Northern Ireland - An infamous device aimed not at "terrorism" but at all opponents

Sept/Oct 1998

On September 2nd, the British Parliament rubber-stamped another infamous piece of repressive emergency legislation, the so-called "Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill".

Blair's spin doctors were so wary of a possible rebellion in Labour's ranks that MPs were not even allowed to see the draft before it was put to them in the House of Commons. However, these fears proved ill-founded. On that day, Parliament was just its usual spineless self, without even enough dignity to refuse to be treated by Blair as mere puppets. All in all, eighty-nine MPs voted against the proposal to reduce the time allocated for debating the bill. Among them only 17 were Labour MPs. Subsequently, when McNamara moved an amendment which proposed to block the bill on civil liberties grounds, the opposition was reduced to just 19 Labour MPs (out of 419!), with only Plaid Cymru's MPs abstaining.

Twenty-four years after the introduction of the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), in November 1974, a Labour government has therefore, once again, chosen to crack the whip on the Northern Ireland population in a way that even their Tory counterparts did not dare to do.

In 1974, Labour minister Roy Jenkins introduced the PTA to the Commons with these words: "These powers are... draconian. In combination they are unprecedented in peacetime. I believe they are fully justified to meet the present and clear danger". This is almost verbatim what Blair and Mo Mowlam said to justify their bill. Neither the language nor the pretexts have changed, nor the cowardice of the Labour MPs who endorsed this new bill almost without any objections.

The PTA did nothing to resolve the problems of Northern Ireland, let alone to stop the wave of terrorist attacks. But it did serve as a pretext for harassing and arresting tens of thousands of people - in Northern Ireland and in Britain - for no other reason than their suspected opposition to British policy in Northern Ireland. Just like Blair's new bill, the PTA also claimed to address the threat of terrorism, after the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings, which killed a total of 24 people that year. But it only succeeded in encouraging the police and justice machineries to frame up suspects and railroad through convictions, thereby producing horrendous miscarriages of justice. When Lord Bridge said of this year's bill, in the House of Lords, that it would risk "convictions that will be inherently unsafe", he knew what he was talking about, having been the judge in charge of the first trial of the Birmingham Six! Indeed, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, among others, paid with over twenty years of their lives for the poisonous climate generated by the PTA.

This time, Blair jumped on the opportunity offered by the shock created by the murder of 29 shoppers in the Omagh bombing, on 15 August, to force through his repressive legislation. But there is no more reason for it to be effective against terrorism than there was for the PTA in the 1970s.

By giving unprecedented power to senior officers in the British police and the Northern Ireland RUC, which could result in of itself, in the conviction of suspects for mere membership of a specified "proscribed" organisation, this law is telling the police and justice apparatus that they will be covered, should they go overboard in their hunt for "suspects". By effectively depriving alleged "suspects" of the right to silence, this bill extends a law passed by the Tories in 1988, which removed in Northern Ireland alone the very few protections that ordinary people have against police harassment. Ironically, it was Blair himself who led Labour's vehement opposition to a partial removal of the right to silence in Britain by the Tories, only four years ago.

This is just a recipe for encouraging police brutality - as if the British police, with its record of corruption, and the RUC, with its well-known sectarian loyalties, needed such encouragements! And at the same time, it is also a way of effectively reintroducing through the back door a form of more legalistic-looking internment, after having scrapped last April the old internment without trial provisions, which had remained in force, although under different forms, ever since they were introduced in 1971.

But this law also goes much further than that. Using the pretext of the latest American campaign against "international terrorism", no doubt as a means to confuse the issues in front of British public opinion, the new bill has been designed to extend its field of action to anyone in this country, who might be associated in any way with a "crime" committed anywhere in the world. It does not define clearly the notion of "crime" nor that of "association", so that it could be used to do just about anything. Just as the word "proscribed organisation" could be used to target any organisation, since the list of such organisations is left to the discretion of the Home minister - including any political organisation in Britain as well. Of course, this bill is unlikely to be used in this way in the present context. But who knows how it would be used tomorrow, by this government or another, if it felt under threat from unrest in the streets, for instance?

Blair is therefore demonstrating to all those who, in the past, turned a blind to the emergency repressive legislation aimed at Northern Ireland, that such legislation can easily become a Trojan horse for turning the screw of repression in Britain itself.

Blair's hidden agenda in Northern Ireland

Just like the PTA in the 1970s, this blank cheque given to the repressive forces, if it was used, could easily become the most effective recruiting agent for the paramilitaries, by leaving no space for any opposition to express itself. And Blair knows this very well. So whether this law will be actually used extensively in Northern Ireland remains to be seen.

However, the mere fact that it is there is a threat that hangs over the heads of all those who might oppose Blair's order in Northern Ireland. And this probably is the main reason for its introduction.

Indeed, why should the government need such drastic legislation in the first place? Blair's ministers say themselves that what they consider as the "terrorist threat" in Northern Ireland concerns at most a hundred activists (although the figure has varied depending on the audience). Even this may well be an overstatement in today's context, when all paramilitary groups have already declared a permanent ceasefire, with the exception of an elusive "Continuity IRA", which has never claimed one "military" action in the whole of its nearly ten years of existence.

Besides, the government was not short of existing emergency legislation. In addition to the PTA, the Northern Ireland Emergency Provisions Act was still in force, and had actually been revamped this year. Together these two emergency bills made up the most repressive instruments in any western European country, with the exception of Ireland, which had similar provisions. In legal terms, from the government's point of view, there was clearly absolutely no need for more legislation.

The only reason for this staged-managed tightening of the screw in Northern Ireland is primarily political, aimed not at terrorists but at those who might oppose Blair's political settlement, today or tomorrow.

Indeed, by exaggerating the "terrorist threat" out of proportion, the government is aiming at creating a climate of fear in the population, and particularly in its poorest layers who stand to gain the least, and in fact lose the most, in the settlement. At this stage Blair probably does not intend to stoke this fear by fully enforcing his new law. That he intends to use it against the "Real IRA" activists, claimed to be responsible for the Omagh atrocity, is already obvious. Some of these activists will be arrested and sentenced, with great media attention, whether they had anything to do with the bombing or not, if only to stress that there is still an organisation that needs to be "proscribed" despite its declared ceasefire, and therefore that there is a serious "terrorist threat".

Blair's tactic to maintain the "consensus" for the peace agreement - the same tactic which he has followed consistently all through the last phase of the peace process - is more subtle. It is based on fuelling a permanent fear of a return to terrorism. The appalling pictures of the dead bodies and destruction left by the Omagh bombing, which were shown again and again on television, and the subsequent hysterical campaign in the media, has given Blair considerable help in this respect. His new law is only building on the climate already created and trying to make the most of it.

In this Blair is also greatly helped by all the main parties who are involved in the peace process, from the Unionists to the SDLP, both of which have been joining their voices to Blair's in playing up vociferously the "terrorist threat".

But so has Sinn Fein too. The way in which Sinn Fein's leadership threw their weight around, announcing publicly that they were "visiting" every known member of the "32- County Continuity Council" - the alleged political wing of the "Real IRA" - in order to instruct them to disband, was certainly a way of showing once again to Blair that the Republicans are prepared to do what is required of them to maintain order in the Catholic ranks. But in the process, willingly or not, Sinn Fein threw its credit behind the official line that there was indeed a serious "threat" from that direction. The fact that Gerry Adams did protest against the new law made no difference in this respect, because his protest remained purely token. There was no attempt to organise any real opposition against the bill; his protest remained solely on civil liberties grounds, instead of exposing clearly what threat the bill represented for everyone - and not just Republican supporters - in Northern Ireland. For good reason, of course, because this would have been exposing the real nature of a peace process on which Sinn Fein has staked its entire policy.

For Blair, the ultimate aim of all this is obviously to generate the idea that whoever opposes, or even simply criticises the peace agreement and its subsequent developments, is effectively siding with terrorism. If he succeeds in creating such a climate, he will be able to isolate all opponents to its plans and disarm the poor layers of the population who will be made to pay for the settlement. If he fails, he will be able to rely on his comprehensive arsenal of emergency repressive laws to turn the screw on whoever stands in his way.

Discontent can only grow

Or course, according to the official line, the referendum over the peace process in Northern Ireland is said to indicate overwhelming support for the peace agreement. But in reality, even leaving aside the relatively low turnout, the fact was that it mainly expressed the refusal by a large majority of the voters for any more terrorist bloodshed. Indeed this had been the focus of the "Yes" campaign, both that of the two governments and that of most political forces. In most respects, this campaign was outright blackmail which amounted to saying that, like or not, the only way out of the bloody past was the peace agreement.

This did not mean that there were no illusions at the time as to the potential for positive change of the peace process, beyond the peace itself. Part of the working class, in particular, probably expected some improvement - although not necessarily a lot - in their deprived conditions. This was particularly the case in the Catholic ghettos. On the one hand, the propaganda of Sinn Fein and the SDLP was hammering this idea much more forcefully and effectively than the traditional protestant parties, and on the other hand, there were real expectations that, even if material conditions did not improve rapidly, at least the old social discrimination experienced by the poorest layer of the Catholic population would disappear.

However, the point is precisely that this discrimination is primarily social. It affects also the poorest protestant ghettoes. And for this discrimination to really disappear, it would take a significant increase in the standard of living of the entire Northern Ireland working class, the creation of large numbers of real jobs, the rebuilding of entire derelict urban areas, etc.. In other words, it would take the improvement of material conditions for a large part of the population first.

Whatever Blair's talk about the "peace dividend" and suchlike, it is not within the plans of the British bourgeoisie to inject the large amounts of public funds that would be needed for this into Northern Ireland. On the contrary, the aim of the settlement is rather to cut the cost of Northern Ireland to the British state. In particular there is no plan to transform the huge security budget that used to be spent in Northern Ireland, into a large-scale reconstruction budget. Nor is there any plan to redirect the large Westminster subsidies which, for many years, have allowed the Northern Ireland middle-class to prosper, regardless of the growing impoverishment of the province. On the contrary, the settlement also implies that in future, the Northern Ireland middle-class will have to find the means to maintain its comfortable standard of living elsewhere, and that means necessarily by reducing further the standard of living of the poorest layers of the population.

However, for the time being, the British government is doing its best to avoid a brutal awakening by cutting subsidies too suddenly. And they hope that more help from European regional funds and possibly US sources will make the transition a bit less painful - at least until the new institutions provided for by the peace agreement are fully operational.

So it is still early days for the poor ghettoes to realise fully how much the deal is designed to con them. But already there are factors, which are largely beyond Blair's control and can only speed up this realisation and bring it closer than Blair would have hoped.

One factor is the degradation of the economy, which is following more or less the same downward course as in Britain. But, because a larger part of its industry has been made up of subcontracting plants which settled in Northern Ireland to take advantage of low wages and high incentives, it is more vulnerable to the turmoil on the world market and the lowering of production costs in south-east Asia in particular. Over the past few months, a number of foreign-owned plants have closed down in Northern Ireland (as well as in the Republic in fact) for precisely that reason, and there are already announcements showing that there are more to come, while planned "investment", mostly in call centres and similar "service" facilities are being put on ice. This means that, despite the temporary growth of employment in the past period, due partly to a few large building projects and partly to the mushrooming of supermarkets, unemployment unlikely to decrease, particularly in the main towns.

Another factor, in this context, is the appalling sight already offered by the new Northern Ireland Assembly, which is supposed to oversee and eventually take over the implementation of the peace agreement. Since it started meeting in early September, it has been largely bogged down in petty procedural disputes, delaying tactics, politicking and posturing. No-one in Northern Ireland has forgotten the days when Major's initial peace process was paralysed by the constant wrangles initiated by Unionist politicians over the decommissioning of the IRA's weapons. The same kind of wrangles are now developing again, fuelled by the rivalries and overbidding between the many unionist groups and parties. And these rivalries can only increase as there is no special incentive built into the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly for those Unionist politicians who have already been elected MPs to remain with Trimble's party - in fact a split has already emerged out of it during the summer, and others may well be in the pipeline. In any case, the new Assembly is already offering an image of parasitism and total lack of concern for the poor layers of the population. And the patience of the poor ghettoes may well wear thin as a result.

The working class needs a voice

Against the threats piling up above their heads, the Northern Ireland working class still do not have a voice of their own. The parties which claim to speak in their name - like the loyalist paramilitary-linked PUP or the much smaller Workers' Party - are at best reformist groups, which do not want to rock the boat of the peace agreement and are busy finding a niche for themselves in the institutions which are in the making.

Nationalism has never been an option for workers, even in the Catholic ghettoes, in any case not an option which could allow them to fight with their only really effective weapons - those of the class struggle. But today, when Sinn Fein is showing its determination to sit at the helm of the institutions which will carry out the plans worked out by the British and Irish governments, who can still honestly believe that the policy of Republicanism can in any way defend the interests of the Catholic population as a whole, let alone that of Catholic workers? Before the peace process, Republicanism could possibly still sow illusions by default, for lack of another perspective. But today the bankruptcy of its various offshoots, from Sinn Fein to the various splinter groups of the IRA, has become crudely exposed.

Today the bourgeoisies - British, Northern Irish and Irish - and their states are conniving to prepare the ground for a major squeeze of the Northern Ireland working class. Blair's new law is only the latest step in this preparation. While its enemies are thus preparing their weapons, the Northern Irish working class cannot afford to stand idle and wait until the crunch comes.

It is today that tomorrow's battles can and must be prepared. Because there is no doubt that a time for confrontation will come and that the ghettoes, all the working class ghettoes this time, will have to rise against the turn of the screw which Blair has in store for them, if they are to defend their interests against the attacks of the privileged classes. By that time, the working class will have to have already forged its own weapons - not those of the "armed struggle", but those of social consciousness.

There is no shortage of workers and youth in Northern Ireland who have accounts to settle against the illusions and deadends which they followed in the past, in their attempts to change things and build a society which would not be plagued by injustices. These accounts can be settled in due time.

For these men and women, however, there are more important and urgent accounts to settle, by bringing to account the capitalist parasites who are, in the last resort, responsible for the plight of Northern Ireland, and to begin with, by defeating their plans. But this will only be achieved by making a clean break with the deadends of the past, disregarding the divisions that the peace settlement itself is designed to maintain and choosing resolutely to fight for the interests of the working class as a whole.