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Was Your Ex-Boyfriend an Undercover Police Spy? Some British Women Don't Yet Know

Seven women have just received payouts from the UK Metropolitan Police after learning their ex-boyfriends were undercover policemen, but one warns VICE News that many former activists may still not know.

by Sally Hayden
Nov 24 2015, 10:43am

Photo by Helen Steel

It's been a story of broken hearts, decimated trust, and a lengthy and determined quest for the truth. On Friday, seven more British women received payouts from London's Metropolitan Police for being deceived into relationships with undercover officers engaged with gathering information on activist groups over two and a half decades.

Along with the undisclosed settlement, the women received an official apology. Yet one of them also pointed out to VICE News that there are likely still many women who don't yet realize that they were in relationships with men who didn't really exist.

"Thanks in large part to the courage and tenacity of these women in bringing these matters to light it has become apparent that some officers, acting undercover while seeking to infiltrate protest groups, entered into long-term intimate sexual relationships with women which were abusive, deceitful, manipulative, and wrong," Met Police Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt said.

In his statement, Hewitt also agreed it was "irrelevant" whether the undercover men had feelings for the women or not.

"I acknowledge that these relationships were a violation of the women's human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma. I unreservedly apologize on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service… Sexual relationships between undercover police officers and members of the public should not happen."

* * *

"The apology is definitely a victory," Helen Steel, one of the women involved, told VICE News. Steel was in a two-year relationship with John Dines — or John Barker, as he introduced himself when they met in 1987.

The pair were friends for a few years before he asked her out in 1990. She agreed and within six months they had moved in together.

"They've spent years trying to cover this up and trying to pretend it didn't happen," Steel said, after apologizing for being exhausted. "They didn't want to publicly acknowledge it and they have been forced to publicly acknowledge that these relationships are wrong and that they should never happen again. What we want now is to make sure they're held to that and that they never happen again, and that no other women have to go through this."

Steel is now 50. She's no stranger to media attention. Steel was one of the defendants in the longest libel case in English history — the "McLibel" case — in which she and a fellow activist were sued by McDonalds after distributing leaflets accusing them of damaging the environment, exploiting workers, and promoting unhealthy food. It was later discovered that the leaflet had been co-authored by another undercover policeman, Bob Lambert.

John Dines while undercover as activist John Barker. (Photo via Helen Steel)

In Dines, Steel thought she had met her "soulmate," a man committed to the same issues she cared passionately about. When Dines left her after appearing to suffer a breakdown before sending two letters from South Africa, she spent years trying to find him again. Initially, Steel worried that her ex-boyfriend was suicidal, then she found out he had been using the identity of a boy who had died at the age of eight and she began a search for the truth about who he really was.

Eventually, Steel found out his real name before discovering his marriage certificate, which listed his occupation as "police officer." However, it wasn't until 19 years after his disappearance that she finally got confirmation that he had in fact been an undercover policeman spying on her and others.

Related: The UK Has Launched Its First Public Inquiry Into Undercover Policing, and the Findings Could be Explosive

Steel was not the only activist to discover she had been dating an undercover officer. The women who joined their cases with hers had been in relationships lasting between eight months and nine years. Many lived with the men. Some had children. All the men were actually already married.

The five police officers involved in Friday's settlement were Dines, Lambert, Mark Jenner, and Jim Boyling — all of whom worked for the Special Demonstration Squad, an undercover unit within Scotland Yard's Special Branch which existed between 1968 and 2008 — and Mark Kennedy, who worked for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), an undercover unit operational until 2011, the same year Steel and the other women launched their action.

Though the Metropolitan Police have called the relationships "failures of supervision and management," the targeted women believe that sexual relationship were condoned and even encouraged by the secret units of the British police force. Human rights lawyers have referred disparagingly to this as the "Austin Powers rule."

* * *

"No amount of money or sorry can make up for the damage that they have done through these relationships," Steel said. "We can't regain the lost years of our lives. We can't regain the ability to not worry about being able to trust your own judgment and all the other psychological impacts that this has had on us."

Steel's battle hasn't ended with Friday's settlement or the momentous apology. She's now calling for Britain's newly launched inquiry into undercover policing — the Pitchford Inquiry — to reveal the "cover names" of previously deployed undercover police officers.

Though at least six further cases are still ongoing, according to Steel, "we believe there are likely to be a lot more."

"Now that the police have acknowledged that these relationships were wrong, they should release the cover names of officers deployed into campaign groups. Without this the public inquiry can't gain a true picture of the extent of the abuses committed. Unless the cover names are released, people don't know that they've been in contact with these undercover officers so can't come forward to give relevant evidence. They will just been assuming whichever person it was that was in their group was genuine," Steel said.

"I'm sure that the police are going to fight this all the way because they're desperate to cover up these abuses," Steel said. "[But] if [the public inquiry] only looks at the evidence so far that's managed to be uncovered by campaigners and journalists then it's only looking at part of the picture."

Steel said that she and the other women are working with others who discovered they were in deceptive relationships with undercover police. "We're trying to help where we can, though we are all pretty exhausted."

Related: This Woman Was Awarded $685,737 After Learning Her Boyfriend Was an Undercover Cop Sent to Spy on Her

Steel also pointed out that relationships weren't the only damaging actions that need to be addressed by the inquiry.

Britain's covert officers already known to have stolen dead babies' identities, acted as agent provocateurs, and possibly committed crimes.

Among those targeted by undercover police operations were Labour MPs, anti-racism groups, justice campaigners, trade unionists, and the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. At least 57 convictions have since been quashed to date as a result of miscarriages of justice caused by undercover policing activities.

Steel listed the abuses that she sees as most shocking. "Spying on families who have lost loved ones either at the hands of the police or where the police were failing to properly investigate the deaths of their loved ones; the collusion between the police and corporations over blacklisting trade unionists and other campaigners. There's the families of [dead] children whose identities were used and there's all the miscarriages of justices that have happened by undercover officers keeping hidden their identity when giving evidence or attending legal meetings." Steel said that all of this behavior needed investigation by the inquiry and also necessitated apologies.

A statement released by the seven women on Friday compared the behavior of the British police to those in Cold War East Germany. "While the UK purports to be a democratic country, the level of deception perpetrated by state agents seeking to undermine movements for social change is more akin to that of the Stasi in East Germany," it read. 

"These professionally supported relationships — some of which bore children — lasted as long as nine years and have remained hidden from the public for decades. Indeed, the police still refuse to publicly acknowledge the harm caused to the children born of and into these relationships or even bring themselves to refer to them in their apology today."

* * *

Last year, the Metropolitan Police paid 425,000 pounds ($648,048) to "Jacqui," another women who had a child with undercover officer Lambert.

After hearing about Friday's payout and apology, Jacqui told VICE News: "I am pleased that the other woman have settled their case, perhaps they can now go forward in their lives now this case is concluded."

She continued: "I wish them happiness and peace in their futures. This has been a disgraceful incident in the Met's history, a policy that has caused so much grief. I think we have all suffered enough now and it's time to move on.

"Let's hope that my case and these cases have ensured this can never happen in the future."

VICE News asked Steel whether she'd ever be able to get closure.

"That's a difficult question because I'd probably like to move on from it completely now," she responded. "In fact I'd like it never to have happened. I'd like to have been able to move on from it in 1992 rather than have been left wondering what had happened to somebody I loved really deeply."

"I would like just to not have any more to do with it but I think it's more important to make sure that it doesn't happen to anybody else in the future so for that reason I think it's important that a public inquiry does reveal the full truth about what these officers were doing and — as I've said — it's very important the cover names are released, so I'll stay involved in the campaign."

Related: 'We're Going Up Against the State Here': The UK's Victims of Deep Undercover Policing Tell of Their Trauma

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd