British Prime Minister Tony Blair will today define MI5’s future role in the North in a bid to secure Sinn Féin support for the North’s police.
As members of Sinn Féin’s National Executive prepared for a crucial meeting on Saturday to decide whether they should proceed with plans for a special party conference on policing, Mr Blair is expected to carve out distinct roles for MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) on intelligent gathering and civic policing.
In recent negotiations with the British government, Gerry Adams’s party has pressed for a clear distinction to be made between the two organisations.
Sinn Féin has been concerned at proposals in an annex to the St Andrews Agreement that the PSNI and the security services would have an integrated role.
MI5, which is building a £20m (€29.86m) headquarters outside of Belfast, is due to assume from the police the lead responsibility for intelligence gathering on national security by the end of this year.
Stormont sources suggested that Mr Blair’s written statement to MPs could announce that the independent reviewer of terrorism law, Lord Carlile, would take on an oversight role on intelligence gathering - meeting MI5, the political parties and the Northern Ireland Policing Board, carrying out reviews and writing reports.
The sources claimed he may not be given access to sensitive security documents, however.
Officials have also considered giving the North’s Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan, or her successor when she steps down in November, an oversight role, but again without access to MI5 documents.
The British government has also considered the idea that a select group of Policing Board members could be chosen for private briefings from MI5.
The so-called 'star chamber' would be made up of the chair and deputy chair, one representative from each of the political parties and some independent members.
With Sinn Féin insisting it needed more positive language from Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists if the special party conference is to go ahead, a Stormont source suggested Mr Blair’s statement had potential to persuade Sinn Féin to go ahead with its conference.
“Hopefully Mr Blair’s statement will create a better atmosphere and provide a context for republicans to call this Árd Fheis on a unilateral basis,” he said.
Sinn Féin policing spokesman Gerry Kelly yesterday said his party hoped that Mr Blair’s statement would undo the St Andrews proposals on MI5.
“The proposals which the SDLP claimed to have negotiated at St Andrews were completely unacceptable,” the North Belfast Assembly member said.
“They would have embedded MI5 within the PSNI. This would have generated the potential to create once again a force within a force.”
However, the SDLP’s Policing Board member, Alex Attwood, accused Sinn Féin of relying on warm words from Mr Blair instead of delivering a mechanism that would make intelligence gathering subject to rigorous oversight and complaints procedures.
The West Belfast Assembly member said: “There is a growing anxiety that Sinn Féin have dropped the ball on MI5.
“First, at the very time when MI5 are increasing their power in the North by recruiting even more staff and by building a massive new headquarters at Holywood, when there is a need for more accountability around MI5, it appears that Sinn Féin have given up negotiating for a robust complaint and independent oversight of the role for MI5 in the North.