When Alison* told her family that her partner, who had disappeared without a trace after a five year relationship, was actually a police spy, her suspicions were dismissed as those of a spurned spouse.
The pair had began their relationship in May 1995 and it wasn’t long until they moved in together. It seemed like the “ideal” relationship, Alison recalls. But one day in 2000, she came home from work to find that Mark had disappeared, leaving only a note. Alison has not seen him since, but she wasn’t alone.
Between 1968 and 2008 Scotland Yard’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) deployed undercover officers to infiltrate hundreds of political groups. In an information gathering exercise, male police officers struck up relationships with female activists, often lasting years and sometimes even resulting in children.
These officers told lies, created completely fictitious personalities and seduced scores of female activists into affairs in a bid to infiltrate groups fighting for environmental, political and social justice causes.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that the true extent of the Met’s undercover policing operations began to come to light after it was revealed that officers had been sent to spy on the bereaved family of Stephen Lawrence.
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Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered teenager, joined the chorus of activists calling for undercover officers to be identified. Following Mark Ellison’s review, which looked at the role of undercover policing in the Lawrence case, the then-Home Secretary Theresa May launched the Undercover Policing Inquiry.
On Wednesday, the Undercover Policing Inquiry will hold a hearing to determine whether to give the Met a time extension to submit anonymity applications for officers formerly employed by the SDS. Campaign group Police Spies Out of Lives was set up to support legal action brought by eight women tricked into long term relationships with undercover police officers. Activists have accused the police of “delaying tactics”, but the Met says it is “responding in line with its (the inquiry’s) timescales”.
The launch of the inquiry helped to bring women’s stories out of the shadows and the Met has admitted that the long-term sexual relationships instigated by officers with activists were “abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong”. In an apology issued in November 2015, Met Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt said the relationships “should never have happened” and admitted they “were a gross violation of personal dignity and integrity”. Yet there are still many women waiting for answers.
“I would like the police to be there to protect people, I’m not surprised that police take an active interest in the politics of dissent but I don’t think anybody… thought that there was this level of infiltration - and infiltration on such a personal and intrusive and abusive level,” Alison, whose true identity has been protected, tells The Huffington Post UK.
“I think that my experience is the tip of the iceberg. I think that we don’t know the scale of it. Until we know the names of the undercover officers who were operating since the squad was established in 1968 and until we know the names of the groups that were spied upon, we really can’t understand the scale, we can’t know how big this is.”
What Police Spies Out of Lives want at the end of the inquiry
- The cover names of the officers involved in undercover policing from 1968 onwards to be released.
- The names of the groups that were spied on.
- The files of all the people spied on handed over to the people.
- A finding of institutionalised sexism in the police.
- An awareness amongst the political class and society at large of the scale of surveillance of political dissent in the UK.
Mark told Alison he was a joiner from Birkenhead. He said that he was estranged from his mother and that his father had passed away when he was a child. The only family he said he had living in the UK was his grandfather. “A lot of the police spies, we have now found out, had painful and heartbreaking backstories,” Alison says.
It was only after he left that she became suspicious that he might not have been who she thought.
“I suddenly realised after he had gone that I had no way of tracing him,” Alison says. “In my address book he had scrubbed out really, really hard his grandfather’s phone number and address and he scrubbed out any other contacts that I had of people he knew... He destroyed any trace that there was and he wasn’t answering his phone and his phone then went dead eventually.”
It was only after a conversation with another activist soon after Mark’s sudden disappearance that Alison began to suspect he was a spy. “It’s nutty but suddenly it made sense,” Alison says. It would take another 11 years before her suspicions would be confirmed.
All he left was a letter
Many would find it hard to understand why a police officer would strike up a relationship with someone just for being an activist. But Alison’s story is one of many and she still does not know why the police thought it necessary to infiltrate her life so deeply.
“Every target of this kind of abuse so far has been women,” Alison says. “We know of one female undercover officer who had a one night stand with somebody but all of these cases of long term relationships are male officers with female activists.
“And one of the things that we feel very strongly is that this is evidence for systemic abuse for years, decades, and of institutionalised sexism within the police and security services.”
Another woman who was targeted by the police in strikingly similar circumstances was Helen Steel. Helen was just 22 when she met John Baker while volunteering with London Greenpeace in the late 1980s. Unbeknown to her, the man she met was actually undercover police officer John Dines.
During the time they were together Helen was involved in the McLibel case. McDonald’s filed a libel lawsuit against her and fellow environmental activist David Morris over a leaflet that was critical of the company. Helen says that one of the authors of the McLibel factsheet was an undercover police officer. The drawn-out litigation, which lasted 10 years, made it the longest-running cases in English history and it was the subject of a Ken Loach documentary.
Helen and John were in a relationship for about two years until he abruptly disappeared one day, only leaving a letter saying he could not cope any longer. It wasn’t until years later that she found out John had been working for a secretive police unit and had been lying to her the whole time.
They seemed like the ideal man
The pattern in each woman’s case was the same.
“It was only when we came together and discussed our common experiences that we realised a lot of the similar patterns of what was going on,” Helen tells HuffPost UK.
In any normal relationship you have tiffs every now and then but that generally didn’t happen... it just seemed like you had found this perfect relationship and it gave you a completely unrealistic expectation of what a relationship could be... Helen Steel
The experience left lasting emotional scars for many of the women who were targeted. Not only do they have to come to terms with the fact that their relationships were a lie, but it also led to a warped expectation of what a relationship should be.
“They all seemed like the ideal man. They were always supportive and charming and helpful… it’s always important to get on because if you don’t get on with people you don’t get information out of them,” Helen says.
“In any normal relationship you have tiffs every now and then but that generally didn’t happen... it just seemed like you had found this perfect relationship and it gave you a completely unrealistic expectation of what a relationship could be because they weren’t being themselves, they were just playing a part and their part was to get on with people.”
By forming a relationship with these women the undercover police officers gained credibility within the group they were trying to infiltrate.
Alison says: “I think I provided very good cover for Mark. I’m an honest person, I’m trustworthy, I’ve got a big family. I’ve got lots of friends and people know who I am and that I was who I said I was. And by being with me I think he gained a lot of credibility and trust.”
The experience also had an impact on the women’s relationships with their own families.
After Mark disappeared Alison started researching the security services, including MI5, in an attempt to uncover more details about this “spy” who had fooled her for so many years.
“I didn’t know what he was but I was convinced that he was (a spy) and with very few exceptions everybody thought I was mad,” she says.
“I was not well. I was up all night, I was logging cars outside my house, I was spotting people on the bus who I thought were following me, I thought my phone was tapped, I thought my emails were being monitored.
“My family - my brother, my Dad - just thought I was upset and traumatised by a sudden disappearance and that I had constructed some James Bond narrative to make myself feel better.”
State sanctioned ‘abuse’
One of the most harrowing parts of these women’s experiences is that the deception was sanctioned by the state.
Alison says: “If somebody’s in a relationship with someone and it turns out they are a bigamist and a liar that’s appalling but it’s personal, it remains in the personal realm, whereas this is institutional. It’s paid for out of our money. We’re all paying for it as taxpayers. We’re funding it.”
“It’s paid for by the fucking state,” Helen interjects. “It wasn’t just the individual that was deceiving you but the whole apparatus of the state behind them. We were in the same flat, he had access to all my belongings, the inside of my mind, everything about me.”
This is institutional. It’s paid for out of our money. We’re all paying for it as taxpayers. We’re funding it. Alison
Alison says that all the male officers in the SDS had to be married so they would “have something to come back to”. Unknown to Alison, Mark had a wife and children the whole time they were in a relationship. John was also married.
“So not only did the managers and hierarchy in the police know about the operations, not only were they sanctioning the abuse of the female activists who were being infiltrated but they were also sanctioning adultery… The wives of these officers are as much victims of this whole experience as the female activists,” Alison says.
Alison says that she feels she was a “perk of the job” for Mark and suspects that many of the male police officers saw the relationships they were having with female activists in a similar light.
Both Alison and Helen are now 51 and say they are trying to move on with their lives, but with so many unanswered questions, this has proved difficult. One of the many things activists still do not know is why they were targeted in the first place and they hope the inquiry will help to answer many of these questions, but the Met has been criticised for delaying the process.
A Met Police spokesman said in a statement to HuffPost UK: “The MPS wishes to assist the Inquiry to fulfil its terms of reference and is responding in line with its timescales and also providing information, including extensive disclosure voluntarily.
“The task is unprecedented given the many thousands of documents and decades of operational activity that the Inquiry is considering. We have a significant team of officers and lawyers who are working hard to provide our fullest possible support.
“Like all concerned, we want the inquiry to progress as swiftly as is possible given the complex and sensitive subject matter it is considering.”
Despite not knowing why they were targeted, both women agree that such deception is never acceptable.
“The reason why there are no circumstances in which it’s ok is because that’s why we’ve got a criminal justice system. If somebody is suspected of doing something you collect the evidence, you charge them and then you prosecute them and then they go through the system. No-one was charged with anything. It was just information gathering,” Alison says.
But there is one unexpected result to have come from the experience.
Helen says: “Without meaning to, through what we have all exposed, they have thrown together some of the most able and some of the most powerful activists in the country coming from completely different angles… this group of people, who were not necessarily working together on stuff, were suddenly in the same room, which is probably their worst nightmare.
“The one thing they don’t want people to do is talking to one another.”
*Alison is a pseudonym to protect her identity.