Police chief Orde backs use of wire-tap evidence

Henry McDonald and Gaby Hinsliff

Police chief Sir Hugh Order confirmed this weekend he had asked the Secretary of State Shaun Woodward to have Gordon Brown’s plans for the introduction of wire-tap evidence in court extended to Northern Ireland.

Asked if Orde regarded wire-taps as bona fide evidence, a spokesman for the PSNI Chief Constable said: ‘In principle, yes. However, as the Prime Minister has said, it is important all the safeguards are in place before it is introduced.

‘It would allow further evidence to be placed before the courts which could help in the prosecution of terrorists and those involved in criminality.’

Senior PSNI officers and retired top policemen involved in major investigations such as the Omagh bombing inquiry have backed the use of intercept evidence. One officer involved in the original Omagh investigation said that if they had been able to use wire-taps they could have brought a number of Real IRA suspects to court for the atrocity.

But the current Chief Constable’s lobbying for wire-tap evidence will be fiercely resisted on the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Sinn Fein member Alex Maskey said yesterday that his party was ‘instinctively opposed’ to the use of such evidence.

‘We would oppose it because it’s not suitable for the new climate in the north of Ireland, and because of the historic abuses of power by the state again and again throughout Irish history,’ he said.

The South Belfast assembly member added that, if policing and justice powers were devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, then Sinn Fein would seek to block the use of wire-taps in court. Under the 2006 Saint Andrew’s agreement that led to the present power-sharing government at Stormont, the British government promised to hand over policing and justice powers to ministers elected by the assembly in Belfast this May. However, due to opposition from the Democratic Unionists, it is unlikely that these powers will be devolved until later in the year.

Meanwhile, the Rev William McCrea, the Democratic Unionist MP, entered the row over wire-tapping of MPs this weekend by claiming he had been systematically bugged by the security services. The South Antrim MP said he had ‘no doubt’ that both his home and office phones were tapped at the height of negotiations during the peace process. He said he and his colleagues had their offices swept for bugs. ‘We got private persons in to do tests and they found that at that time it seemed very evident that this was going on,’ he said.

‘There is no doubt whatsoever that the authorities were doing it. If you were opposing what was government policy, or were seen as an obstacle or standing in the way, it happened.’

McCrea said that he had routinely taken ‘corrective measures’, such as avoiding using the phone for sensitive political conversations.

The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has already ordered an inquiry into revelations that the Muslim Labour MP Sadiq Khan was taped when he visited a constituent in prison, contravening the Wilson doctrine that supposedly protects elected politicians from secret surveillance.