Connor Woodman, 2 April 2019
‘Research has shown that in the majority of cases where any serious breakdown of public order has occurred it could be anticipated to some extent, either though police intelligence or by the very nature of the purpose for the proposed meeting, march, demonstration, etc.’
‘The Police Service thrives on information … If no information enters the system – there is no system – it must fail.’
ACPO Working Party on Operational Intelligence, ‘Training of Intelligence Operatives’, c.1986
A primary lesson drawn by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) from the strikes, riots and demonstrations of 1968-1985 was the need for a nationally-integrated police intelligence system. With a mobile population, spontaneous riots and the miners’ ‘flying pickets’, the English and Welsh police service – encompassing over 40 forces – lacked the capability on an individual force level to effectively combat public disorder. The numerous police forces needed a way to share intelligence and coordinate responses nationally.
The Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch had already operated the Home Office-funded Animal Rights National Index (ARNI) since 1986. In the late 1990s, ACPO felt that the time had arrived to shift to a more wide-ranging unit, with a nation-wide mandate to infiltrate any group considered a threat to public order. The result: the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). ACPO files from the 1980s and 1990s shed light on the philosophy of intelligence underlying the establishment of the NPOIU, and contain details about the Unit’s creation in the late 1990s.
Intelligence and the NPOIU
Crucial to understanding the thinking which underlay the NPOIU is the growing importance of intelligence to the police force. The information gathered by the NPOIU was rarely intended for criminal prosecutions – it was collected in order to help combat the disruptive nature of political protest groups. One of the conclusions of the post-Miners’ Strike ACPO review was that, ‘A change in emphasis from the present crime oriented approach is required to achieve a balanced system’.
As a 1986 ACPO report from the Working Party on Operational Intelligence put it, intelligence is used to ‘predict the future’ and ‘allows personnel to be deployed to the best effect’. A 1987 ACPO report on intelligence concurred: intelligence ‘will aid operational commanders to make more accurate decisions about the way in which manpower and other resources should be allocated and deployed to take preventative action’. Knowing when a direct action or demonstration is going to occur allows the pre-emptive deployment of sufficient police power to counter-act the threat.
One conclusion the police drew from the 1960s-1980s political, social and industrial struggles was the need to have constant intelligence flowing into the police system, regardless of how widespread unrest and disorder is at any given moment. One 1986 ACPO report argued that,
In other words, all potentially subversive populations and groups must be kept under close watch, in case they develop a capacity to produce widespread public disorder situations – through demonstrations, strikes or riots – at a later date. As Noam Chomsky put it in a U.S. context in 1999, ‘the purpose’ of such intelligence operations is often to ‘frustrate preliminary stages of organization before more advanced forms of “revolutionary radicalism” can develop’. This is true for both those agencies which deal primarily with ‘public order’ – standard police forces – and those agencies which deal with high level ‘subversive’ threats to the state – like Special Branch (an ACPO report noted in 1986 that, ‘Special Branch should … maintain a constant monitoring role even at periods of low activity’). This helps explain why the NPOIU was deployed into seemingly tiny groups with little capacity for producing public disorder throughout the 2000s: the police wanted to be prepared for the possibility that these groups would expand and become a public order or subversive threat in the future.
Part of the policing theory underlying this shift was so-called ‘intelligence-led policing’, which can be traced back to the Fifties. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Regional Crime Squads, the Met’s Central Intelligence Section, the National Drugs and Immigration Intelligence units and the Police National Computer signalled a new intelligence-focused approach to policing. As the Police Review put it in 1973, ‘Police intelligence is now forward-looking, anticipating who is going to commit what, when and where … Much of the information is personal details of a suspect, his family associations, way of life’. This approach was intensified with the emergence of the National Intelligence Model (NIM), made mandatory for English and Welsh police forces in 2004. The NPOIU was a manifestation of this model of policing in the sphere of politics and public order.
All of this suggests a different genealogy for the NPOIU and the SDS: the former was primarily an intelligence gathering facility focused on public order issues; the latter was a higher-level counter-subversive agency. Although there is overlap, in the police typology, between public disorder and subversion – Special Branch is responsible for combatting both, and the SDS also had a significant focus on public order issues – their logics and functions are slightly different. In reality, the state discourse of ‘subversion’ has been increasingly mixed up with and replaced by that of ‘domestic extremism’, and criminality, public order and subversion are regularly conflated into one rhetorical onslaught aimed at delegitimising dissent against the social order.
Notably, there is no mention of the SDS and its experience in any of the publicly-available documents in the ACPO archive. Given that the NPOIU would be trained by the SDS for its first few years of existence, this is presumably a result of effective document-weeding.
Establishing the NPOIU
The NPOIU did not establish or transform the notion of intelligence-led policing in the English and Welsh forces – it originated as an attempt to centralise and rationalise the various regional and national public order intelligence units which had developed in previous decades.
After the ACPO Chief Constables’ Council approved the plan on July 29, 1998, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner, A J Speed, celebrated the move as a ‘major step forward in what has been a significant omission from the national public order intelligence picture for very many years’. This, perhaps, is a reference to the lengthy gap between ACPO’s post-Miners’ Strike recommendations for a national political intelligence system in the mid-1980s and the establishment of the NPOIU in the late 1990s.
The plan ‘makes the case’ for the establishment of the NPOIU, noting that some ‘force areas have experienced incidents of organised disorder (such as protests over beef imports and house-building projects)’ but ‘did not receive intelligence which was sufficiently complete and timely to enable an effective operational response’ to ‘disrupt or contain disorder’.
The paper also references the need to create a ‘proper constitutional distance between the Home Secretary’ and the political intelligence apparatus, to facilitate the latter’s ‘potential as an operational unit, managing informants to counter violent extremists’. This suggests that the Home Secretary wanted to be shielded from the ‘sensitive’ nature of the NPOIU’s work. Comparatively little is known about the British state’s informant programme.
It is clear from the proposal that the NPOIU was considered an extension of the Animal Rights National Index (ARNI), which had been established in 1986. The new unit was to amalgamate the Met’s Public Order Intelligence Unit, the European Police Information System, and the Northern and Southern Intelligence Units (set up by ACPO in 1993 to combat ‘New Age Travellers‘). Thus, it was not a drastic break with past police practice, but a consolidation of existing capabilities. As ACPO’s Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee put it, ‘There is a general desire to bring the various aspects of data collection analysis and dissemination of these somewhat disparate issues under “one roof”’.
Whether these agencies carried out undercover infiltration of political groups before their merger into the NPOIU, however, is not yet known. In one document there is a mysterious reference to ‘top secret’ intelligence ‘emanating from some of the sources on certain aspects of animal extremism which are monitored by ARNI’, and elsewhere references to ‘field agents’ and ‘field intelligence’ from the ARNI – perhaps coded references to undercover officers being run by the unit pre-NPOIU. The ‘top secret’ intelligence could refer to the dozens of informants being run by the ARNI, however.
Crucially, the paper notes that ‘there is a real disjunction in this context between “crime” and “disorder”’. After an intra-police debate, the decision was made not to include the NPOIU under the then-extant National Crime Intelligence Service, further evidence that the purpose of the unit was not to focus on criminal investigation and prosecution.
Another factor in the unit’s establishment may have been inter-agency rivalry with MI5. An ACPO Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee paper on the proposals commented that, ‘if we do not manage these issues properly’ ‘the Security Service might seek to step in and do it for us!’
Ultimately, the NPOIU was established in 1999, after a series of high-level meetings took place in the manors and hotels in Oxfordshire, south Wales and Northern Ireland, as detailed elsewhere on the Special Branch Files Project. The Metropolitan Police and its Special Demonstration Squad were shadows in the background, even if their role is concealed in the ACPO archive. The NPOIU was trained up by the SDS for several years before branching out on its own, and Barry Moss and Roger Pearce, in particular, were two Special Branch veterans involved in the NPOIU’s establishment. ACPO finally achieved the integrated national intelligence gathering capability it had desired since its post-Miners’ Strike review in 1986. How and why it was granted the mandate to send dozens of undercover officers into political groups across the country remains uncertain. Given the apparent reluctance of the Undercover Policing Inquiry to reveal NPOIU officers’ names, it is not clear where and when those details will emerge.
From the mass demonstrations at Grosvenor Square in 1968 to the flying pickets of the 1970s and urban riots of the Eighties, ACPO had sought to respond to the increasingly national and mobile uprisings which had struck 20th century Britain, whilst preserving the coveted autonomy of chief constables, ensconced in their local fiefdoms. Mutual aid, Police Support Units, a standard riot control manual and a National Reporting Centre were ACPO’s tools: the NPOIU was the logical outcome of these developments. Many of these details have been hidden by the state; but the struggles which were broken with the help of ACPO will not be forgotten.
Read in more detail about the formation of the unit in the 1999-2000 NPOIU files.
Connor Woodman carried out this research whilst the 2017/18 Amiel & Melburn Trust Research Fellow, hosted by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Connor is the author of the Spycops in Context publications, analysing the undercover policing of political groups. Thank you to the Hull History Centre and Jim Townsend for their assistance during the research phase of this project.
 Chomsky, N. (1999), ‘Domestic Terrorism: Notes on the State System of Oppression’, New Political Science, 21(3), p.303.
 Bunyan, T. (1977), The History and Practice of the Political
Police in Britain, London: Quartet Books, pp.79-81.
 Ibid, pp.80-84.
 Quoted in ibid, p.88.
 Swain, V. Disruption policing: surveillance and the right to protest, Open Democracy, 8 August 2013; Bonino, S. & Kaoullas, L. G. (2015), ‘Preventing Political Violence in Britain: An Evaluation of over Forty Years of Undercover Policing of Political Groups Involved in Protest’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38(10), p.836.