13 February 2006

SDLP slams Ulster spy role for MI5

Belfast Telegraph

By Chris Thornton
13 February 2006

The Government's steps to devolve justice powers to Belfast this week will be rendered meaningless by MI5's enhanced powers, the SDLP claimed today.

Assembly member Alban Maginness said the plans to take responsibility for intelligence gathering from the PSNI and hand it over to the Security Service next year will be "a retrograde and damaging step".

On Thursday the Government will publish legislation giving Secretary of State Peter Hain the power to sign away justice powers to a devolved administration at Stormont - a key Sinn Fein demand if the party is to support policing.

A discussion document will accompany the legislation, and it is expected to underline that by the time justice powers go from London to Belfast, primacy in intelligence gathering will have gone the other way.

MI5 is due to take over lead responsibility for intelligence gathering next year. Pilot work is already under way.

Mr Maginness said the transfer will bypass the oversight mechanisms put in place for the PSNI.

"Just when the PSNI arrangements for sharing intelligence and handling informers were overhauled, the British Government have decided to recreate the old problem by giving intelligence gathering to MI5," he said.

"Worse, because crime and paramilitarism go hand in hand, MI5 will gradually look to expand its role into serious crime too. And devolution of justice will be meaningless. The goal of nationalists and unionists underwriting each other's security will be lost."

He said giving intelligence responsibility to "the faceless men of MI5" is "unacceptable".

"It is bad for politics, bad for policing and bad for the peace process," he said.

Mr Maginness also attacked Sinn Fein over the issue, saying they "have had their eye off the ball".

"Repeatedly we have warned Sinn Fein that their demands for disbandment of Special Branch would only lead to MI5 getting primacy," he said. "For their own reasons Sinn Fein have preferred to deny the extent of change in the PSNI. Meanwhile, they have been as good as silent about MI5.

"Real accountability is diminished if primacy goes to MI5."

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