By Adrian Rutherford
Belfast Telegraph
9 May 2012

Payments to police informants in Northern Ireland have soared to their highest ever level, with more than £430,000 handed over during the last 12 months, it can be revealed.

Undercover agents were given huge rewards for information on crime, with the PSNI spending up to £1,200 a day on covert sources.

The massive bill — which has quadrupled over the last six years — will reopen the debate on the controversial tactic. Police insist it is a price worth paying, leading to information which has helped solve serious crime.

However, the use of informants here is deeply controversial historically. RUC officers protected loyalist agents linked to over a dozen murders in the 1990s.

Details of expenditure on informants — referred to as Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) — were released by the PSNI following a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper.

In the 12 months to March 31 this year, £434,000 was paid to sources — equivalent to £1,189 every day. That amount has risen compared to previous years. In 2010/11 £395,800 was paid out, while the 2009/10 bill was £405,115.

And it is four times the expenditure in 2005/06, when just £104,326 was spent on undercover agents.

The PSNI’s bill is among the highest in the UK — believed to be second only to the Metropolitan Police — but details on the number and type of information provided are closely guarded. The PSNI refused to state how many informants are on its payroll or the amounts paid to individual agents. It also declined to specify why payments have risen in recent years, sticking to its usual policy of refusing to comment on intelligence matters.

However, security expert Brian Rowan suggested a rise in payments could indicate either an increasing number of informants, or better quality information.

“In that world you are paying for information, and you pay more for better information,” he said.

“If the figure is going up, it can suggest a number of things. Firstly, that better information is being provided, and it’s costing more money, or it might also indicate that there are a greater number of crime gangs out there, a need for a greater number of informants.

“The more informants you have the more it’s going to cost.”

Last year this newspaper revealed that up to 180 organised criminal gangs are believed to be operating across Northern Ireland — including involvement in drugs, prostitution and fake goods.

During 2010, 72 crime gangs were either frustrated, disrupted or completely dismantled by the PSNI teams and more than 150 people charged — suggesting that intelligence is making an impact.

The expenditure disclosed to this newspaper is not believed to include MI5’s national security budget — the money paid out for highly prized information on terrorist activity.

However, it is understood to relate to serious and organised crime, including those involved in the drugs trade.

The use of informants in Northern Ireland remains highly controversial. In 2007 a report by then-Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan concluded that RUC officers protected loyalist informers from probes into more than a dozen murders, including the killings of Raymond McCord junior and Catholic taxi driver Sharon McKenna, who was gunned down in north Belfast in January 1993.

One agent, referred to as ‘Informant 1’ but known to be Mark Haddock, received at least £79,840 as an agent while he was involved in the Mount Vernon UVF.

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said concerns remain about using informants. “While everyone knows that any police service will use agents, our problem is the lack of accountability with which agents can be used,” he said,

A PSNI spokesman said informants operate within strict guidelines and are an important aspect of crime prevention. “We have no doubt that intelligence sources under Police Service management have helped save lives and brought offenders to justice.”