10 September 1998 Edition

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Strong protest against new laws

By Fern Lane

At the same time as the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill was being forced through parliament largely unopposed - except on the grounds that MPs had not had long enough to think about rubber-stamping it - human rights campaigners, Irish groups and others concerned at its implications were cramming into the Jubilee Room just down the corridor to register their opposition to the legislation on the rather more solid grounds that it is undemocratic, racist, in contravention of international human rights laws, unnecessary and morally wrong.

The packed and extremely vocal meeting, hosted by the Labour Committee on Ireland, heard from a wide variety of groups, including some of the few honourable members left in the Labour Party, Amnesty International, Fuascailt, the British and Irish Human Rights Commission and Sinn Fein. Fuascailt, after having written to 500 MPs pointing out the catastophic effect the legislation is likely to have on the Irish community in Britain, had earlier held a noisy demonstration outside Westminster.

The cases of Elaine Moore and Rory (spelling?) Herrity were brought up. Moore and Herrity were arrested, along with three others, on charges of conspiracy to firebomb commercial premises in London on 10 July. Herrity addressed the meeting himself and explained that, had the legislation been in force at the time of his arrest, he could not have exercised his right to silence, as he had done on the advice of his solicitor, and thus that he could subsequently have been convicted on the word of the officer from Scotland Yard who stated his belief to a magistrate that Herrity was a member of the `Real' IRA. As it was, the magistrate overturned the police plea to hold Herrity in custody on these grounds and he was released without charge, but anyone arrested in an a similar situation now would be facing six years in jail for membership and the seizure of their assets. Elaine Moore still faces charges of conspiracy.

Michelle Gildernew from Sinn Fein roundly condemned the new laws pointing out that they violated the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and maintained the militaristic view of the the conflict as requiring a security response rather than political solution.

Martin Collins from the BIHRC called the bill a ``spooks charter'', and Father Gerry McFlynn from the Commission for Irish Prisoners Overseas voiced his profound concern that the bill would be used as an excuse to resurrect the use of Special Secure Units as well as exacerbating the already difficult and discriminatory conditions for Irish prisoners, whether political or non-political, in English jails.

Akmar Singh of the National Black Alliance told the audience that black and Irish people have had very similar experiences under British law and the passing of this bill effectively meant that for ethnic groups ``anything goes when it comes to the criminal justice system''.

John MacDonald MP said that perhaps it was ``important to establish that there isn't an RUC officer in this room because this meeting could be construed as supporting terrorism''. He explained that many of the provisions of the new bill had been proposed previously, but were rejected by successive governments, going on to say that ``civil servants were almost waiting for Omagh to happen so that they could bring this legislation forward again. And Tony Blair has fallen for it''.

The representative from Amnesty International said that ``A kind of shudder goes through you as you think about what is happening tonight. We will be proved right that this is an unjust law''.

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