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16 September 1999 Edition

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Mo keeps mum on Big Brother


British intelligence has been monitoring all phone calls and other electronic communications to and from Ireland since at least 1990 and despite approaches from the Irish government following recent revelations the British government still refuses to comment publicly on the scandal.

British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam refused to answer a question about the spying from Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín O Caoláin at the meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Cambridge on Tuesday, 14 September. Mo Mowlam was the first British minister to be asked to comment publicly on the issue when the question was tabled by the Sinn Féin TD. The monitoring of all telephone, fax, e-mail and data communications to and from Ireland at a purpose-built station in Capenhurst, Cheshire, was revealed in a recent Channel 4 News investigation. The facility is now defunct, but when journalist Duncan Campbell visited it he was told by staff that it had been in use throughout the 1980s. It is presumed that the monitoring is continuing at another facility.

Responding to Deputy O Caoláin's question as to whether she would make a statement and if this ``intrusion into the private communications of Irish citizens, business and government continues'', Mo Mowlam caused surprise among most members of the body when she declined to answer.

``The British government does not comment on such matters'' she said. She said she was ``not permitted'' to reply.

O Caoláin said he was disappointed at the lack of response. Pressing the issue further, he said: ``The Irish government raised this matter through the Irish Ambassador in London Ted Barrington, who met a senior Foreign Office member on 26 July. We have not yet heard the result of those discussions. Given this contact, does the Secretary of State recognise the serious international implications of the massive surveillance operation? Does she recognise that it constitues a violation of the civil rights of countless numbers of people whose private communications have been intercepted and will she confirm that such surveillance continues by other means? If so what action will the British government take to put a stop to it?''

Mo Mowlam replied that ``no matter what way you couch to your question, I am not permitted to respond. I apologise to the deputy.'' At this, Tory MP Michael Mates retorted ``Don't apologise.''

O Caoláin said that he took Mo Mowlam's response as ``affirmation that what is already exposed is continuing''. The Deputy has already raised the British monitoring with Foreign Affairs Minister David Andrews and is now to raise it with the Taoiseach following the refusal of the Secretary of State to respond.

Speaking earlier in support of a motion urging full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the Sinn Féin TD said that Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble lacks a strategy for change and must be faced with his responsibility by the British government. The Deputy told the TDs, Senators and British parliamentarians represented at the Body: ``It is becoming clear at this stage to a growing number of observers that the Unionist Party's approach to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is tactical. Their purpose is to maintain the status quo for as long as possible.

``David Trimble still lacks a strategy for change and has so far been unable and unwilling to lead his people into the new shared future which all our people desire so much. But he cannot be allowed to hold back the people of Ireland and Britain. There is a special onus on the British government in particular to face the Ulster Unionist Party with its responsibility.''

The Deputy reiterated Sinn Féin's commitment to the peace process and the Agreement. ``The first IRA cessation transformed the situation just over five years ago now and I believe that the hope and belief in progress which was born then, and which was manifest in the Good Friday Agreement, will prevail in spite of all our difficulties'' he concluded.




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