A showdown is looming between the British government and the two main nationalist parties over plans to allow the National Crime Agency (NCA) to operate in the six counties. Recent discussions at Stormont ended in deadlock when Sinn Fein and the SDLP refused to support British government proposals to establish the new crime fighting agency in ‘Northern Ireland’, much to the chagrin of their unionist counterparts.
Political opposition to this development centres on the real concerns of the parties over accountability mechanisms. Reporting for The Detail, journalist Barry McCaffery writes:
The nationalist parties refused to support the legislation claiming it would create an unaccountable second police force which would be allowed to operate without proper scrutiny from the PSNI Chief Constable Matt Bagott, the Policing Board and the Ombudsman.
Both nationalist parties are keen to promote the image of a police service accountable under the Patten recommendations to their respective supporters. Another crime agency with powers equal to those of the police and answerable only to the British Home Secretary is enough to give them nightmares.
According to McCaffrey:
If the motion for consent had been approved this would have meant NCA officers having the same powers as PSNI officers; including the authority to conduct searches and make arrests; undertake surveillance operations; recruit agents and recover assets from criminals.
The problems this would cause for Sinn Fein and the SDLP become immediately apparent at a time when the PSNI/MI5 is drawing major criticism from NGOs such as the Committee for the Administration of Justice. In a report published late last year the CAJ raised some serious questions vis-à-vis the impartiality of the PSNI under the control and direction by MI5 on matters of ‘national security’.
The report pours cold water on the claims of effective accountability by highlighting the malign influence of the British security services within state institutions, such as the police and the prisons. MI5 permeates every level of these organisations, producing serious deformities in the criminal justice system. The internment of Martin Corey and Marian Price based on secret evidence are black stains on the political landscape. Brian Shivers, Brendan McConnville, John Paul Wotton and Stephen Murney are but other examples of current state of play.
Further talks between the two parties and David Ford have failed to close the gap. It is now believed that without agreement the British Home Secretary will have to reconsider how the NCA will operate in the North once the bill is passed on Thursday.
The nationalist parties’ decision to block the legislative consent means that the new NCA agency will only have limited powers to operate in Northern Ireland on reserved matters, such as national security, immigration and border control.
There is an interesting twist in the story; Sinn Fein and the SDLP find themselves in agreement with the top echelon of the PSNI on this matter. Matt Baggott's Assistant Chief Constable, George Hamilton, believes his organisation should have operational control over the new agency:
NCA’s operation in Northern Ireland must fit with the existing accountability structures of the Policing Board and the Ombudsman so that we can continue to maintain and build public confidence in policing.
Who is he kidding! Hamilton and Baggott are only concerned about protecting the primacy of the RUC/PSNI whenever the new agency comes into being. The jitters within police HQ are palpable. Past competition between the police and other branches’ of the security services is well documented. The protection of sources has often led to the deliberate failure to share sensitive information resulting in the murders of many civilians.
Already, the National Crime Agency is being dubbed as Britain’s new ‘FBI’. On its official website the Agency's role is being described as follows:
- pulling together a single national intelligence picture on organised criminals and their activities.
- having the authority to coordinate and task the national response, prioritising resources according to threat.
- working with law enforcement partners to ensure that those who commit serious and organised crime are pursued and brought to justice, their groups and activities disrupted, and their criminal gains stripped away.
From this it is easy to see why it is being likened to the ‘FBI’, and why Bagott is anxious for it to be brought under his operational control.
Almost twelve years since the signing of GFA, the oppressive arm of the British state is expanding rather than shirking. Over the coming year, we will see the birth of a powerful parallel policing agency working in conjunction with a plethora of existing security forces in the field. Of great interest to the public will be the recruitment policy of the new organisation. Are we likely to see the rebranding of the RUC for a second time? Don’t rule it out!