The text below is a transcript of a speech given by Helen to the launch meeting of the Campaign Against Police Surveillance in London on 27/2/14.
I had a relationship with an undercover policeman who I knew as John Barker, his real name was John Dines. We were together for nearly 2 years, we shared a flat together and he met my friends & family.
I’ve been involved in environmental and social justice campaigning since I was a teenager. In 1987 I got involved with London Greenpeace, which is separate to the big Greenpeace, it was formed 1970 out of anti nuclear, peace and environmental campaigns and was broadly anti capitalist.
The same year that I started going, I met John at those meetings and also Bob Lambert who was going to the meetings at that time. Bob Lambert left the year after. John became a close friend of mine over the next 3 years, sharing lots of his stories and personal issues like the death of his parents, being an only child, losing all his possessions when his van was stolen shortly after he moved to the UK. Lots of what were both sob stories and excuses for why there was nobody around him and why he didn’t have any kind of history that you could see.
He asked me out several times and eventually we ended up in a relationship, not long after he told me his mum had died and he needed to borrow money to get to New Zealand for the funeral.
In reality, his mum was still alive, so was his dad, and he had brothers and sisters.
So those stories, seeking my empathy and involvement in his life, were a deliberate process of emotional manipulation. He was seeking to draw me closer to him, so that he could spy on me and my friends and seek to undermine the political movements we were involved in and ultimately seek to prevent change. And this is not just what’s happened to me, this is what has happened to the other women as well.
But I didn’t know that at the time, I felt like I’d met my soulmate, and after a while we rented a flat and lived together. We talked about starting a family – he said he wanted lots of kids as he was an only child – and all the kind of things you might talk about in any normal relationship.
In the last 6 months of our relationship his behaviour became very erratic, he appeared to be going through some sort of breakdown. He would disappear saying he was taking himself off to sort his head out, then he would come back and declare how much he loved me – it was a very emotionally draining time.
Then he disappeared for good. I received two letters from him posted from South Africa, saying he was sorry, but he needed to sort his head out and if he did, he might come back.
By this point I was extremely worried about his mental wellbeing and I was actually quite worried that he might even kill himself. And I was still deeply in love with him, so I spent ages trying to find out what had happened to him. This process went on years, so obviously I have to cut it down for this, but gradually everything I investigated turned up more questions than answers and my concerns grew about who he really was and what he’d been up to.
I hit a brick wall and couldn’t find anything out. Then one day, when I’d just left the Royal Courts of Justice after a day in court with McLibel, as I passed what was then St Catherine’s House, the registry of births, deaths and marriages, I just got this sudden instinct to go in and start looking through the death records. And I then found out he had been using the name of a child who’d died when he was eight years old.
That left me with this great void. I’d been living with someone for two years and I now didn’t even know what his name was. I was deeply in love with this person and I knew nothing about him. It really throws all your other relationships into doubt. If you can live with someone for that length of time and think you know them so well, and then you find out they don’t exist – what does it say for everybody else that you are talking to, that you are meeting with, how can you be sure that anything going on around you is real? How could I trust my own judgement any more?
I’m telling you about this process, because this isn’t just what happened to me; other women went through similar experiences, it causes serious psychological trauma, and it is as a result of deliberate acts of the state.
People have tried to compare this to a man lying about his age or his background, it happens often, what are we complaining about?
Firstly, I don’t know of any other police abuse that is justified on the basis that other people do it. Secondly, it’s not like that at all. It’s not someone exaggerating or lying about some aspect of their personality. It’s an entirely false persona, a false name, false date of birth, false job, false personality, false politics, false marriage status (most of these cops were married, in fact it was like a qualification for the job), it is much more extreme than exaggerating your accomplishments or underestimating your age. And to cap it all they are there to spy on you and friends.
Most people would be pretty devastated if they found out their partner of several years was someone entirely different. If they also found out that false personality had been created by the state with the aim of spying on them and their friends, they would likely feel violated too.
Another side of it is that when I and other women spoke to people we trusted about the possibility our partners had been undercover policemen – could this explain why they suddenly vanished? – people suggested we were being paranoid, that wouldn’t happen in this country. And when you have people telling you that, it messes with your head as well, you start to doubt your own sanity
John disappeared in 1992 and I finally had confirmation that he was an undercover policeman in 2011. That’s almost nineteen years, and over a lot of that period I was trying to find out the truth. The police meanwhile were actually actively taking steps to prevent me and the other women finding out the truth. They had alarm systems in place where if you looked up a birth or death certificate it would trigger an alarm and they would know you were looking for them. I have also been told that when I went to New Zealand to look for John, they then moved him to another country to prevent me finding him.
I expect you’ve all heard of Mark Kennedy, his story has been widely exposed. In 2011 campaigners exposed him as an undercover policeman. There was lots of publicity in the press, including about the fact he had a seven year relationship with a campaigner and other relationships too. The response of the police was to claim that this was an isolated incident, this was a rogue police officer who had gone off the rails and done his own thing.
This happened around the same time that I found out the truth about John and I was really angry that they were trying to cover up what was going on in this way. I then got together with the 7 other women involved in our case, to take legal action to fight for justice, to expose what had happened and to try to prevent it from happening to anyone else.
There are eight of us involved in this case who had relationships with five different officers over a period spanning about 25 years. And there are other people are bringing cases too. So the police cannot claim that Mark Kennedy was just a rogue officer. It’s absolutely clear that this is an institution doing this and that it is a deliberate tactic.
In our view what this represents is institutional sexism – for the police to abuse women and derail our lives in order to shore up the fake identities of undercover policemen and undermine political movements. It’s a group of mainly male officers with no oversight or scrutiny of any kind.
People should bear in mind that if the police want to search your house, they have to apply to the courts for a search warrant and there is supposed to be some scrutiny of what you are suspected of having done. With the undercover policemen, they move into your home, they have free access to all your personal belongings for an extended period. Some of these officers lived with the women for as long as 5 years.
They also have access to your innermost thoughts without any form of protection – if you’re a suspect in a police station you are entitled to be cautioned and have a solicitor present. There’s none of that when you feel that you’re sharing your life with someone who’s your soulmate – you’ve got no protection from whatever they want to ask you about, and we have no idea about how much of our personal lives and thoughts are now stuck in Special Branch files somewhere.
There is nothing in law that says that if a police officer suspects you of involvement in a crime, let alone involvement in a political movement, they are entitled to sleep with you in order to find out. And for good reason – it would be wide open to abuse.
Despite that, since we’ve brought the case the police and politicians have given conflicting messages. Some have said it shouldn’t happen and others have said that they need to use these tactics. Their primary focus has been on sex, but for many of us we feel that it’s the emotional intimacy of the relationships that is more damaging in terms of the damage to your ability to trust – that’s what really messes with your mind.
The police strategy now is to claim they can neither confirm nor deny anything about undercover policing. They want to try to sweep it under the carpet. They say they can’t talk about it because they’re worried about jeopardising the safety of these guys and future undercover officers.
It’s a very easy route to claim it would jeopardise people’s safety in order to shut down debate. Then no-one can discuss the issue or expose what happened and the harm it has caused. And so what they want is for us all to forget about it and pretend it didn’t happen.
Our suspicion is that they want to keep undercover relationships as an option. There’s a recent consultation launched by the Government, about Covert Human Intelligence Sources – including new Codes of Practice for CHIS – that was announced on 13th Feb, lasting for 6 weeks.
But despite the professed views of many of these senior police officers that this should never have happened, they have not included anything in those Codes of Practice to explicitly rule out future intimate or sexual relationships while undercover.
We’re fighting this case with the aim of exposing what has happened, getting justice and preventing it from happening to anybody else again.
Finally, it’s clear that the police and corporations put a lot of effort into undermining movements for social justice and I think that is actually one positive thing that we should take from all this; their fear that those movements will grow and change might happen, shows the value of spreading alternative ideas and taking action – so keep on at it.