SDLP seeks return of Special Branch
SDLP seeks return of Special Branch

Sinn Fein has criticised a call by the rival nationalist SDLP for control of state intelligence operations in the North to be transferred to the PSNI police from British military intelligence agency, MI5.

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie claimed the actions of Garda police had been effective against dissident republicanism in the 26 Counties.

However, Sinn Fein has accused the party of advocating a return to the past and of seeking “special branch mark two”.

The PSNI (and formerly RUC) Special Branch was a largely autonomous organisation which used its agents to carry out politically-motivated assassinations and colluded extensively with unionist paramilitaries.

“The practical outworking of what she is calling for is the embedding of MI5 into the PSNI,” Sinn Fein Assembly member Alex Maskey said.

“She is in effect calling for the malign influence of MI5 to be allowed to contaminate the new policing structures of the PSNI. We have of course been down this road before. It is what gave us the special branch as a force within a force, unaccountable and untouchable.”

Mr Maskey claimed the decision to remove MI5 from policing structures and disband special branch was essential to getting the nationalist and republican community to endorse the new policing structures.

“Quite why Margaret Ritchie has become a cheerleader for British spooks and their desire to pollute civic policing here is a matter for her to explain,” he said.

“The PSNI have made clear they have full access to all intelligence. Policing board members, including SDLP members, are routinely briefed on this. Given her comments it seems that Margaret Ritchie hasn’t been briefed by her board colleagues on the detail of any of this.”

Ulster Unionist policing spokesman Basil McCrea and the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt also criticised the SDLP. Mr McCrea said her comments had more to do with “an SDLP, not Northern Ireland, agenda”.

The independent reviewer of British ‘anti-terror’ laws, Alex ‘Lord’ Carlile also criticised Ms Ritchie claiming her demand was tantamount to a victory for dissident groups.

“Reversing intelligence to the PSNI would be a backwards step,” he said yesterday, “giving victory to the dissidents, which they don’t deserve.” He said: “The people of Northern Ireland don’t want to hand the dissidents a victory of that kind. There is no evidence on the merits of taking the responsibility away from M15 and back to the PSNI would make any improvement and I don’t think that PSNI believe that either.” Lord Carlisle denied MI5 had failed to pass on intelligence to the PSNI as Ms Ritchie had claimed.

“She’s not privy to the information held and obtained by MI5 or the arrangements about the collection of that information” he said.

The SDLP remained defiant in the face of the criticism.

“Accountability at all levels is the very backbone of our new political and policing dispensation,” said SDLP Assembly member Dominic Bradley.

“In this context giving control of intelligence-gathering to the unaccountable MI5 was a seriously backward step.

“Sinn Fein and some unionists may seek to deny this reality, but the anti-democratic dissident gangs will not be defeated from London. They will be defeated by the people of Ireland and the police services they trust all working together.”

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