• Print
  • Bookmark and Share

The Policing You Don’t See

Covert policing and the accountability gap:

Five years on from the transfer of ‘national security’ primacy to MI5

The Committee on the Administration of Justice has published a major report on covert policing after a research project lasting a year. The report develops a human rights based framework from international standards and the Patten Report and uses it to analyse past and present practice.

The research reflects on the evidence of the involvement of police informants in serious criminality uncovered in investigations into RUC Special Branch and the evidence that MI5 gave it strategic support. Such investigations and the Patten Report made recommendations to ensure covert policing became accountable and operated within the law. However, since primacy in ‘national security’ policing was given to MI5 five years ago (2007), the research finds that there is a growing “accountability gap” over a large part of policing. It reports that the UK level oversight of MI5 is plainly inadequate and that the local mechanisms that hold the PSNI to account are evaded by the Security Service. It argues that this situation falls woefully short of international standards and has the capacity to undermine confidence in policing as a whole.

Brian Gormally, Director of CAJ said:

“There is overwhelming evidence from official inquiries that there were many abuses in covert policing in the past. These did immense damage to the rule of law and arguably prolonged the conflict. Since the peace agreement there have been huge reforms to the police service designed to prevent such abuses ever happening again.

“Unfortunately, the secret Security Service – implicated in past abuses – has not been so reformed and has been put in charge of a highly important area of mainstream policing. MI5 has primacy in covert ‘national security’ policing and gives ‘strategic direction’ to the PSNI in this area.

“The Patten report recommended the downsizing, deinstitutionalisation and integration of Special Branch within the PSNI and the oversight of the PSNI by an independent board rather than a government minister. However, since the St Andrews Agreement perhaps the most sensitive area of policing is being run by a parallel police force – ‘a force outside a force’ – answerable to ‘direct rule’ Ministers and subject to separate and ineffective oversight arrangements. If the Chief Constable’s assertion at the time of St Andrews that MI5 would focus only on dissident republicans remains true, the practical impact of this is that two different covert policing regimes, in terms of operational techniques, standards and oversight, are now in place for republicans and loyalists.

“Our research shows that the UK level oversight of MI5 is ineffective. Limited additional accountably measures were promised in the St Andrews Agreement but some of the most significant commitments, to publish policy frameworks, have not been honoured. Related policy documents which have been released to CAJ under Freedom of Information rather than being safeguards actually appear designed to limit accountability. This includes an NIO held document which contains a list of types of information the Chief Constable should not tell the Policing Board, even in confidential sessions. The documents we have discovered show an obsession with keeping anything with the label ‘national security’ secret from our devolved institutions and a total indifference to accountability.

“Whilst the Prime Minister after St Andrews gave assurances that PSNI officers working with MI5 would be ‘solely accountable’ to the Chief Constable and Policing Board, this is contradicted by these documents which stipulate that PSNI officers, up to and including the Chief Constable, working on national security matters are not accountable to the Policing Board but rather to the NIO.

 “MI5 – secret, unreformed and unaccountable – is now running one of the most sensitive areas of policing. This is a disaster waiting to happen to confidence in the rule of law and our peace settlement. CAJ wants a full, independent review with the aim of bringing covert policing here in line with human rights standards.”