Destination was top secret conference

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The high ranks of the officers being flown from Belfast to Scotland yesterday indicates that the conference they were to attend at Fort George army camp, Inverness, was extremely sensitive, centring on the most secret of intelligence activities, David McKittrick writes.

Those in the helicopter included the head of the RUC special branch and around half-a- dozen of his junior officers, together with at least one British army officer of high rank. The identities of the government officials on the flight were not immediately known, but security sources in Belfast said they believed at least some of those on board were associated with the intelligence services. MI5 and MI6 both have officers stationed in Northern Ireland.

The 25 personnel being flown to Scotland were most likely due to take part in a major review of security which would probably encompass not only the IRA and republicans but also the menace from loyalist para-military groups.

The conference, described as an annual affair, would presumably also be attended by English police officers and MI5 officials who have responsibility for combating the on-going IRA campaign in Britain. A source in Belfast said: 'This is a very sensitive conference indeed, very hush-hush.'

Some of the officials involved may have come from the law and order division of the Northern Ireland Office which oversees security matters and is quartered in a very secure base within the grounds of Stormont, close to the office of the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew.

Ironically, the use of a Chinook helicopter to ferry the officers and officials to Scotland was calculated as the most secure means of moving around such a high-security group of people.

The cause of the crash is as yet unknown but whether sabotage was involved or not, the incident has inflicted great damage on the intelligence and security apparatus in Northern Ireland.