As is always the case in Ireland following an atrocity, the Irish and British governments have rushed to introduce severe measures to deal with dissident paramilitary groups and individuals whose violent opposition to the current peace effort led to the Omagh massacre two weeks ago.
While the details of the proposed legislation have not been finalized, their general nature is clear. The Irish government is proposing amending current law to allow the authorities to infer guilt from a suspect’s refusal to answer questions, and allow the word of a senior police officer to be used as evidence that the suspect is a member of an unlawful organization. It would restrict the right to silence, create a number of new offenses and extend the maximum period of detention under Section 30 of the Offenses Against the State Act from 48 to 72 hours. While outlining these provisions, the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, also said that in the Republic of Ireland, unlike Northern Ireland, internment was still an option.
The British, it seems, are introducing measures following similar lines, though internment is not one of them.
It is understandable, of course, that Ahern and his English counterpart, Tony Blair, should want to show resolution in the face of terror, given the extent of the horror perpetrated on the afternoon of Aug. 15.
However, the atrocity should not be allowed to panic governments into taking measures that could rebound on them. In the wake of the Dublin bombing loyalists carried out in December 1972, the Dail passed draconian measures similar to that now being proposed, only to have it eventually shelved. In the wake of the Birmingham bombings in November 1974, Britain rushed the Prevention of Terrorism Act through parliament, a law later used to harass thousands of innocent Irish men and women in Britain. There have been many similar instances since. In every example, the repressive laws resulted in drawing attention away from the criminal act that inspired them and focused it instead on the legal apparatus meant to prevent such acts in the future. Of course, none of those laws stopped terrorists from continuing with their campaign of devastation and murder.
Repressive laws did not defeat the Provisional IRA. If anything, they fueled support for the organization and allowed it to present itself as fighting an unjust legal system as innocent men and women were interned without trial or convicted on spurious or insubstantial evidence. The current fragmented republican groups pose no such threat to either the Irish republic or Northern Ireland. Nor do they possess the sympathy of any significant section of the Irish people. The police already have them well-monitored. The dissidents do not have the capacity to sustain any kind of armed campaign. But repressive laws do have the capacity to damage the peace settlement and alienate those nationalists who have for too long suffered at the hands of similar laws. The governments should know better than to make that mistake again.
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