The spy who duped me

The full story of how Helen Steel and other women were deceived into relationships with undercover police spies is only now being told

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When McLibel campaigner Helen Steel was finally able, in Sydney in 2016, to confront John Dines, the undercover police officer who tricked her into a long relationship in the early 1990s, she still retained remote hopes he might have had genuinely loving feelings for her during their time together. Perhaps he even shared some of her anti-capitalist beliefs.

“I said to him that he knew I was in a really bad state when he left and asked why did he still pretend to care for me rather than put me out of my misery and say he was never coming back,” says Steel.

“‘What did I have? All I had was a van,’ was his initial reply. When I pressed him further he responded dismissively by saying: ‘I’m sorry, I had a really shit time too. It – the whole thing – messed my head up and I just wanted to put it behind me and make a new start.’ I had this realisation that he was a completely selfish bastard and he had not cared one bit for me.”

Now the full story of this abusive relationship – and the cases of four other campaigners conned by officers of the highly secretive Metropolitan Police unit the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) into similar relationships, all sanctioned at the highest levels of the state – is being told in a new book.

“To my surprise, and after years of finding nothing, a document popped up with his signature on the bottom.”

The title Deep Deception was collectively chosen by the five women. “From amongst many possibilities it best conveys our experiences. The level of deception and the discovery of it really had a serious psychological impact on everyone,” explains Steel, who has though courageously fought back. The widespread use of the officers from the SDS, formed in 1968, to undermine movements of social justice, environmental campaigns, trade unions and political organisations continues to be exposed at the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI).

When Steel first met Dines in late 1987 at London Greenpeace, he claimed he was John Barker and infiltrated the environmental group after the exit of SDS officer Bob Lambert, a Greenpeace member from 1983 to 1987.

“Lambert, or Robinson as we knew him, was involved in writing the 1986 anti-McDonald’s leaflet that me and Dave Morris were sued over,” says Steel. “John was involved in the anti-McDonald’s campaign, and in the McLibel Support campaign and our legal defence.”

The leaflet alleged that McDonald’s exploited children through its advertising, promoted unhealthy food, paid low wages, was anti-union and was responsible for animal cruelty and environmental damage. The libel campaign was the longest such case in English history and lasted over a decade. At the conclusion some of the leaflet’s contested claims were found to be libellous and others, such as McDonald’s endangering the health of workers and exploiting children, were true. The company also paid its workers poorly and inflicted unnecessary cruelty on animals.

Deep Deception reveals that Dines waited two years before asking Steel to go out with him. He had slowly been building up a relationship with Steel, a gardener, by dropping her off last in his van when he drove fellow activists home from meetings. It was a common tactic by undercover officers, including Mark Jenner, who was to have a five-year relationship with Alison, a political activist at the Colin Roach Centre in Hackney. The case of Jenner, known as Cassidy at the time, has been explored in a series of Big Issue North articles dating back to January 2011.

“John told me in Sydney that he was tasked with reporting on everything that was going on in the North London anti-capitalist, animal rights, poll tax and environmental movements – everything that was a bit alternative. I did not go out with him until 1990. If I had known he was using me to spy on groups of people whose politics I shared then I would never have had a relationship with him,” says Steel, who now lives in the North.

As the relationship became more intense, Barker told Steel he wanted to have children. It was a con. After a period when he would mysteriously disappear for short periods, citing his mental state, the undercover cop left permanently in late 1992. Steel was distraught.

In the book she describes how in early 1993 “I felt both physically and mentally spent. John’s disappearance still consumed my thoughts every day.” Her attempts to find him floundered.

When the McLibel trial began at the Royal Courts of Justice in Central London in 1994, Steel walked each day past St Catherine’s House, which at the time held the register for all the births, deaths and marriages in England. It was a place she had visited previously when she helped look up Dines’s family records to help in what he claimed was a search for his father.

She decided to search at St Catherine’s House again and was stunned to find a death record for someone called Barker who died in 1968, matching John’s name and place of birth. “In the County of Derby, Philip John Barker: male, aged 8 years. The cause of death was acute lymphatic leukaemia.”

Steel felt a chill down her spine.

“John had been using the identity of a dead child. John Barker – the man I’d loved, the man I’d planned to spend the rest of my life with – didn’t exist. He never had… my whole world had been pulled from beneath my feet and I didn’t know who I could and couldn’t trust.”

Steel was determined to find out the truth. She travelled to New Zealand to try to find Dines, who had claimed he had lived there as a teenager and had moved there after leaving the police in 1994. Following her visit the Metropolitan Police moved him to Australia to prevent her finding out the truth, according to a police source quoted in the Guardian.

Semi-official confirmation eventually arrived in 2011 when the former partner of an undercover officer told her Dines had been one too. Around this time, it emerged that another undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, had had several relationships with environmental activists he had spied on. Deep Deception includes the cases of two women, Lisa and Naomi, both tricked by Kennedy, who was known as Mark Stone during his time undercover and collected information on environmental groups such as Earth First. Gradually, activists, journalists and the whistleblower Peter Francis, one of Dines’s former colleagues, began revealing the real story about SDS, including the use of dead children’s identities. Dines, Lambert and Jenner (the latter employed to spy on me, among others, while working as an organiser at the Colin Roach Centre) suddenly found themselves in the newspapers.

A police officer with activists David Morris and Helen Steel in north London, 1997. Photos: Phil Harris/Shutterstock and main image Mark Harvey

Seeking to prevent these human rights abuses, Steel and other deceived women took legal action against the Metropolitan Police. Some of them had even had children with officers who, after faking mental breakdowns, suddenly disappeared without explanation.

All the officers had occupied important positions, such as secretary or treasurer, in campaigns that covered anti-racism, miscarriages of justice, corruption and employment rights. Such roles allowed the police to assemble information on the political activists involved.

By getting together and speaking out, the deceived women destroyed claims by the police that their experiences were the result of an isolated officer. Steel says: “We knew that between the eight of us who sued the Metropolitan Police that there were at least five different officers who deceived women and that the period of relationships was nearly 25 years. There was obviously a systematic pattern of abuse, either for the officers’ own purposes or undermining protest movements.”

The civil action against the police proved successful. In November 2015, the Metropolitan Police gave a full apology, conceding, as part of a settlement, that they had abused the women’s human rights. This apology has since been extended to some but not all the other people affected by relationships with undercover policing. Many women are still fighting their cases.

The exposure of undercover officers deceiving women also helped push then home secretary Theresa May to set up the UCPI. Beginning in July 2015 it was earmarked to last three years but seems unlikely to conclude before 2026.

“The police are obstructing justice and are going through documents from decades back and redacting them to hide the names of those responsible for these human rights abuses,” says Steel.

“The police want it to be delayed as when the results are announced they can say what happened is historic, that things have changed and there is nothing to see here. And yet as we know the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 makes provision for the use of undercover law enforcement agents and covert sources and the committing of crimes in the undertaking of their duty. The police are also still seeking to recruit informers, as shown in a recent Black Lives Matter campaign in Cardiff.”

In 2016 something made her Google John Dines. “To my surprise and, after years of finding nothing, a document popped up with his signature on the bottom. It was the first proof I’d had in over 20 years that he was still alive.” He was a course director at a police college in Sydney, training Indian police officers to tackle so-called left-wing extremism. Concerned he was using SDS tactics to abuse Indian women in a similar way, she went to track him down, confronting him at the airport where he was meeting his trainees. “You owe me an apology.”

Steel had to overcome her natural shyness to fight McDonald’s, find Dines and now fight the secret state. Why should people buy Deep Deception?

“It is a good read and important for understanding the lengths the state is prepared to go to by organising a secret political policing unit in order to prevent change from happening and preserving the status quo on behalf of the rich and powerful.

“This should be deeply alarming to anybody. We could have got rid of racism, sexism and stopped the destruction of the planet long ago had there not been massive state interference by these sorts of organisations.”

Deep Deception: The Story of the Spycop Network by the Women who Uncovered the Shocking Truth is published by Ebury. Helen Steel is speaking about the book at 2pm, 10 April at the Trades Club, Hebden Bridge (free, donations welcome)

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Interact: Responses to The spy who duped me

  • Spy-Cops, Helen Steel talks of “disgusting and inhumane abuse.” | Tendance Coatesy
    11 May 2022 10:37
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