22 June 2000 Edition

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1998 Offences Against the State Act renewed

The Dublin government this week renewed the repressive 1998 Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act. The legislation significantly strengthens the draconian powers already given to the Gardaí and the courts and represents an attack on the right to silence.

Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin opposed the renewal of the Act, which under current legislation, requires a vote of the Dáil to renew it on an annual basis.

Only four TDs - Ó Caoláin , Tony Gregory (Independent), Joe Higgins (Socialist Party) and John Gormley (Green Party) opposed the renewal. Labour and Fine Gael supported the government motion.

We carry here Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin's speech in the Dáil on Tuesday:

``I would like at the outset to strongly refute the claims of Deputies who link the Offences Against the State Act to the peace process. The peace process will not be protected by repressive legislation. Only political address and political progress can lead to the necessary anchorage of the current absence of armed actions, an anchorage that I and my colleagues in Sinn Féin strive to achieve day and daily. Our task in this House, as politicians and legislators, is to

make politics work and to take the courage to repeal all repressive legislation on our statue books.

I deplore the decision of the Government to renew the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. I opposed the Bill at the time of its introduction and I will continue to do so. This legislation has added significantly to the body of draconian legislation enacted since 1939. It represents a serious infringement of civil rights in this State.

The 1998 Bill was enacted in the heat of justified anger at the Omagh bombing in which 29 people died. It was presented at the time as essential in order to combat those responsible for the bombing. The impression was given - as it was with previous such Bills - that these were essentially emergency measures designed to deal with an immediate threat and with no long-term consequences for the ordinary rights of citizens. But the Act placed on the Statute Book strong new powers for the Gardaí and the State and all experience shows that once such powers are given it is very difficult to withdraw them.

Section 2 of the Bill attacks the right to silence and reinforces the provision for the conviction of a person for membership of an unlawful organisation on the basis of the opinion of a senior Garda. The Minister is asking us today to renew the provision whereby the exercise of the right to silence can be used to corroborate the word of the garda. The exercise of the right to silence can mean that the court is empowered to draw inferences from failure to mention any fact later relied on by the defence. In effect, the right to silence is removed.

This is perhaps the most draconian aspect of the Act. The Minister has signalled that he intends to further restrict the right to silence in the wider legal code. No doubt, this Act will be the model for such new restrictions and once again we will have the widening of repressive legislation. Laws originally presented as an emergency response to politically motivated organisations are to be applied across the board.

On the Second Stage of the Bill in 1998, I described Section 4 as one of the most drastic measures ever brought before the Dáil. It represents, in effect, guilt by association. A person's `association' with another or others can be used as evidence of membership of an illegal organisation.

We are being asked to renew the extension of the period of detention allowed under Section 30 to 72 hours. This power has been widely abused by the Gardaí and should be withdrawn.

The Act created the nebulous offence of ``directing at any level'' the activities of an unlawful organisation with life imprisonment as the penalty. It created the offence of possessing ``any article'' which would give rise to ``reasonable suspicion'' that the article is to be used for offences under the various Acts to do with explosives. These two provisions are clearly modelled on British legislation and are equally unacceptable, designed as they are to secure convictions on the flimsiest of evidence or on no real evidence at all.

The British government is due to introduce a new so-called Terrorism Bill later this year, a Bill which retains the powers of the notorious Prevention of the Terrorism Act, the PTA, and adds new ones. The decision by the Irish government to renew this Act is therefore doubly damaging. It attacks civil rights in this State and it gives the British government a perfect example to point to when it resists demands for the repeal of its own repressive legislation.

The Irish government is asking us to renew an Act which runs contrary to the Good Friday Agreement, a key element of which is the commitment to human rights. I oppose this renewal and I call again, as I did in 1998, for those parties that deem themselves the Opposition to do likewise.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1