'Is this the start of our troubles?'

(continued from 'How do we respond to a time of threat? Lawfully.')

Dame Nuala O'Loan is a solicitor and former law lecturer and was Northern Ireland's first Police Ombudsman from 1999 to 2007. She is the Irish government's special representative to Timor-Leste and has just been appointed their special UN envoy on women and peace-making.

To begin, Dame Nuala notes that, with the projected devolution of political responsibility for policing and criminal justice matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the UK government sought to ensure that responsibility for national security intelligence-gathering moved from the PSNI to MI5. When she was police ombudsman, she had the power to oversee all such intelligence-gathering operations; this is no longer the case.

So, while there is often a cross-over between crime and terrorism – she quotes the examples of alleged IRA complicity in the £26million Northern Bank robbery as a pension plan for its members, and the long-established pattern of drug-dealing by the likes of the UVF – within law enforecemnet there is now a division of responsibility between the PSNI and MI5, with the Police Ombudsman only having oversight of the former.

She regards the oversight mechanisms in place for the intelligence services to be scant. The Intelligence and Security Committee of 9 MPs is only a limited mechanism for MI5 oversight and the committee itself has a very wide brief to address, abover and beyond that of 'watching the watchers'.

She notes that the Attorney General does have the power to call in the police to investigate alleged wrong-doing by the intelligence services, as he has recently done in the case of Binyam Mohammed's allegations of MI5 complicity in torture, but that this a power rarely exercised. 

O'Loan reminds us that, without sufficient oversight mechanisms in place for intelligence gathering and the handling of sources, things can go very badly wrong. She points to her investigation of the Raymond McCord case, where a unit of a loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland was given virtual impunity by police handlers to carry out serial killings. She directs us to the final paragraph of the Police Ombudsman's report into the McCord case which highlights the need for accountability of national security proection mechanisms.

She recalls a recent visit to a school in Omagh, just after the killings of members of the security forces. One school girl asked her: "Is this the start of our 'troubles'?"

O'Loan's answer: "No. If we as a society live up to our civic responsibilities."

(Report continued at: Brian Rowan and the curious case of the 'dirty war')

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