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Policing Board report backs Special Branch

JM Thorn

14th November 2002

The reaction to the recent report from the Policing Board review of the role of Special Branch highlights once again the gulf between the rhetoric and reality of police reform.  This review, conducted by Dan Crompton, formerly Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, was commissioned by the Policing Board after the critical report by the Police Ombudsman on the investigation of the Omagh bomb.

However, in reviewing the role of Special Branch, the Crompton report barely scratches the surface.  There is nothing in it that challenges the position of Special Branch or how it operates.  Its recommendations are merely technical, relating to the training of officers, and consultation with other sections of the police.  A glaring omission is any critical focus on the use by Special Branch of agents and informers.  This is despite it being the critical question arising from the Omagh bombing and its subsequent investigation.

Speaking after delivering his report to the board Crompton sated -  “My review doesn’t challenge the need for Special Branch and doesn’t seek to undermine Special Branch.”  Given this, it is no wonder that the report was so warmly welcomed by the police and the unionists.  The new and supposedly reforming PSNI Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, said he could accept all Crompton’s recommendations.  At the same time he could insist that he had  “no intention of dismantling Special Branch.”   DUP Policing Board member Sammy Wilson claimed that the report didn’t “damage the intelligence gathering of those who are detailed to do that.”  This view was also backed up by Ulster Unionist Fred Cobain who insisted that it actually “reinforced” the need for Special Branch.

If one contrasted the PSNI and unionist response with that of the SDLP one would think that there were two different reports in circulation.   Rather than an endorsement of Special Branch, the report, in the view of the SDLP, was a condemnation and a call for its radical restructuring.  According to SDLP leader, Mark Durkan -   “Special Branch, once a law unto itself, is now being made subject to the same laws as the rest of us.  The days of unaccountability and impunity are at an end.”  His Policing Board colleague Alex Attwood was even more enthusiastic.  For him the Crompton Report represented nothing less than the  “dismantling of the old Special Branch - its systems, standards and procedures”.

A major victory for the SDLP therefore?  Well, actually not.  The reaction of the police and unionists, and the statement of the report’s author indicate otherwise.  In many ways the SDLP reaction to the report is symbolic of their general approach to the peace process.  Every  “reform”, no matter how small and insignificant, and even if subsequently exposed as being totally hollow, is claimed as a major triumph.  Indeed, the less things are changing, the more enthusiastically the SDLP has to claim that they are.  An honest assessment of the gains for the nationalist population would merely expose the party’s own bankruptcy.

Sinn Fein, although currently outside the Policing Board, has adopted a similar approach to the SDLP, claiming every tiny adjustment the British government makes on policing as vindication of its strategy.  In response to the Crompton report Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly didn’t address the question of Special Branch at all, instead focusing on the role of MI5.  Of course there is no possibility of this body coming under even the minimal scrutiny exercised by the Policing Board.

Sinn Fein’s mantra on the issue of policing has been for the full implementation of the Patten Report.  However, the Patten Report did not recommend the disbandment of Special Branch.  What it proposed was a name change - to the Intelligence Branch.  Sinn Fein in its own submission to Patten did not oppose the existence of an intelligence department within the police.  By calling for the implementation of Patten Sinn Fein has accepted the existence of a Special Branch-type body, even if it does not have that title.  The real incentive for Sinn Fein to join the Policing Board is not the so-called reforms but the prospect of the bar on those with ‘terrorist’ related convictions sitting on it being lifted. This is the carrot that the British government is holding out, and Sinn Fein has indicted that it is willing “step up to the plate” when the privileges of the Policing Board and the District Policing Partnerships are opened to their members.

In the midst of this policing ‘debate’ the reality of the role of Special Branch continues to be reported, with new revelations over more prior warnings of the Omagh bomb to the recruitment of child informers.  There is no indication that anything the SDLP or Sinn Fein trumpet as a success will change any of these things, bring this body under control or subject it to any real scrutiny.  The most telling part of the Crompton Report was the admission that the same recommendations had been made in 1987, but weren’t implemented.  If these most minimal reforms weren’t implemented then why would they be any more likely to be implemented now?



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