Exclusive: Helen Steel flew from London to Australia to confront John Dines, who now directs a police training course in Sydney. He tricked her into a two-year relationship while working undercover
9 March 2016 | BY PAUL FARREL & ROB EVANS FOR THE GUARDIAN
A British social justice campaigner has flown from London to Australia to confront a former police spy who deceived her into having a two-year relationship and is now involved in directing police training courses in Australia.
Helen Steel, the campaigner, tracked down John Dines after spending years piecing together clues to uncover his real identity.It was the first time Steel had contacted the former undercover officer after he disappeared from her life more than two decades ago claiming to be having a mental breakdown.
After Dines vanished without a trace, he was resettled in Australia by British police who feared Steel was on the verge of finding him.
The Guardian can reveal that for the past five years he has been working at Australia’s leading graduate police college at Charles Sturt University in Sydney where he is a course director on training courses.
On Sunday Steel confronted Dines at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport, meeting him for the first time in 24 years – and since she had discovered his deception.
Dines said he “apologised unreservedly” to Steel for the way he had treated her.
In an interview Steel described how and why she confronted Dines at Sydney airport on Sunday in an encounter that was captured on video and has been seen by the Guardian.
She said his apology was not enough to allay her concerns.
“When I found out he was a course director and that the course included leftwing extremism I was very concerned about what tactics they were being trained in and whether they were going to be trained in many of the discredited tactics that were used in the UK which have been now acknowledged to be human rights abuses,” she said.
“John was part of the … special demonstration squad which spied on trade unionists, anti-racists and environmental campaigners.” She said. “I was extremely concerned that he might now be promoting the kind of tactics that have been used on us in the UK.
“I felt it was important to come here to expose what happened in the UK in case these discredited tactics are being promoted in other countries.”
On Wednesday Dines’s work at the university also came under scrutiny in the New South Wales parliament.
An Australian Greens MP, David Shoebridge, told NSW parliament it was “offensive in the extreme” that Dines was associated with Charles Sturt University’s policing programs.
“We need to ensure that similar abusive political undercover policing tactics are not replicated here or abroad,” he said.
“This must start with an investigation by the New South Wales government and New South Wales police into whether or not new South Wales police have been trained by any officers from these offensive UK units.
“Was Charles Sturt University aware of John Dines past before they employed him? Are the New South Wales police aware of the history of this man? Whatever their knowledge before now, this much is clear. He must cease any involvement with teaching police in this state before a similar apology is needed by the New South Wales police.”
Charles Sturt University’s executive dean of the faculty of arts, professor Tracey Green, said Dines’s role at the university as a business manager was “solely administrative” and did not involve police training.
While Dines is listed as a course director on several documents, a university spokesman said this role “is administrative only and does not involve teaching”.
Steel is one of a group of women who sued the police after discovering they had been deceived into forming long-term relationships with undercover officers.
After a four-year legal battle, they forced the police in November to apologise unreservedly for the “abusive and manipulative” relationships that caused them emotional trauma.
The controversy over Dines dates back to 1987 when the police gave him the identity of an eight-year boy who had died of leukaemia and went undercover posing as an anti-capitalist activist for five years to infiltrate environmental groups.
During that time, he met Steel, a longstanding social justice campaigner, and started a two-year relationship, telling her that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
He concealed from her the fact he was a member of a secret Metropolitan police undercover unit, the Special Demonstration Squad, that was tasked with spying on political groups.
By the summer of 1991, Dines appeared to start having a mental breakdown, telling Steel he wanted to run away to escape his inner demons. He told her his parents had abused him.
In March 1992, he vanished, telling her he was going to South Africa as he could not handle things any more. Steel was left with what she called a “complete rollercoaster of emotions” not knowing whether he was alive or dead. She feared he could kill himself.
But after he disappeared he went to work at the headquarters of the Metropolitan police, before quitting in 1994.
Steel embarked on a long search to find him. She located a copy of what she thought was his birth certificate and visited what she thought was the family home in Derby, although there was no answer.
Another certificate from the official archives revealed the man she knew as John Barker had died when he was eight.
It was a discovery that left her devastated, not even knowing the name of the man she had been in a relationship with. “It was like a bereavement but it was not something that I could talk to people about,” she has said.
Steel had also been one of the two defendants sued by the fast food chain McDonalds in the notorious McLibel trial in the 1990s. It was not until 2010 that she established her one-time boyfriend had been an undercover officer, although the Met has refused to confirm or deny his identity.
Dines moved to New Zealand after quitting the police, but in 2002, the Met feared Steel was coming close to finding him. The British police paid the bill to resettle him in Australia, according to a police source with knowledge of the operation.
In 2010, he was hired by the Australian graduate school of policing and security at Charles Sturt University, near Sydney, where he is the associate head of school.
Steel confronted him at Sydney airport while he was greeting a party of Indian police officers. He is coordinating a course to train them. Course documents seen by the Guardian state that part of the training includes “emerging challenges, viz, leftwing extremism and other low-intensity conflicts”.
Steel said she made the journey across the world to make sure the behaviour of the Met’s undercover officers which had caused immense trauma was not replicated by other police forces.
“He apologised to me, but in the course of the conversation that we then had he talked to me about how when he had been sent in to infiltrate groups in north London it was to look out for what they call extremists,” she said.
“It’s a vague term which is never properly defined that seems to include anyone who challenges people in positions of power.
“It just seems like that’s exactly the same as what they are about to do with the Indian police training program, so it’s very worrying. We don’t want to see these tactics perpetuated anywhere else.
“I don’t know if they’re aware of his background and what he did in the UK, and the fact that he deceived me into a long-term relationship and all the other things that he did while he was working for the special demonstration squad.”
Green said in a statement that Dines had disclosed his prior record on commencing his work at the university, and said he did not train police officers.
“Mr Dines was engaged by the university as a business manager and his role is solely administrative. He does not and never has held a teaching position or delivered any form of training for or on behalf of the university. He does not train police officers,” she said.
A university spokesman added that while he was listed as a course director on the Indian training course, it was “administrative only and does not involve teaching”.
Dines declined to comment on his role at Charles Sturt University.
But in a brief email response, he told the Guardian: “You will already be aware that I met with Helen Steel on 6 March, where I gave a her a personal and unreserved apology for all and any hurt that she may have suffered.
“I do not intend to make any other comment.”