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Independent Reviewer of National Security Arrangements: 2020 Report

Volume 699: debated on Monday 19 July 2021

The role of the independent reviewer of national security arrangements in Northern Ireland is to monitor compliance with annex E of the St. Andrews agreement, reviewing the relationship between MI5 and PSNI in handling national security matters.

His Honour Brian Barker CBE QC, the independent reviewer of national security arrangements in Northern Ireland, has sent me his report for 2020. What follows is a summary of the main findings of the report covering the period from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2020.

His Honour Brian Barker states:

2020 was a most difficult year, overtaken by, and then submerged under, the covid-19 pandemic. It opened with good news: a functioning Executive and Assembly re-emerged after a three-year gap, in parallel with the publication of “New Decade, New Approach”. It closed, still under the shadow of the virus, with the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

The dominant focus faced by the community throughout was to cope with the uncertainties of lockdowns, and the consequences of the unpredictable spread of the pandemic; a combination that led to considerable unforeseen pressures and understandable anxieties in all quarters.

The last visit to Northern Ireland that I was able to make was in February for a Northern Ireland Committee on Protection (NICOP) meeting. The subsequent lockdown, the medical and social emergency and no predictable future pathway made any subsequent planning and conducting of the usual types of personal briefings and interviews impossible. The alternative approach adopted was to receive regular briefings from members of MI5 and PSNI during virtual NICOP meetings.

Dissident republican activity during the year was somewhat reduced due to enforced life pattern changes and continuing pressure from the security forces, as their leadership took stock. The number of incidents fell slightly compared with 2019. The overall picture in this area, sadly, had changed little. The threat from both dissident republican groups and loyalist paramilitaries remained, and some areas of the community continued to be subject not only to terrorist activities but also to unacceptable criminal acts and attitudes at a level which has almost come to be regarded by many as normal.

Nevertheless, a number of operations were successfully concluded and were marked with high profile court appearances of senior participants and the imposition of significant sentences. A major success was the co-ordinated arrest in mid-August of 10 individuals who have since been charged with a variety of terrorist offences following a long running and carefully co-ordinated joint operation between MI5 and the PSNI. Incarceration of key individuals will be a serious blow to dissident republican operations with the resulting loss of leadership and planning capability.

My meetings with senior members of MI5 and PSNI were restricted to virtual contact through secure links in the latter part of the year. It was apparent that the many extra health and operative difficulties faced by MI5 since April, in order to continue to function at the expected level, had been overcome. Benefits gained from regular meetings at senior level with PSNI and the continuing strides made in overall co-operation with a variety of agencies had led to significantresulting successes in the field. The overall impression was of effective co-operation having gone up a level, as working partnerships were strengthened and respective responsibilities better understood.

The dire circumstances faced by the PSNI on the ground, coping externally with administering changing regulations and internally with infection and shielding, had required a change in posture; but adaptation had been impressive and results and control overall had been encouraging. The decrease in activity had led to a sharp decline in arrests under terrorism legislation, compared with the previous year, but there had been an increase in the recovery of ammunition and explosives. The traditional marching events, following leadership advice and public appeals, were severely curtailed.

I was pleased to note that the Policing Board were able to appoint a new chair and vice chair in April and I look forward to the opportunity of meeting them. In the course of the year the Board published their new corporate plan and the new stylised policing plan 2020-2025. Their human rights advisor was asked to examine the challenges and response of PSNI to community activity (including Black Lives Matter demonstrations). The conclusions were generally positive given the difficulties, although with some reservations.

The annual statistics published in November for 2019-20 show that the powers of stop and search under section 47a of the Terrorism Act 2000 were not exercised. There were 179 premises searched under warrant under section 37 Schedule 5 of the same Act. There were 128 (down from 146) persons detained under section 41 of the Terrorism Act and 125 (98%) were held for 48 hours or less. 17 persons were charged with a total of 39 offences including two charges of murder, one charge of attempted murder, 15 charges of firearms offences, eight charges of drug offences and six charges of explosive offences.

A total of 26 (down from 34) persons were disposed of by non-jury trial, 18 of whom were found guilty of at least one charge. A total of 13 (down from 17) non-jury trial certificates were issued by the DPP. There was a total of 14 (up from six) persons convicted in the Crown Court under the Terrorism Act 2000, the Terrorism Act 2006 or the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. There were 465 (down from 1515) examinations carried out by police officers under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, all of these were examinations of persons, 34 of which resulted in a detention. No compensation or agency payments were made under section 38 schedule 4 of the Justice and Security (NI) Act 2007 where property was broken, destroyed or damaged or other private property rights interfered with.

The extent of my investigations, regrettably, have had to be extensively curtailed. However, in coping with extraordinary difficulties, I have good reason to believe that both MI5 and PSNI have maintained high standards and motivation and have achieved commendable results. The two major dissident republican groups undoubtedly suffered severe setbacks in what was a very successful year for the security forces. The danger remained of some sort of reactive show of strength, which fortunately did not materialise; and the minor groups continued to maintain a low profile. Police and prison officers continued to be regarded as legitimate targets and still had to face unacceptable risks. In pockets of the community intimidation continued, and although the figures for paramilitary shootings and beatings dropped, it continued to be concerning.

My conclusions, restricted by the exceptional conditions, in relation to annex E of the St. Andrews agreement are as follows:

Further to reinforce this comprehensive set of safeguards, the Government confirm that they accept and will ensure that effect is given to the five key principles which the chief constable has identified as crucial to the effective operation of the new arrangement:

a: All Security Service intelligence, relating to terrorism in Northern Ireland will be visible to the PSNI.

Clear evidence of successful collaboration. There is compliance

b: PSNI will be informed of all Security Service counter terrorist activities relating to Northern Ireland.

Regular and effective top-level meetings.

There is compliance.

c: Security Service intelligence will be disseminated within PSNI according to the current PSNI dissemination policy, and using police procedures.

There is compliance

d: The great majority of national security CHIS in Northern Ireland will continue to be run by PSNI officers under existing handling protocols.

There is compliance

e: There will be no diminution of the PSNI’s responsibility to comply with the Human Rights Act or the Policing Board’s ability to monitor said compliance.

The new leadership of the Policing Board is now in place and the human rights advisor has been asked to investigate and provide reassurance to the Board. I look forward to a good working relationship with the new HR advisor.