17 February 2006

Local bodies could be briefed on MI5's new Ulster activity

Belfast Telegraph

By Chris Thornton
17 February 2006

The Government has acknowledged a need for "local transparency" after MI5 takes the lead role in intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland.

In a discussion paper on the devolution of justice, that was published alongside Westminster legislation yesterday, the Government said it recognises that there is a crossover between intelligence about national security - which MI5 will handle - and organised crime, which police will continue to monitor.

The acknowledgement came as the Policing Board called for "clarity and reassurance" that progress made in intelligence safeguards over the past three years won't be reversed by the switch to MI5. The call followed PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde's remarks that he would object if he felt the handover to MI5 would deprive his officers of information they need.

In a nod to local transparency, the Government indicated local Ministers, the Assembly, Policing Board and Police Ombudsman could be briefed on MI5 activity.

"Even when policing is devolved, those with responsible for overseeing policing will need to understand how national security issues are handled," the Government paper said.

"The Government has consistently recognised the importance of local transparency, as has the PSNI Chief Constable, though it will not risk compromising information or techniques that would jeopardise national security."

Earlier this week, Sir Hugh Orde told Parliament's Northern Ireland Select Committee that he has "no difficulty" with the transfer of responsibility to MI5.

"But I would have huge difficulty if I didn't get back all the intelligence I need to fight crime," he said.

"I'm not going to sign up to a system in which that is not the case."

Yesterday members of the Policing Board were briefed about changes to the intelligence system by Assistant Chief Constable Sam Kinkaid.

In a statement afterwards, Board chairman Sir Desmond Rea said that members "were particularly concerned" that the enhanced role for MI5 could "reverse progress made during the last three years".

"Board members agreed that clarity and reassurance around this issue must be provided prior to any change being effected, and would continue discussions on this matter with the Chief Constable," he said.

Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein have objected to greater MI5 involvement.

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