Concerns raised about spy agency policy change
CONCERNS have been raised after it emerged that a secret British government spy agency could be carrying out surveillance on politicians from the north.
It emerged this week that the secret Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has scrapped a decades old convention not to tap the phones of politicians in Britain.
The revelation comes just weeks after it emerged that the eavesdropping agency has been spying on human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
GCHQ is responsible for intercepting and monitoring communications including phone calls and emails and works closely with other British intelligence agencies including MI5.
Known as the Wilson Doctrine, the convention is named after former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson who told members of the British parliament in 1966 their phone calls would not be intercepted by the state.
During a recent sitting of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal - which hears complaints about intelligence agencies - it emerged that GCHQ changed its guidelines in March when it decided not to apply the convention to members of devolved parliaments which includes the Stormont assembly.
The development came during a hearing into a complaint brought by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, her party colleague Lady Jones and former Respect MP George Galloway who believe their communications were being intercepted.
Amnesty International Northern Ireland Programme Director Patrick Corrigan last night described the development as worrying.
“This should be a concern for everyone, because one measure of a free and democratic society is how it treats its non-governmental organisations and campaign groups,” he said.
“The change in GCHQ's interpretation of the Wilson Doctrine further illustrates why so-called mass surveillance is so damaging to a free society.
“If our elected representatives are not safe from the spies, who is?”
Amnesty International recently wrote to British Prime Minister David Cameron after it emerged that intelligence agencies have been spying on the group.
In the past it has been responsible for highlighting human rights violations in the north and has taken up the case of the Hooded Men, 14 Catholics who claim they were tortured by the British government during internment in 1971.
It has also called for an independent investigation of the Kincora child abuse scandal - where MI5 is suspected of covering up a paedophile ring.
Sinn Féin MP Pat Doherty last night said the development is “an attack on democracy” but claimed his party has always been under surveillance.
"British intelligence not only routinely listened to the phone calls of Sinn Féin MPs, including conversations with 10 Downing Street, they also bugged Sinn Féin offices, the cars and homes of activists and orchestrated assassination attempts on Sinn Féin elected representatives by loyalist death squads.
"The British government should now state categorically if MI5 has been intercepting the communications of any member of the assembly or European parliament.”