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27 August 1998 Edition

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New laws - a dangerous step

The repressive legislation announced by the governments of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair will have exactly the opposite of its intended effect. In the long term it can only fuel greater opposition to the peace Agreement.

In particular, giving greater powers to the RUC to convict people of membership of proscribed organisations is a recipe for disaster. A force with the RUC's record for human rights abuses is now to be given the effective power of internment. It is a step towards a police state at a time when repressive legislation should be abolished and the RUC disbanded.

At a time when progress towards implementing the Agreement has been painfully slow, this retrograde step is deeply dangerous. The only sensible solution to recent events is to push the Agreement forward with all speed.

 

Giving RUC the power to intern



by Ned Kelly

Tuesday's announcement of new repressive legislation by British premier Tony Blair, in line with the ``draconian'' measures announced last week by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, has been greeted with stark warnings about the potential abuse of human and civil rights from nationalist politicians and human rights organisation.

The measures announced by Blair mean that people can be arrested and convicted for membership of a proscribed organisation on the `evidence' of a senior RUC officer. Increased restrictions on the right to silence mean that failure to answer, mention or co-operate with the RUC during interrogation or a `relevant' inquiry will be taken as corroborating the RUC officers `evidence'..

Ahead of next Wednesday, when both the Dáil and British Houses' of Parliament will be recalled to enact the legislation, Blair also proposed looking at changing the rules on admissible evidence to include transcripts of phone tapping, an idea originating from RUC chief constable Ronnie Flanagan. Also included will be a new offence of `conspiring to commit a terrorist offence outside the UK', thought to be aimed at the Muslim community in Britain.

Martin O'Brien of the Committee for the Administration on Justice (CAJ) said, ``to convict someone soley on the word of a police officer and the accused's own silence is in breach of the right to a fair trial.'' He added that in the Six Counties, ``the extensive use of emergency powers have allowed the RUC to effectively intern suspects by remand, the consequence of allowing the RUC the choice of who to convict is even starker.''

Martin McGuinness MP called the new measures ``retrograde'' and said they were ``internment under another guise''. Sinn Féin TD, Caoimhghin O Caolain calling the new measures ``a major mistake'' said, ``the priority must be to strengthen the peace process.''

In a joint statement from, Amnesty International, the ICCL, the CAJ, British-Irish Rights Watch and the New York based Human Rights Watch said, ``[this] response is not in conformity with internationally protected human rights.'' British Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn called the measure ``counter-productive'' and said, they could ``create further injustices.''

Although the measures will only apply to people charged for `acts' committed after the Good Friday document was signed on 10 April and if convicted they will be denied political status, the potential for systematic abuse is collosal.

McGuinness underlined the potential. He said, ``the RUC in the eyes of many nationalists is the most discredited police force in Western Europe. To give [them] these powers when their whole future is in question as a result of the Good Friday document is crazy.''

He said, ``Repressive legislation, like that previously introduced is wrong and only succeeds in creating the conditions for a litany of miscarriages of justice'' - such as the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Beechmount Five, Casement Accused, Sallins Four, Maguire Seven and Judith Ward.

``Over the last thirty years we have had internment, non-jury Diplock courts, PTA, Torture centres from Ballykelly to Castlereagh, supergrass trials,'' McGuinness added, ``and the result has been the routine violation of human and civil rights and the resulting injustice.''

A spokesperson for British-Irish Rights Watch said previous legislation had been enacted with ``little pause for thought. For example, after the Birmingham and Guildford bombs came the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) resulting in the wrong people being arrested and spending years in prison for a crime they didn't commit.''

Reactive legislation is deemed so dangerous in America that the US Congress enacted the Bill of Attainder that prohibits legislation aimed at securing convictions in a specific case.

The RUC has for many years been an integral part of the Six County conflict and the action of RUC chief constable Ronnie Flanagan must be remembered. Following the murder of Harry Duggan earlier in the year, three young men from West Belfast were arrested and on the word of Flanagan Sinn Féin were ejected from the talks process at a pivotal moment. Five months later the three were released without charge and are now in the process of suing the RUC.

The CAJ's Paul Mageean and Martin O'Brien pointed out the risks in ``affording power to an unrepresentative police force that has been found to have engaged in human rights violations''. They said the main effect would be to ``convict and imprison the innocent and undermine the rule of law.''

O'Brien said, ``there is no evidence to suggest that the restriction of the right to silence has been successful. Indeed our experience has been that the use of emergency powers has perpetuated rather than resolved the conflict.''

As equality and social exclusion slip from the political agenda, the CAJ stressed that ``[the] often indiscriminate application of legislation to one community has only furthered its alienation.'' They added, ``the Good Friday document, in its commitment to human rights recognised that human rights abuses have been part of the problem. It is too precious a prize to risk by repeating the mistakes of the past.''

 

Sowing the seeds




Laura Friel watches as internment is introduced by the back door

Correct me if I'm wrong, but surely it wasn't so very long ago that the words `repressive' and `draconian' when coupled with the word `legislation' implied a criticism not an endorsement.

Yet in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing, there was Bertie Ahern on television tetchily responding to a journalistic inquiry with the declaration, ``we already have repressive legislation''. Had I somehow strayed into a sort of political True Confessions? The truth was to be much worse.

Meanwhile Mo Mowlam was being more reticent than her Irish colleagues. ``Our own legal framework already provides extensive powers. I am actively looking at ways of further strengthening them.'' For a while even Tony Blair fought shy of the term `draconian'. He might mean the same but better to wait until it was tried and tested south of the border. By Thursday 20 August Blair was promising to bring ``in similar measures to those proposed by the Irish government so that then we will have the toughest anti-terrorist measures in the whole island of Ireland that we have ever seen.'' And all in the name of the Good Friday agreement.

It was left to Irish Times correspondent Deaglan de Breadún to remind us that ``the spirit of the agreement was one of relaxing emergency legislation. It pledged the British government to `the removal of emergency powers in Northern Ireland' and the document also committed Dublin to `a wide ranging review of the Offences against the State Acts 1939-85 with a view to both reform and dispensing with those elements no longer required'.''

By Friday, Tony Blair was pledging to do ``whatever is necessary''. In equally tough tone, NIO Minister Paul Murphy said he was ``determined to strengthen anti terrorist legislation'', describing the proposals as a ``formidable array''.

Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn sounded a note of caution from within the British government. ``It could create further miscarriages of justice and it could create further martyrs. We need to continue the peace process and defeat these people politically.''

Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghin O Caoláin warned that severeley limiting ``civil liberties...is simply sowing the seeds of future injustice.''

While American bombers were busy redefining `terrorism' in the Sudan and Afganistan (with the full support of Tony Blair) Bertie Ahern was redefining democracy in Ireland. ``There is one Government of the Republic duly elected by the people. Further we now have a democratic system in Northern Ireland that has been endorsed by the people.''

Northern Ireland? Democratic? Could I have misunderstood the relationship between those two entities for the last 25 years? I thought the Six county statelet was an arificially imposed Orange state underpinned by the denial of democracy, sectarian discrimination and British military occupation. What happened to the Equality Agenda, the Democratic Deficit, Demilitarisation and the Disbanding of the RUC?

Ahern remained unabashed, ``we shall not hesitate to use the powers vested in us in all their plentitude to defend peace and democracy on the island against any who may persist in defying the will of the people of Ireland.''

The Dublin government appeared to be forgetting people in Ireland didn't just vote for peace but also change. Northern nationalists voted for peace through change not a return to a failed security agenda of the past.

It was back to the old agenda for SDLP Assembly member Sean Farren ``highlighting'' the issue of decommissioning. ``While final responsibility for decommissioning lies with the paramilitaries, the parties associated with, or which have any influence, must show that they are working constructively and in good faith to promote decommissioning,'' Farren told the Irish Times. ``Failure to demonstrate that commitment could seriously impede overall progress with the Good Friday agreement.''

The DUP, which has never left the old agenda, called on the British Prime Minister to demand the immediate decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

By Sunday Ahern was using ``the will of the people'' to legitimate the introduction of ``the most far-reaching and draconian package of security measures in the history of the state.'' He continued, ``It will have the desired effect to crush and suppress those who want to challenge the will of the overwhelming majority of people who voted for the Good Friday agreement.'' To use Ahern's own words, all this was to deal with ``a small isolated few''.

For Mary Kerrigan of Ireland on Sunday draconian law was ``regrettable'' in any society and, she pointed out, Ireland already had the toughest anti terrorist legisaltion in the `free world', but in the wake of the Omagh atrocity ``many would have happily thrown civil liberties or the entire Constitution out of the window''.

Ahern had already admitted that the ``new security terms had been under discussion for some time'' but Kerrigan argues, ``it took the crisis of last weekend for Ahern to show true grit.''

I'm not sure what Ahern was showing but David Trimble certainly approved. ``He was very complimentary about our security measures,'' said Ahern, ``and agreed they were draconian.''

``Trimble satisfied...'' ran the front page headline of the Irish Times. Now it was time for the British government to act.

Trimble's party colleague, John Taylor was calling for ``the elite SAS troops to be used in covert moves against the Omagh bombers,'' reported the Belfast Newsletter. ``Ulster needs the SAS,'' said Taylor. ``I trust the Prime Minister, when he returns to Ulster on Tuesday, will confirm that the SAS is not excluded from operations in the Province.'' Ken Maginnis was urging the reinstatement of ``the internment facility on the statute book''.

``PM vows to match Eire's draconian security measures,'' ran the headline of Wednesday's Newsletter. After an emotional visit to Omagh, Tony Blair announced he was recalling the British Parliament to rush through new legisaltion in the wake of the bombing. The co operation of Dublin and the isolation of the dissident group ``provide the context in which we can take measures that otherwise are of a very draconian and fundamental nature,'' said Blair. The UK will ``mirror closely'' measures ``to be passed in the Irish Republic''. Most significantly changes in the legislation will ``allow the evidence of a senior police officer to be admissible evidence for the purpose of convicting someone as being a member of a proscribed organisation.''

Sinn Fein's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness described the measures as ``internment by another name''. Party colleague Mitchel McLaughlin warned that the result of such legislation ``has historically been the routine violation of human and civil rights and the resulting miscarriages of justice. This is what the sections of the Good Friday agreement dealing with justice issues were meant to remove.''

Bad laws are the worst kind of tyranny, warned the London Independent. ``Allowing someone to be convicted..on the testimony of one policeman, seems a very bad idea under any circumstances - more so in Ireland now, when so many old personal scores remain unsettled.''

Questioned on BBC Radio Four's Today programme Jack Straw said it all. RUC officers had always been able to offer their opinion in court, pressed the interviewer, so what was the difference? It is admissible evidence now, replied a tetchy Jack Staw, ``it used to be hearsay.''

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