Only a handful of us arriving at the RIBA for the Annual Dinner of the South East branch of Women in Property knew who the guest speaker for the evening was – and when we found out, the reason for secrecy became clear. Dame Eliza Manningham Buller, who retired as Director General of MI5 in 2005, took the stage to describe her extraordinary career in the Secret Service, which began after a chance meeting at a drinks party when she was working as an English teacher after graduating from Oxford.
An expert in counter-terrorism, she was involved in the Lockerbie investigation, served as MI5's liaison officer in Washington and became director of counter-terrorism in Ireland, spearheading the fight against the Provisional IRA.
One of her achievements as Director General at MI5 was to open up the traditional covert recruitment network that had led to her own career path. Dame Eliza established a website and recruited agents through newspaper advertisements. Staff numbers increased from 1,800 to nearly 3,500, but despite the pace set by such great change at a time of high national security, she developed a reputation for taking time to recognise personally achievements by individuals and the pressures of the job. She fostered a number of programmes around staff recruitment, training and development to ensure that all officers have the opportunity to flourish.
She also took a higher personal profile than her predecessors – although declaring on retirement that she would not write her memoirs. She allowed terror risk assessments to be made public for the first time., revealing that five major conspiracies had been thwarted since the July 2005 bombs in London, and that there were investigations into some 200 networks involving 1,600 people and as many as thirty specific plots.
Responding to the inevitable question about the accuracy of tv programmes, she said that real life espionage is hard work governed by the need to work within rules, not like Spooks, "where everything is solved by half a dozen people who break endless laws to achieve these results in one episode."
Her dedication to serving her country is transparent, as is her talent as a leader and motivator. It was a privilege and pleasure not only to hear, but also share a table with a woman demonstrating such a rare combination of intellect, professionalism and warmth.
More information about Women in Property and in particular a follow-up event to Dame Eliza Manningham Buller’s speech go to: http://www.wipnet.org/branches/southeast/events.php