PSNI's Special Branch to face major overhaul


SDLP board member Mr Alex Attwood said the report was a breakthrough for policing in Northern Ireland. It provided the checks, balances, openness and accountability necessary to build public confidence in policing.

Old-style Special Branch operations within the PSNI are to be overhauled following a highly critical report drawn up by one of the Inspectors of Constabulary.

Mr Dan Crompton's confidential report, which has been seen by The Irish Times, addresses concerns about the existence of a "force within a force" outlined by the Patten report. It also calls for the establishment of a new Intelligence Branch, greater training of intelligence officers and guidelines for the sharing and analysing of intelligence.

The report is critical of a failure to implement earlier recommendations on intelligence handling, adding: "\ has contributed to the continuation of operational difficulties". Mr Crompton warns he will conduct a further inspection in 12 months "to review the progress of implementation".

He further states: "It is the opinion of Her Majesty's Inspectorate that the recommendations of this inspection fulfils the February 2002 remit of the Policing Board and complements the changes recommended in both the Patten report and the report of the Police Ombudsman."

The report also says: "The processes recommended present a way forward for the PSNI to enhance its ability to deal with the prevention and detection of crime and ensure that those intent on criminal activity will be effectively dealt with through the criminal justice system."

Mr Crompton was called in by the Policing Board to review intelligence operations last February following the devastating report by the Police Ombudsman on the Omagh bombing investigation.

The Chief Constable, Mr Hugh Orde, was careful yesterday to react to the report with political sensitivity. He stressed that Special Branch would not be dissolved and that he had made it clear when he took over the force in September he would not support such a move, which is viewed as important to unionists.

However, it is clear that the operations, structure and ethos of the old Special Branch are to be thoroughly reformed - a key nationalist and republican concern.

It will be renamed Intelligence Branch and given extra staff and resources. The Crompton report's emphasis on intelligence analysis and sharing is seen as a response to criticisms in the Patten report.

The report will also be seen as addressing major political concerns concerning police accountability in general and intelligence operations in particular. It will also address other criticisms highlighted by the Police Oversight Commissioner, Mr Tom Constantine, and those expected in the Stevens investigation, which is due to be published in the spring.

Mr Orde welcomed the report, saying : "It will add value to our reorganisation process." He added he wanted to translate intelligence into action at all levels within the police service. Mr Orde would not be drawn on past failures. "The report focuses on looking forward, which is what my intention is to do today, to make us more effective."

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, whose report into police handling of the Omagh bombing was instrumental in the instigation of the review, said the recommendations mirrored many contained in her Omagh report.

"I believe the new systems that will result will help to ensure that valuable intelligence information is properly shared between sections of the PSNI," she said. "This must be a significant step forward in the battle to bring criminals to justice." The Policing Board chairman, Prof Desmond Rea, also backed the recommendations.

Unionist and nationalist politicians on the Policing Board reacted positively to the Compton report urging a more integrated and accountable Special Branch, although differing in their interpretations of the proposals.

Sinn Féin, which the British and Irish governments want to persuade on to the board, was unimpressed in its initial reaction.

Party policing spokesman Mr Gerry Kelly said that the report did very little to address the control Special Branch and MI5 had over key aspects of policing.

"The report acknowledges that the Special Branch of the RUC had unfettered control. It is now being dismantled and accountable intelligence gathering in the future is being created with a new intelligence branch," he added.

DUP board members Mr Sammy Wilson and Mr Ian Paisley Jnr said that the Special Branch was being defended and its size increased.