A bitter row erupted between nationalist parties in the North tonight as Tony Blair tried to nudge Sinn Féin towards supporting the North's police service.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP clashed after the Prime Minister announced MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland would operate in future as distinct organisations.
Mr Blair’s statement was hailed by republicans as a major advance on the St Andrews Agreement which would have seen MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland working together on national security in new integrated structures.
But the SDLP accused Sinn Féin of making matters worse in the latest government paper, with the security services able to evade accountability.
Sinn Féin’s policing spokesperson Gerry Kelly argued: “Frankly the difference between St Andrews and this statement is day and night.
“What we have is a removal of MI5 from civic policing as opposed to integration as expounded in the St Andrews Agreement.”
The North Belfast Assembly member continued: “What we have achieved in this is that MI5 will have no part in policing in the north.
“The whole issue of MI5, and these security services are also in the south of Ireland, is that if they act illegally then we have a PSNI which is not signed up to MI5 and which will hold them to account and the police service will itself be held to account by the Patten mechanisms.”
During negotiations with the British government over Christmas, Sinn Féin had argued the PSNI and security services should must have distinct roles because agencies such as MI5 had had a malign influence on policing in Northern Ireland.
In his written statement, Mr Blair confirmed the PSNI and security services would act as completely distinct and entirely separate bodies when MI5 assumes control of the national security strategy in Northern Ireland later this year.
The Prime Minister insisted: “Policing is the responsibility solely of the PSNI. The security service will have no role whatsoever in civic policing.”
Democratic Unionist Policing Board member Ian Paisley Junior and Ulster Unionist Policing Board member Fred Cobain dismissed the statement as cosmetic, claiming it did not represent any dramatic change in the status of MI5.
Mr Paisley argued: “The fact is, MI5 never had a civic policing role.
“Sinn Féin is now either just finding that out or using it as a straw man in order to garner support for the false claim it has changed MI5’s role.
“MI5 are not the police and never have been. They do not do routine policing work.
“Sinn Féin knows this to be so. There is little point pretending that this is a Sinn Féin achievement when it is not.”
However, SDLP Policing Board member Alex Attwood was more concerned about the impact the statement could have on investigations carried out by Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan.
“The Prime Minister’s statement is wrong to say that there will be no diminution in police accountability,” the West Belfast MLA said.
“There will be, for in the past five years the Police Ombudsman has investigated complaints around national security. Under this Blair/Adams agreement this door gets shut.
“Confidence about what the police and MI5 get up to has been helped by the Ombudsman’s reports on Stormontgate, the murder of Steven Restorick and the Bill Lowry case and others – all of which were investigated by the Police Ombudsman and all of which involved issues of national security and the role of MI5.
“It is appalling that Sinn Féin welcomes a statement that does away with all of this.”