14 February 2006

MI5 in move to step up Ulster activity

Belfast Telegraph

Service to take over anti-terror operations

By Chris Thornton
14 February 2006

Spymasters in MI5 are running covert operations in Northern Ireland alongside the PSNI, the Belfast Telegraph has learned.

As part of preparations for making MI5 the lead intelligence agency next year, agents have started expanding their operations in the province.

But sources familiar with the transition to MI5-led intelligence gathering say the secretive agency's expansion in Northern Ireland has been reined in by last July's bomb attacks in London.

MI5 is due to take over as the lead agency for national security intelligence next year. That means the PSNI will continue to gather intelligence about ordinary crime, but MI5 will be responsible for dealing with terrorism.

The Government is expected to refer to those plans later this week when legislation on the devolution of justice is published at Westminster.

To prepare for the switch, MI5 officers have been given lead roles in running covert operations alongside the senior PSNI officers who still hold official control.

Those combined operations recently led to a joint report to the Independent Monitoring Commission about the possibility of the IRA keeping guns.

MI5 has also recruited handlers in Northern Ireland to deal with its increased workload and the agency has been promised a significant increase in its budget.

However, sources close to the transition say the July 7 bomb attacks in London have slowed down the expansion plans, with a greater concentration of resources on battling Islamic terrorism within Great Britain.

The Government says that giving MI5 the lead intelligence role in Northern Ireland will provide "a consistent and co-ordinated response to international terrorism" across the UK.

However, the switch will also keep political control of secret intelligence in London if policing powers are ever handed over to a devolved administration here.

The SDLP has already raised concerns that the switch will effectively bypass checks and balances that have been put in place over the PSNI's Special Branch.

There are also concerns about whether MI5 will pass information to police that might be useful in criminal investigations.

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