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13 March 1997 Edition

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British justice targets Irish

A new report has found that the British criminal justice system discriminates against Irish people. By Eoin O'Broin


The British government renewed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with the tacit support of the Labour Party last Wednesday 5 March. The act was passed by 304 votes to 13. Opposition came only from the SDLP and a number of dissident Labour MPs who defied a leadership call to abstain from the motion.

Speaking after the commons debate, K Hayes of the PTA Research and Welfare Association condemned the verdict as a victory for a ``racist piece of legislation'' which denies justice ``to the Irish community in Britain''. Hayes singled out the Labour Party as ``displaying an utter contempt for the rights and views of the Irish community''.

From the mid 1980s the Labour Party opposed the renewal of the PTA. This remained party policy until 1994, when under the leadership of John Smith, Labour attempted to achieve a bipartisan approach to the PTA in return for small reforms of exclusion orders and detention regulations.

The Labour Party then dropped all formal opposition to the PTA during 1996. In February they supported the renewal of the Act and later failed to oppose extensions to the Act's powers under the Criminal Justice Act.

While the decision not to mount any formal opposition to the renewal of the Act last week won't come as a surprise, it has confirmed many peoples' fears that the British Labour Party are reneging on their earlier commitment to justice for the Irish in Britain. These fears were put in focus by a report published in Britain last February.

Titled ``Hidden Discrimination Against the Irish within the Criminal Justice System'', the report is a summary of a series of research projects into the extent of judicial discrimination against the Irish in Britain. The PTA in particular comes in for harsh criticism.

Jointly published by the Action Group for Irish Youth, The Bourne Trust, the Federation of Irish Societies, the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas and the National Association of Probation Officers, the report alleges that there is widespread discrimination against the Irish community including a greater likelihood of being stopped by the police. The report also finds that Irish people are the group most likely to be the victim of street crime and are disproportionately represented amongst miscarriage of justice cases.

The report finds that a quarter of young white persons remanded in custody in the Southeast were travellers and the Irish are disproportionately represented amongst the homeless, the unemployed and the mentally ill, groups which are most likely to be in conflict with the criminal justice system and factors which compound discrimination.

Speaking to An Phoblacht, Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers said the report ``reveals hidden discrimination against the Irish. Research commissioned as early as 1989 pointed to the fact that the Irish were getting a raw deal in the courts. We know that in the inner cities the Irish are more likely to be stopped by the police and are more likely to be victims of street crime than any other ethnic group. However, the Irish are under represented amongst those convicted of serious crimes''.

Gerry McFlynn of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas said, ``the case histories in the report highlight the plight of the Irish community. A young Irish woman was recently arrested by over a dozen police on suspicion of carrying firearms. She was strip searched and held in a cell overnight. There was no evidence and she was found not guilty. Last year three Irish travelling families were arrested and accused of threatening behaviour. They were later released to appear in court one month later and finally all charges were dropped''.

The report concludes that there needs to be further research into the experience of the Irish community and the criminal justice system. In addition the four sponsor organisations are calling for anti-discrimination practice to be put in place as a matter of urgency, that the PTA be reviewed, that awareness training should be made available for all criminal justice professionals and that there should be a distinct category of Irish in all equal opportunity programmes.

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