CAJ Policing Report (The Policing You Don't See)

115 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2013 Last revised: 9 Dec 2013

Brian Gormally

Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ)

Date Written: December 3, 2013


Covert policing - the practices of communication interception, surveillance, the use of informants and undercover operations - was used extensively during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Covert policing is argued to have prolonged the conflict and did lasting and immense damage to the rule of law. After the signing of the peace agreement, the Northern Ireland police service undertook large-scale reforms which were designed to prevent the recurrence of such abuses. Yet the secret Security Service – implicated in past abuses – has not yet undertaken such reformation but has been put in charge of a highly important area of mainstream policing. MI5 maintains primacy in covert ‘national security’ policing and gives ‘strategic direction’ to the PSNI in this area. Despite its large role in policing and its lack of reform, governmental oversight of MI5 is limited and ineffective. Limited additional accountably measures were promised in the St Andrews Agreement but some of the most significant commitments, such as those to publish policy frameworks, have not been honoured. Instead, MI5 has been given control of one of the most sensitive areas of policing in Northern Ireland, operating undercover, without having been reformed, and without an accountability structure.

This report develops a human rights based framework from international standards and the Patten Report and uses it to analyse past and present covert policing practice. This report reflects on evidence of the involvement of police informants in serious criminality, which led to recommendations to improve legality and accountability of covert policing. However, since primacy in ‘national security’ policing was given to MI5 five years ago (2007), the research finds that there is a growing “accountability gap” over a large part of policing. This report explains that the UK level oversight of MI5 is plainly inadequate and that the local mechanisms that hold the PSNI to account are evaded by the Security Service. It argues that this situation falls woefully short of international standards and has the capacity to undermine confidence in policing as a whole.

Keywords: Policing

Suggested Citation

Gormally, Brian, CAJ Policing Report (The Policing You Don't See) (December 3, 2013). Transitional Justice Institute Research Paper No. 13-07. Available at SSRN: or

Brian Gormally (Contact Author)

Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) ( email )

2nd Floor, Sturgen Building
9-15 Queen Street
Belfast, BT1 6EA
Northern Ireland

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