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Bugging and surveillance – a cause for concern

Car bugBugging devices in all shapes and forms, tracking devices to monitor movement, and remote controlled surveillance cameras were all an integral part of the British government’s war in the north. Over the years they were found in the homes of republican activists, under floor boards and cabinets, attached to wooden beams in attics, and hidden in the insides of cars.

In the years since the war ended the surveillance war has continued. It has become ever more sophisticated. Now according to some reports they can even bug your clothes. The information released by whistleblower Edward Snowden is evidence of the extent to which states and their agencies will go to spy on their citizens and on their allies, as well as their enemies. It’s all about information and information is power.

The surveillance technology involved today reads like science fiction but it is real not imagined and very effective, and most times you don’t know that it is there.

I remember an An Phoblact story one surveillance camera which had been found in a field over-looking a farm and road. It was camouflaged to look exactly like the branch of a tree. It was attached to another branch that contained a battery pack and was linked to a remote control transmitter. It also had, what was described as a thumper – a device to monitor vibrations in the ground in order to alert its controllers of its possible discovery.

In late 1999 a car used by Martin McGuinness and I was found to have been bugged and to have a tracking device attached. The highly sophisticated surveillance device was skillfully built into the body of the car in such a way as to make it impossible for anyone carrying out repairs on the vehicle to find the device. It was built to the specifications of the car and was colour coded to the car.

On an another occasion a colleague who worked with me in my west Belfast office discovered a listening device in her attic. Gerry Kelly found one made to resemble a long piece of wood screwed to beams under his floor boards in his upstairs landing. It was designed to pick up conversations in the living room, kitchen and bedrooms.

Connolly House bug

In September 2004 a listening device was found in Connolly House, the Sinn Féin headquarters in west Belfast. At the time we were involved in a particularly serious difficult with the British government covering the policing issue and the possibility of persuading the DUP to engage with the peace process. Most of our negotiating meetings were held in safe houses, where the risk of surveillance was less.

The listening device was hidden inside what appeared to be a plank and was designed to commence transmitting if the front door of the office was opened. The British spooks who accessed the building planted it in the ceiling above the front office, which was then being used as a meeting room. It allowed the Brits to listen to conversations in the downstairs and upstairs rooms.

Several days after its discovery we brought the main portion of it to the negotiations in Leeds Castle in Kent and I handed it back to Tony Blair having once been deserted by Martin McGuinness who declared to the British Prime Minister that I was on my own. Mr. Blair was very bemused by the entire episode and as he examined the device he asked in a whisper ‘is it on?’

A few months later in January 2005 Eliza Manningham-Butler the head of MI5 admitted that her spooks were responsible for planting the bug. We eventually put part of the Connolly house bug up for sale on ebay where it raised several thousand dollars.

The discovery of bugging devices was always a cause of concern. The British were obviously seeking to gain advantage in the negotiations by trying to get an insight into our political strategy. But there were other even more serious implications in the use of surveillance.

Brian Nelson was a British intelligence agent. He was planted in the UDA and became the person responsible for providing the death squads with photographs and intelligence information on the movement of those it planned to kill. Much of his information and that provided to the UVF, LVF and other loyalist gangs, came from surveillance carried out by the British state, including through covert surveillance.

Roseann Mallon

Roseann Mallon was a 76 year old pensioner who was shot and killed when a unionist death squad from the UVF opened fire on her home at Cullenrammer Road, Dungannon in May 1974. It subsequently transpired that a British Army surveillance camera was filming the house. The camera was uncovered several months later. For almost twenty years the holding of the inquest was obstructed by the RUC and PSNI. Last November it emerged that the tapes had been wiped.

I was reminded of these events because of the current controversy raging over the alleged bugging of the office of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. GSOC has responsibility for oversight of the Garda.

The government has emphasised that there is no evidence of surveillance but the Commission said that the possibility of there being some benign explanation for some electronic anomalies found when they did a sweep of their office was ‘remote to zero.’

The handling of the issue by the government has been appalling and the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice in particular have succeeded in undermining the independence and integrity of GSOC. The Minister called in the Ombudsman when the story first appeared in a Sunday newspaper on Sunday February 9th. The Taoiseach criticised GSOC for not telling the Minister for Justice about their concerns. He claimed that the Ombudsman was required to report to the Minister under Section 80 para 5 of the Garda Siochána Act of 2005. Not true.

I challenged the Taoiseach on this several times however the continued misquoting of the Act by him, and the manner in which GSOC was hauled before the Minister gave the impression that the Ombudsman broke the law and did something wrong. The victim became the villain. This government behaviour has undermined the independence and integrity of GSOC.

The bugging controversy has also highlighted the dysfunctional relationship between GSOC, the Garda Commissioner and the Justice Minister and reveals a government that has not fully embraced the need for independent oversight of state agencies or institutions despite the fact that recent history has shown that it is the absence of such oversight which has been at the root of many of the scandals which have emerged recently.

The Irish experience of British surveillance strategies in the north is evidence that state surveillance is a fact of life. It has existed since spy organisations were first established. The methodology and technology has changed but the purpose has not – the gathering of intelligence to seek advantage.

Was the GSOC under electronic surveillance? There is enough doubt and sufficient evidence to warrant an independent inquiry to ascertain the truth and to examine also the government’s response to the initial revelations.

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