``SOCIETY does need to have security services. We can’t actually fight crime and subversion effectively unless we have agents out there prepared to collect information on our behalf. It’s uncomfortable to have to admit that, but it is a reality unfortunately,’’ Queens’ University law professor Brice Dickson.
In 2007 MI5 was given supremacy over the PSNI to target the threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland.
Two years later then Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde announced that he was also bringing in the British army’s elite Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) to help in surveillance operations against dissidents.
Nationalist politicians’ voiced concerns that the various security services were totally unaccountable in Northern Ireland.
In response, the British government established a series of protocols designed to ensure that the PSNI would be given access to all intelligence gathered by MI5 and SRR.
Under the protocols the PSNI was to be kept informed about all security service operations targeting dissidents.
It also called for the PSNI to have control of the ``great majority’’ of agents.
MI5’s website states that the PSNI and security services have a harmonious relationship sharing ``complementary skills and expertise’’.
The security services have supremacy in targeting dissidents, while the PSNI provides `operational response’.
MI5’s activities in Northern Ireland are overseen by Lord Carlisle, the government’s independent monitor of anti-terrorism legislation, who conducts an annual review of its operations.
Critics of the decision to transfer control of intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland to MI5 point to the recent inquests of 52 people killed in the 7/7 attacks in London in September 2005.
During those hearings it emerged that MI5 had the bombers’ leader Sidique Khan under surveillance a year before the attack.
It was also disclosed that MI5 deliberately distorted CCTV images of two suspects before they were shared with other security agencies.
An MI5 officer told the inquests that there had been ``good operational reason’’ not to try and discover Khan’s real identity but that the reason could not be disclosed to the court because of implications for ``national security’’.
During nearly 40 years as a barrister Michael Mansfield QC took part in some of the most high profile trials in British legal history, including defending the Birmingham Six and Guilford 4.
The veteran barrister has regularly taken part in court cases in which the activities of MI5 have been called into question.
Recalling the repeated instances in which security service officers have disclosed during court cases that evidence has mysteriously gone missing, he said:
``Well I think it’s with frightening regularity and it can’t be a coincidence.
``I mean I know it’s easy to be accused of being a conspiracy theorist or something of that kind and if it happened now and again you’d say all right, we all make mistakes.
``We all mislay things, we all do that, but this happens with frightening regularity that the key documents, once you get to the point of saying where is the record of…and suddenly its gone missing.
``It’s like you know, having a very useful fire or flood where by the material that you need to make an assessment has disappeared, so I’m afraid I’m somebody who says a lot of questions have to be asked when somebody says its gone missing.’’
Queens University law lecturer Brice Dickson has written extensively on counter insurgents and accountable policing.
He says the security agencies must not be allowed to break the law but insists that they must be allowed to protect national intelligence.
``It is easy to say we shouldn’t have these people going around collecting intelligence but actually public safety, community safety does depended on good intelligence work.
``We need this activity to go on, but it does need to be regulated and controlled and governed by laws and protocols in a way that prevents injustices from occurring and miscarriages of justice from taking place.’’
However Michael Mansfield questions whether there is now a need for MI5 to be made more accountable to protect against intelligence being withheld or misused.
``It seems to me it’s about time there’s a much more thorough investigation of what the intelligence service are up to, the reliability of the intelligence they gather, where it goes, who stores it, and why on earth connections aren’t being made.
``Somebody is short of a few brain cells and that I find rather weird as they are called the intelligence services. ‘’