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Editorial: The noose tightens

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

To many in Ireland, the idea that a farmer might lose his land for hiding guns in the haggard smacks of a time when "eviction" was a word uttered with the vehemence of a curse.

But that’s one possible outcome assuming proposed new anti-terrorist laws are passed next week by the Dáil and Seanad.

Similar laws are coming before Westminster to be applied in Northern Ireland where shock and revulsion in the aftermath of the Omagh atrocity has at least temporarily banished the optimism born out of the peace process

Outrage in the face of the murder of children knows no borders. And that is as it should be.

Forensic examination of the Omagh bomb has shown it was, according to security sources, "the same hand, the same bombmaker" behind another recent blast in Banbridge, Co. Down and "a few more as well."

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is not alone in his expressed fear that, despite the entire island’s anguished cries of pain, Ireland is not yet certain that it is rid of violence.

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"I’d love to say to you that I believe this is the last event but I think there is a small element, and they are small, who do not share that feeling," Ahern said in one TV interview.

It is this fear, fueled by the outrage over Omagh, that is moving both Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair towards tightening the legal noose around all those who wrongly see Ireland’s future in terms of bombs detonated and bullets fired.

The new security crackdown will leave little legal hiding place for militants, north or south. Both the Irish and British governments believe the Real IRA cease-fire announcement is simply a tactical suspension and Ahern has repeatedly stressed it must be converted into "a definitive and unqualified cessation of violence". We join him in that hope and demand.

The legal measures planned by the Irish government are aimed primarily at the Real IRA’s hardcore leadership and more experienced activists. Almost all are former Provisional IRA members who regard the Good Friday peace deal as a sell-out and believe the only route to Irish unity is through physical force. The most crucial targets of the security clampdown will be the so-called "engineering officers" in the Real IRA, those who have the knowledge and expertise to put together the blockbuster car bombs.

The Real IRA has a small number of such expert bomb makers, on both sides of the border. The new categories of offense included in the bill, agreed at the emergency cabinet meeting in Dublin last week, are aimed particularly at them. The proposed laws will considerably widen the scope of what Irish Justice Minister John O’Donoghue has described as some of the "toughest anti-terrorist legislation in the free world".

New draconian legislation, both Irish and British, comes as no surprise. Nevertheless, some concern is being voiced on both sides of the Atlantic. Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness has warned that new legislation in the North could have serious implications for the peace and the party’s role within it.

He believes that giving the RUC additional powers of arrest would be a "massive over-reaction".

McGuinness, whose views on such matters must be taken very seriously, told the BBC that "it would have grave implications for the community and run the risk that innocent people would be put in prison."

He said the measures could be a mistake on a par with

the introduction of internment in the 1970s. The most potent weapon, he said, was the views of the people, particularly republicans who were appalled at the Omagh bombing and who wanted to give the peace process a chance.

McGuinness is not alone in expressing some doubt. A number of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, are warning against the possibility of legislation that could ultimately be self-defeating.

A tough reaction to such arbitrary murder as was witnessed in Omagh is no surprise and largely understandable. How that reaction plays out over time depends a great deal on the skill and levelheadedness of elected political leaders. So far, those leaders, in Ireland, north and south, in Britain and the U.S., have been accurately reflecting the feelings of the vast majority of people. Nevertheless, they are obliged also to listen to those voices warning of excess even in pursuit of those who rightly should be punished for their foul deeds. Democracy is never deaf.

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