We need a public inquiry into undercover policing

Revelations about intimate relationships and alleged criminal activity highlight the need for accountability.

The disturbing increase in state-sanctioned surveillance in recent years has generated much public debate, with many expressing concerns over intrusive tactics like phone-hacking, internet snooping and CCTV cameras on every corner. But in some cases, it can go much further than this. How much more intrusive and intimate would it be, for example, to be spied on by someone who shares your house, your bed, your life – maybe for as long as four or five years? To be secretly monitored by the father of your child?

The murky world of undercover policing has long operated outside the realm of public scrutiny, the nature of the work inevitably requiring a certain degree of secrecy. But a series of cases have recently come to light exposing a shocking absence of transparency and accountability around the practice, which constitute an incredibly strong case for a full, independent public inquiry into the rules governing the behaviour of those who go undercover – and those who give them instructions.

Since the unmasking of Mark Kennedy, aka Mark Stone, in 2011 and nine other undercover officers in the months that followed, worrying revelations have emerged about the apparent free rein given to police infiltrators to form long-term, intimate relationships with women in the groups they were sent to spy on.

Kennedy is one of those implicated in a legal case now being brought by eight women who claim they were duped into intimate relationships with undercover police. Another is Bob Lambert, aka Bob Robinson, who posed as a campaigner in the 1980s in order to infiltrate the Animal Liberation Front, two supporters of which were subsequently jailed for planting incendiary devices in two branches of Debenhams as a protest against the selling of fur. The culprit who planted a device in a third store was never caught.

Jon Murphy, the chief constable of Merseyside and the police chiefs' spokesman on undercover policing claims the forming of intimate relationships is "grossly unprofessional" and "never acceptable". But the women bringing the case have a copy of a letter from a Metropolitan Police solicitor that asserts relationships formed by a “Covert Human Intelligence Source” to obtain information are permitted and lawful under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) – a point reiterated by policing minister Nick Herbert in the recent parliamentary debate I hosted on this subject.

Despite the strength of the allegations against these men – Lambert, for example, reportedly fathered a child with a political campaigner in secret, and has admitted to a long-term relationship with a second woman – there has been virtually no attempt by the authorities to hold them to account. There has been no real debate about the human consequences for those women (or men, though I have yet to see such a case) of being conned into a loving, trusting relationship with someone acting under a false identity. And what of the children fathered by an undercover officer?

If this weren’t serious enough, new evidence about Lambert, which I detailed in my debate, has triggered further alarm about the personal conduct of those undercover – and the degree to which police officers are able to act as agent provocateurs. As is now on the parliamentary record, Lambert is accused by an ALF activist, Geoff Sheppard, who was jailed along with Andrew Clarke for the two Debenhams attacks in Romford and Luton in 1987, of planting the third incendiary device in the Harrow store.  

If the allegations turn out to be true, then we must ask: can it be right that officers who commit a crime undercover should be able to do so with impunity? And to what degree are police spies permitted to cross the line of agent provocateur? The rules governing undercover policing are also worryingly deficient when it comes to giving false evidence in court to protect a secret identity.

Jim Boyling, for example, exposed last year for infiltrating groups such as Reclaim the Streets using the pseudonym Jim Sutton, concealed his true identity when he was prosecuted alongside a group of protesters for occupying a government building. The Met commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has defended the practice of undercover officers using fake identities in court, claiming there is no specific law forbidding it. Lord Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions, on the other hand, has called this position "stunning and worrying".

The public has a right to know why huge amounts of money are being spent on infiltrating campaign groups – with no apparent external oversight of the decision or whether the methods used are proportionate, or in breach of fundamental human rights. So far, the government response on these issues has been muted. The twelve different inquiries into undercover policing since January 2011 - each held in secret and looking at just one small aspect – have been completely lacking in oversight and far too narrow in scope.

Striking the right balance between safeguarding the public from genuine threats and protecting an individual’s right to privacy is one of the most difficult challenges facing any government. But the cases above point to a deeply worrying culture of ‘exceptionalism’ within covert operations – one which must be addressed through an independent and broad-ranging public inquiry into undercover policing. Only then can the government prove that it is committed to holding the police to account for their actions – in the past, present and future.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has defended the practice of undercover officers using fake identities in court. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser