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3 July 2008 Edition

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Britain's Irish spying op slammed by EU court

THE British Government has been slammed by the European Court of Human Rights for secretly and illegally monitoring every single telephone call, fax message and e-mail between Ireland and Britain for years. The spying operation covers the period of the early days of the Peace Process and the run up to the Good Friday Agreement. It is clear that sensitive communications involving Irish political representatives, including party leaders and government ministers were vulnerable to interception by the British spying exercise.
The mass covert surveillance, which Irish republicans had raised over many years was found on Tuesday to have violated privacy laws.
In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British Government’s secret surveillance was not “in accordance with the law”.
It said that Britain’s spying operation in Ireland did not provide adequate protection against abuse of power and conferred wide discretion to intercept and examine external communications.
The case was taken to the Strasbourg court by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and two British-based human rights agencies, Liberty and British-Irish Rights Watch, whose correspondence was intercepted by British spies between 1990 and 1997. The groups protested that there had been a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ICCL case revolved around the interception and storing, by a British Ministry of Defence facility, of all telephone, fax, e-mail and data communications between  Ireland and Britain. This included legally privileged and confidential information exchanged between the ICCL, Liberty, and British Irish Rights Watch.
Responding to the ECHR ruling, Sinn Féin Human Rights Spokesperson Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD called for an apology from the British Government and for a legally enforceable confirmation that the blanket interception of communications between the citizens of Ireland and Britain is at an end.
“The court ruling shows what many of us have known for a long time - that Britain has been invading the privacy of and spying on Irish citizens for many years in the name of security”, he said.
“The British Ministry of Defence’s broad power to intercept and store en masse any telephone, fax, email and data communications between Britain and Ireland has been found by the European Court of Human Rights to amount to a breach of a fundamental human right. It also undoubtedly had political and economic implications.
“The time period concerned includes the run up to the Good Friday Agreement when Irish Government Ministers’ sensitive communications would have been vulnerable to interception. The British power of interception was, according to the European Court of Human Rights ruling, ‘virtually unlimited’ and they may also have intercepted commercially sensitive data putting them in a position to undermine the economy of our small state.
“Brian Cowen must raise this issue with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the earliest opportunity.  He must demand an apology from the British Government and a legally enforceable confirmation that the blanket interception of communications between the citizens of Ireland and Britain is at an end.
“Today’s ruling also has important implications for Irish law.  Current blanket data retention laws and the absence of any legislation or statutory guidelines governing Garda surveillance, either in person or by audio/visual electronic devices or recorders, means that invasions of privacy in this state will not pass the legal test established by this ruling.  There is an urgent need for new human rights-compliant legislation”, Ó Snodaigh said.
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