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The cops want my mobile phone

Perhaps someone should provide the Sat Nav and the grid co-ordinates of Holywood, Co. Down to the PSNI station in Lurgan. Why? Because the dormitory town to the east of Belfast is presently home to the largest MI5 base outside of London. MI5 AKA The Security Services now holds primacy in terms of counter-terrorism within Northern Ireland. At its Holywood base in the Palace Barracks complex it employs a large number of spies and technical eavesdroppers who keep a watch not only on the homegrown terrorism of the republican dissidents, but also those involved in the Islamist terror front both in the UK and abroad.

Agents working out of the Holywood HQ have been deployed not only inside Northern Ireland but also, for instance, at foreign holiday resorts favoured by local tourists to track down members of the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireaan and try to entice them with bundles of cash to become informers. In addition the MI5 regional base is equipped with the state of the art listening technology aimed at dipping in and out of the messages transmitted between dissident republicans. The press and the public of course are not given access for understandable reasons to the type of hi-tech resources currently available to the spooks, although we can imagine how advanced the devices they are using to spy on the enemies of the state are these days.

Back in the early 1990s RUC Special Branch had a bug at one very important location where the former SDLP leader John Hume was holding secret talks with the Provisional IRA. According to one former RUC source the listening device was so sophisticated that there was a “live feed” between the meeting place Hume and the Provos were sitting in and the secure room at Castlereagh RUC station in east Belfast to which senior police figures would listen into whenever the talks were going on. MI5 also had access to this “live feed” and it is understood that at one stage when something potentially controversial was uttered during a conversation between Hume and the IRA, the feed was mysteriously disconnected. Privately the RUC always suspected MI5 had severed the link fearing whatever was being beamed in and recorded
could have been leaked either to the media or worse still, the loyalists.

That was then and this is now. More than a decade and a half later one can only imagine the leap forward being made in surveillance technology that the Security Services have at their disposal in their counter-terrorist operations since the early 1990s. The question is however: are they sharing them with the PSNI? An incident a fortnight ago involving myself and my battered Nokia E51 mobile phone suggests in some instances that they are not!

A couple of Saturdays ago I was enjoying a day off with two of my children at the Odyssey entertainment centre on the banks of the Lagan. As my girl and boy bounced around like maniacs inside a bouncy castle with the face of Spiderman on the top of it, the mobile rang. My heart sank. I suspected it might be The Observer news desk informing of a major breaking news story and that as a result I would have to go back on duty. In fact it turned out that the call was a local voice, claiming to be from the “Continuity Army Council of the IRA”, i.e. the Continuity IRA. He claimed they had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a police patrol between roundabouts 1 and 2 in Craigavon in the early hours of that morning. Having given the recognised code word and once he had conveyed the message the caller promptly disconnected the call. Naturally on the LCD screen it stated that number had been withheld.

As well as contacting the Guardian Unlimited and the PSNI Press Officer (the latter having no reports or knowledge of the alleged attack) I phoned the UTV newsroom to get this claim out in the public domain. Within the next 48 hours I received two phone calls from an officer in PSNI Lurgan about the claim of responsibility. In one call I was warned that the police might want to examine my mobile phone in a bid to trace the call and perhaps even identify the caller. Immediately I decided to contact the Guardian high command and received their backing and legal advice, the view from the paper being quite adamant – under no circumstances should I hand over my mobile phone to the police.

Of course journalists cannot and should not be above the law. Nor should we encourage others to break it. None the less the suggestion that I surrender the phone to help the police build a potential case against someone claiming to represent a republican terror group is a potential threat to two principles: the freedom of the press and my right to life. As regards the former there has been in recent times increasing pressures on reporters on both sides of the Irish Sea to provide material which would enable the police to do their job more effectively. The BBC and UTV locally along with RTE, Sky and other broadcasters are facing demands that they hand over footage to the PSNI of the rioting in Ardoyne in July and East Belfast in late June. In England all the major broadcasters are facing similar demands to surrender unedited film of the riots that rocked English cities in August. Meanwhile colleagues at The Guardian recently resisted Metropolitan Police attempts to force them to reveal who told them that the News of the World hacked into the mobile phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. The bid to get me to hand over my mobile is yet another development in this phenomenon.

Journalists are not detectives but witnesses to unfolding public events and news stories. To start to harvest our material, contacts, sources and even equipment is to put us in the firing line. Just imagine if I decided to co-operate and drove down to Lurgan and handed over the mobile for technical examination. Consider the possibility that arrests might follow and the story emerge that it was my mobile phone call that enabled the PSNI to pursue a potential subject. As the judgement in the Ed Moloney and later Suzanne Breen cases concluded such pressurised collaboration could easily put my life in danger. Which is something one can expect when you cross paramilitary organisations and highlight their criminality and their butchery. That is our job as well as holding the institutions of the state and politicians to account. But our job is not to become an auxiliary force for the police in terms of counter-terrorism or general crime.

Meantime if the detectives really are keen to try and trace who made that brief call on my Nokia a fortnight ago they only have to contact their colleagues over in Holywood (Co. Down) and ask for assistance in tracking a call. Although that begs the question as two whether the spooks and the cops are fully co-operating with one another.

(This article was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 28th September)