Job of watching IRA turned over to Britain's MI5

May 09, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Britain yesterday put its new chief of domestic intelligence, Stella Rimington, in charge of the fight against the Irish Republican Army.

Not everyone was pleased: not Scotland Yard, not those who suspect the secret security agency is not trained for the job, not those who fear the move might mean a reduction of accountability by the security forces to the political authorities.

"The purpose of the change is to enable the security service to use to the full the skills and expertise which they have developed over the years in their work on counterterrorism," said the new home secretary, Kenneth Clarke.

Mr. Clarke said the police had agreed to be made subsidiary to MI5 -- as the intelligence agency is called -- but it is known they strongly resisted the change.

Barry Sheerman, the Labor Party's home affairs spokesman, questioned the new strategy.

In addition to the issue of accountability, he said, "MI5 has no operational function, no power of arrest, it doesn't even have the experience of preparing evidence that will stand up in court."

He added, "There are dangers, too, in terrorism being classed a political crime. We don't believe it should be given such status."

For more than 100 years, the mission of combating Irish nationalist terrorism in Britain has rested with the police through the Special Branch of Scotland Yard, set up to fight the IRA's predecessors, the Fenians.

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