31 March 2006

Over watching the detectives

Daily Ireland

In his final interview before retiring as vice-chairpman of the North’s Policing Board this week, Denis Bradley spoke with Jarlath Kearney

Jarlath Kearney

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Photo: Denis Bradley (click to view)

DI: Is Martin McGuinness’ phone currently bugged by Special Branch?
DB: I would be very surprised if it was, but I wouldn’t see any reason why it should be and if it is, I think that it should be very deeply inquired into as to why the hell Martin McGuinness’ phone should be bugged by the Special Branch. I would think that was an horrendous situation to be.
DI: And the reason I ask, of course, is because there is a precedent, as you know.
DB: There is a precedent for everything in Northern Ireland. I think that the Sinn Féin statement is a very valid one, when it says when are the British going to stop their war too because we have stopped ours. My only problem with it is that Sinn Féin have access to the Prime Minister on a daily basis, so why ask me is their phone bugged when they have total access to the Prime Minister?
DI: The point is that on the last occasion in which it emerged publicly that Martin McGuinness’ phone was bugged, the conversations were in fact conversations with 10 Downing Street. Now that happened on the Policing Board’s watch.
DB: It also happened on Martin McGuinness’ watch. I think that you are giving the Policing Board an import which is way beyond its brief in this point of view, that all things have to be post-hoc as opposed to pre-hoc. Things are made accountable post, not prior. Otherwise what you do is that you run the organisation and that’s the job of the chief constable and people like that. But to answer your question, I don’t do this victim stuff. Sinn Féin are probably more critically powerful in their access than any other political party are. We have authority post, if something is wrong then you come to us and you say that’s the piece of evidence, we have mechanisms to deal with that.
DI: A Special Branch officer called Peter Adamson was charged with offences in relation to the alleged leaking of transcripts of Martin McGuinness’ phone calls. The charges were withdrawn by the Director of Public Prosecutions last autumn on the basis that it was not ‘in the public interest’ to proceed. Did the Policing Board investigate, analyse, assess or inquire in any way whatsoever about that situation?
DB: Well why would the Policing Board inquire about something that the DPP decided to do?
DI: Why did the Policing Board then attempt to deal with the issue of the Stormont case which collapsed ‘in the public interest’ and people were declared not guilty by verdict of the Crown Court? The Policing Board then made extensive comment about that – you and Des Rea – at a press briefing in Belfast. Why did you do that?
DB: You’re the first person who has asked me to comment upon this one, right, nobody asked me to comment on this, on one that I’m not well-briefed on and I don’t know that much about, but if you had asked me I would have certainly went looking to find out. But you didn’t ask and nobody else asked. But on the second one, everybody was asking, right? So you cannot blame me for not commenting on something which I wasn’t asked about and which you’re post-haste asking and coming down the road asking me about and kind of making into something.
DI: In the view of some it is as big a public interest issue that a Member of Parliament’s phone and his conversations with the secretary of state and 10 Downing Street would be bugged by a PSNI Special Branch which then leaks them to the media, while at the same time the Policing Board doesn’t consider the issue to be of sufficient public interest to make comment or inquiry.
DB: Well I told you, you’re the first person to ask me the question. And Martin didn’t come to me because if he had I would have dealt with it. I would have opened up the issue. He didn’t come to me with it and I didn’t know about it. So I mean the real point here is engagement, the real point here is engagement.
DI: So should Martin McGuinness be engaging as a member of the Policing Board if – and you’re not in a position to say and neither is he presumably – his phone is still bugged by the PSNI Special Branch?
DB: What I’m saying is that if it is, I think it should be inquired into and seen to and dealt with.
DI: How could he join the Policing Board if post-hoc, as you described it, two years from now, further transcripts emerged of conversations that he is currently having with Peter Hain or Jonathan Powell or Tony Blair?
DB: Well, Labour governments have discovered that intelligence at times did things that they weren’t supposed to do, right? It has happened within the south of Ireland not all that long ago. It didn’t collapse governments, right, people dealt with it and got on with it and made people accountable for it. That’s the way you deal with these types of situations.
DI: Who made the PSNI Special Branch accountable for the leaks that took place on the watch of Hugh Orde and the Policing Board?
DB: Well you’re saying that they actually happened. So you’re asking me about something I know nothing about, that nobody informed me of, nobody asked me a question about, that nobody actually brought to my attention. The difficulty about the Sinn Féin argument is that we will join policing when it is perfect according to our definition. Now they then began to discover, correctly so in my opinion, that devolution of policing and justice powers was a fundamental issue, not necessarily to policing but to good governance of policing.
DI: One of the issues which the Policing Board manifestly can’t control is the issue of MI5 receiving primacy over intelligence-gathering in Ireland.
DB: The board can’t solve it but the political parties can solve it and I think that the best definition is coming at this moment in time from the SDLP because they split national security into two situations – one is Irish national security and the other is British national security, and I think that is a very valid analysis.
DI: So you agree then that MI5 does have a role to play in Ireland vis-a-vis so-called international terrorism?
DB: I will tell you this and Sinn Féin will come to this because they can’t go to any other position, no government in the world will give away its own national security. But what it should be giving away within Northern Ireland is national security within the island of Ireland. That’s the issue, it won’t give away its own national security, and we have to live, we all have to mature into the situation, because Britain, while its here, will take an interest in its own national security out of that island, or the part of the island in which it has a place.
DI: So this is fundamentally an issue of sovereignty?
DB: Of course its about political sovereignty. That’s what it was always about.
DI: Hugh Orde specifically stated on the BBC that loyalists in general are not a threat to national security and that republicans in general are a threat to national security. Do you agree with that?
DB: I don’t agree with Hugh Orde’s position on this. I actually side with the SDLP on this that the police should continue to hold national security as they do at this moment in time on the island of Ireland, I agree with that.
DI: Do you accept that a better model is that those powers should be vested with a locally accountable minister of justice?
DB: I have no difficulty with any of that except that I think you are not analysing the situation properly at all and I don’t think you’re grasping the situation because governments hold onto their national security. Neither of the two governments, in no matter what model you create, will give up their own national security issue. There are still dark rooms but there are not as many of them and there is a little bit more scrutiny, but the scrutiny will always reside in the parliament of that country and should not reside on a Policing Board. We were handed a situation from the British government that it was a done deal and Sinn Féin in my opinion didn’t protest enough. I’m saying its carries dangers. I am not saying it’s fundamental. I’m saying it carries dangers and it should be properly explored. But I don’t think it is fundamental. I think that the danger as I see it is that a force without a force, which is the British model, is not necessarily conducive to a post-conflict situation, where sovereignty is still the disputed territory.
DI: You acknowledge that the PSNI and MI5 currently have a ‘relationship’. You’ve acknowledged that.
DB: Of course I have.
DI: Many observers regard that relationship in the Tasking and Co-ordinating Group as effectively a force beyond a force, because there has been very little public accountability of any of the actions emanating from that relationship over the past four years. Do you accept that?
DB: We were never tasked by the politicians to sort out the relationship between MI5 and the internal workings of the police. Nobody ever tasked the Policing Board with that, neither should they because that’s the politicians’ role. I think it is healthier that dark rooms disappear and that things come out into the open as much as they can. The role of the Policing Board is not to work out politics and I think that part of the republican argument is that it invested far too much expectation in something that is only a construct of proper politics and which gives a chance and an opportunity to achieve a greater oversight of policing than we had up to now.
DI: Hugh Orde in March 2003, during your period as vice-chair, talked about people within his organisation who wanted him to fail. Where have those people gone? Or are they still there? Or do you know?
DB: There are people within every organisation that wish somebody to fail. We also unfortunately, still to a degree, because the politicians have failed to get their act together, end up in a situation where some of the politics flow into policing, so the kind of clear water that we were promised by the politicians in the Good Friday Agreement was never provided.
DI: Is there a case, which republicans refer to, for labelling police who flow into politics as political detectives?
DB: Culturally I think there was a greater onus on Sinn Féin to actually lift more of the burden by taking their place on the Policing Board and holding Hugh Orde to account and having the type of questions that you’re directing at me, directed at them because why didn’t they lift part of this burden and expect people like me to kind of hold ground which I was only partially capable of ever holding.
DI: Is that not a victim approach that you eschewed earlier on?
DB: No, it’s a reality statement, it’s a reality check on this situation. I don’t feel a victim, I just feel a bit saddened by it. I think it was a wrong tactic. I disagreed with it.
DI: Do you accept Sinn Féin’s argument now that, number one, there are still in some influential positions within the PSNI ‘political detectives’, and number two, that devolution is now fundamental to securing maximum community confidence in the police?
DB: I think that is put in a fashion which is a completely Sinn Féin question, because it bears no reality to reality.
DI: So there aren’t political detectives?
DB: No, I didn’t say that. Let me finish the thing. Everything that happens is political. And when a very prominent Sinn Féin person becomes a police officer, I don’t expect him to change his heart, nor his culture, but what I expect him to do and what I would demand if I was still on the Policing Board is that he police with neutrality and with the best interests of all the people at heart. That’s what I mean by that the politics now flow into policing because those questions are asked because we don’t have an assembly, we don’t have an agreed executive.
DI: Yes but in fairness, Denis, republicans currently analyse a set of individuals within the PSNI as political detectives because they, in fact, conspired to bring down the assembly that you’re actually talking about.
DB: Well, you use the word conspire, I don’t think they conspired at all.
DI: But that’s why republicans talk about political detectives.
DB: No, they didn’t conspire. I think they made a mess of it. That’s been acknowledged by the chief constable and I certainly thought they made a mess of it and said so at the time. That’s why I think that analysis is not good enough. You see as republicans – and I talk about myself as a republican – we need to get past this. But if you begin to actually say he did that or she did that because he comes from the unionist tradition therefore it has to be a political position and therefore he has to be a political detective, we will never in true republican definitions move past where we’re at. Sinn Féin have had the experience of knowing more about change than probably any other entity within the North over the last 10 years. They have handled it extremely well except mainly on this one issue which I think they got wrong, because they politicised policing. If anyone politicised policing they politicised it by actually saying that we’ll only do it when it’s perfect according to our view. They politicised policing by saying, that’s one we will not touch with a barge pole.
DI: Patten came about because policing was political...
DB: No, hold on...
DI: That’s why Patten came about.
DB: Everything is political if you want to use that definition.
DI: Policing is fundamental to the maintenance of the status quo. That’s why it so serious for republicans.
DB: It is so serious for republicans and it’s the one that they didn’t engage with. To be fair to them, they said we will do that through legislation. If they don’t find a way of the policing to do that, then the only thing we’re left with is what is now being described in vague terms as joint management. And the rest of Ireland, which they now have a big stake in politically, will be left saying that there is one of the political parties here who doesn’t support policing within part of the island until they get some kind of devolved situation which might not happen for the next 20 years. Now that is not a political position I would advise anybody to take up.

This interview has been edited down because of space restrictions.

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