Drugs suspects can be questioned for longer periods than terrorist suspects


Under current anti-terrorist legislation in the Republic, a person suspected of carrying out Saturday's mass killing in Omagh can only be held for questioning for 48 hours. He or she - one of the people believed to be directing the group called the "Real IRA" is a woman - has the right not to answer questions and has a right to a solicitor.

By contrast, the new anti-drugs laws enacted in the State in the past year give gardaI the power to hold someone suspected of possessing even a small amount of drugs for seven days for questioning. New criminal legislation also allows the courts to seize the property and money of persons suspected of being a criminal, merely on the word of a senior Garda officer.

Senior gardai are now expressing concern that if strong action is not taken against the emerging new republican terrorist group, it could quite swiftly establish itself and become a major threat to the political settlement in the North.

At the start of the summer, the organisation received a series of severe setbacks from Garda seizures and arrests. It also seemed from the level of activity it was engaged in that it might be having difficulty in attracting recruits.

Gardai had been monitoring Provisional IRA figures known to be opposed to the direction taken by the Sinn Fein leadership and unhappy with the IRA ceasefire. But none of them was giving the impression of restarting a terrorist campaign.

There is now some doubt about this, and some senior sources say there is a growing suspicion that many more ex-Provisional IRA members than previously thought have joined or are siding with the dissident group responsible for Saturday's atrocity.

Gardai are also concerned that one of the leaders of the new group, a woman living in the Republic, is known to have very extreme views and may for some time have been contemplating a campaign in Northern Ireland which involved the killing of large numbers of civilians.

There are parallels for this type of campaign in Israel where the dissident Palestinian organisation, Hamas, has carried out indiscriminate bombings, and in Algeria where the massacre of civilians is central to the campaign by extreme Muslims.

Senior officers feel that Saturday's bomb could well have been left by a nervous or young bomber who panicked and abandoned the car in Omagh's main shopping quarter rather than at the intended target of the courthouse.

However, they also point out that if the intention had merely been to destroy property in the town centre, the bomb could have been left late at night rather than on a busy shopping afternoon.

Senior Garda and Government figures are already discussing what the appropriate response to the renewed republican terrorist threat should be.

It is understood senior Department of Justice officials are considering instituting powers that already exist under the Republic's main anti-terrorist statute, the Offences Against the State Act of 1939. This was enacted by de Valera's government in response to a renewed IRA campaign during the second World War.

The State has introduced internment in response to IRA campaigns on three occasions: in the years immediately after the foundation of the State; during the second World War; and between 1957 and 1962 when the IRA mounted its campaign in the Border area. On all three occasions the emergency measures were successful in stopping the campaigns of violence.

Other measures have been introduced since the early 1970s, as the Provisional IRA campaign began, in the form of amendments to the Offences Against the State Act.

In 1972 a provision was introduced allowing for the conviction of a person where a Garda officer of chief superintendent or higher rank gave evidence in court to the effect that "the accused was at the material time a member of an unlawful organisation". However, the courts declined to convict in cases where the defendant denied the officer's charge or where there was no supportive evidence.

In 1976, after the IRA killed the British ambassador to Ireland, Sir Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the Government introduced powers allowing for the detention of suspects for questioning for seven days. However, this power has not been used since 1977.

In the past decade there has been a gradual rescinding of "special" or anti-terrorist provisions to the point where those suspected of terrorist crime are subject to much less severe detention and other powers than those suspected of "ordinary" crime or drug-trafficking.

Emergency provisions in the North and Britain are still in place. The RUC is able to detain suspects for seven days without charge, and where a suspect refuses to answer questions this can be drawn to the attention of a court in evidence, effectively removing the suspect's "right to silence" that still exists in this State.

By contrast, if gardai were to arrest a prime suspect for the Omagh bombing, the person could be held, initially, for a maximum of 24 hours and then for a further 24 hours on the signing of a detention certificate by a senior officer. If the suspect refused to answer questions, this could not be drawn to the attention of a court. The suspect would have a right to a solicitor.

Senior Garda sources point out that there is now an anomaly in the law where a person suspected of possessing a relatively small amount of a drug like cannabis faces greater State powers than a person who commits mass murder and belongs to a terrorist organisation which poses a growing threat to the political settlement in Northern Ireland.

Up to last night the situation also existed that the people who planned and carried out the Omagh bombing belong to an organisation which is still legal as it has not been included in the list of proscribed terrorist organisations in this State.