LONDON — IRISH terrorists operating in mainland Britain are now facing a new and resourceful foe: the spy-catchers of the undercover intelligence organization, MI5.
Kenneth Clarke, Britain's new home secretary, told the House of Commons May 8 that MI5, now virtually free of its commitment to fighting communist regimes, was taking over from the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) the "lead responsibility" for countering Irish terrorism in Britain.
A source in Mr. Clarke's department says the government is taking advantage of "a peace dividend arising from the end of the cold war." MI5 is "now free to be deployed against Irish terrorists."
The move means that Scotland Yard's antiterrorist Special Branch has ceased to spearhead operations against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its offshoots in Britain. It will continue to play a subordinate antiterrorist role.
With MI5's new role, there is bound to be a switch of strategy in countering terrorism on the British mainland.
"The police have always tended to be reactive in responding to the threat posed by the IRA. MI5, which is a semi-autonomous organization, has a record of being pro-active," a security source says. "When Mr. Clarke talks about MI5 playing a lead role he means that it will take the initiative much more, taking full advantage of its network of intelligence sources."
Clarke's decision marks the end of a prolonged attempt by the police to retain leadership of anti-IRA operations in the face of a determined campaign by MI5 to displace the Special Branch.
A senior member of Parliament who asked not to be named says the decision was triggered by last month's IRA bomb attack in London's financial district. The blast ripped through an entire city block, killing two people and causing damage estimated at more than 500 million pounds ($893 million). It disrupted the operations of dozens of banks and other financial institutions, and underlined how easily the IRA could strike in the heart of London.
Scotland Yard spokesmen say they welcome the elevation of MI5 to the top position in fighting the IRA, but privately senior police officers express intense disappointment.
Scotland Yard has traditionally controlled the gathering of information and the organization of operations against domestic terrorism. Its Special Branch was set up more than 100 years ago to combat the Fenians - Irish republicans demanding independence from Britain.
The Labour Party opposition and leading lawyers expressed fears that MI5 might not be sufficiently accountable to the public for its operations in the way the police are. Barry Sheerman, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said there would be "real problems" in MI5 taking over the lead role. The organization is not directly responsible to Parliament, he said.
Clarke replied that MI5 is responsible to him, and he is responsible to the House of Commons. He stressed that police will continue to play an "indispensable part" in antiterrorist intelligence work.
"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 counter-terrorism," Clarke said.
The move was queried by Antony Scrivener, a former chairman of the Bar Council, the British barristers' organization, who has had experience of terrorist cases. He said MI5 agents had a reputation for withholding legal documentation and refusing to give evidence in court.
But Paul Wilkinson, a British terrorism expert, calls the move "a very positive step." He says the police have done an "extraordinarily difficult job" on the mainland, but adds: "The antiterrorist machinery did need restructuring."
MI5, under its newly appointed director-general, Stella Rimington, is now run on a statutory footing. There is a complaints committee headed by a judge for people wishing to question its operations.
MI5 already plays a major role in antiterrorist operations in Northern Ireland, where its officials work with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army.
Martin McGuinness, vice-president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, said there would be strong suspicion that MI5's mission would be "to extend Britain's dirty war in Ireland and Britain," with "more state-organized political assassinations."