullets would no longer be used for purposes of public order/crowd control. Sinn Fein had previously been scathingly critical of the introduction of 50,000 additional plastic bullets while the SDLP were the sole nationalist representatives on the Policing Board.
In May 2007, then Sinn Fein Policing Board nominee Alex Maskey said: “The days of PSNI officers coming to the Policing Board to have decisions rubber stamped and endorsed are over.”
With Sinn Fein now sitting on the Policing Board, the PSNI still retain these plastic bullets and have added the potentially lethal 50,000 volt TASER electro-shock gun to their weapons arsenal.
Add to all this the British government’s Terrorism Act 2006, under which the PSNI can detain a person for up to 28 days without charge, and it is clear that we are still waiting for the new beginning to policing and justice that was promised.