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22 July 1999 Edition

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British spies on the lines

The British government intercepted Irish international communications in a decade-long top secret operation that would have given the British access to secret conversations involving members of the Irish government in the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.

The revelations were made on Channel 4 news last Thursday, 15 July. Central to the British espionage operation was a 13-storey, windowless, purpose-built Ministry of Defence tower in Capenhurst, Cheshire, which contained electronic equipment that collected and stored all faxes, e-mails, telexes and data communications which were scanned for key words and subjects of interest and then sent for transcript and analysis at the British governments Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British secret monitoring agency.

Capenhurst tower, which tapped telephone messages from 1989 until earlier this year when it was closed down, was sited in the north west of England so as to be directly between British Telecom towers sending messages to Ireland.

Sources told Channel 4 that ``although the primary justification for building the tower was anti-terrorism, the information it gathered was also of an economic and commercial significance''. A British Home Office spokesperson, in response to the revelations said: ``In accordance with standard practice, the government does not comment on alleged interception activity.''

The same spokesperson advised that anyone who believes, ``their communications have been intercepted... can take their case to an independent inquiry of the police.''!

Now politicians from both sides of the border are calling for an explanation from the British, with Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brún calling for an investigation into the matter.

``In the course of a crucial decade in the political affairs of these islands, it is worrying that the British had such a sophisticated spying operation underway. That they were spying on a `friendly nation' only adds weight to suspicions that the British government, especially the last Tory government, wasn't as committed to the peace process as it pretended to be.''

Patricia McKenna, the Green Party MEP, said the situation poses ``alarming consequences not just for the basic civil liberties of the Irish public but for the Irish economy''.

The tower has now been put up for sale by the Ministry of Defence for about £20 million, but it is believed to have been replaced by more sophisticated monitoring equipment.
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