Little to hope from Blair on advancing peace

 

"FORTY MPs defy Blair on IRA." The scrawled placard, at a newsvendor's stand in Piccadilly Circus on Tuesday, was provocative but not, alas, quite accurate. In fact, just 19 Labour MPs broke ranks to oppose the sweeping new police powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act which were rushed though the British parliament this week.

The Government learnt of the new measures, which will be directed primarily at the Irish community living in Britain and people travelling between the two islands, when the story was published in the London Independent last Friday. I am told that the official channels by which such sensitive information is usually passed between, London and Dublin were simply ignored.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, explained that the Prevention of Terrorism (Additional Powers) Bill was necessary because MI5 had warned that the IRA is planning to bomb British cities to coincide with the 80th anniversary this weekend of the Easter Rising.

Jack Straw, the Labour Home Affairs spokesman, told his party that the powers, which include allowing the police to stop and search pedestrians in "designated areas", do not represent a "gratuitous erosion of the liberty of the subject". It was left to Alan Beith, speaking for the Liberal Democrats, to express concern on the threat to civil liberties: "This government has a record of making mistakes. This Home Secretary has a record of making mistakes."

A briefing from MI5 that it expects a new bombing campaign by the Provisional IRA in Britain obviously has to be taken seriously. None of us, probably not even Gerry Adams, can know for certain whether or when the IRA may strike again. But it is also important to remember that from the day the ceasefire was broken by the bomb at Canary Wharf, the British police and intelligence services have been warning that a new and ruthless campaign is imminent. I have written in this column before about the scarifying briefings given to senior British journalists by the intelligence services, and speculated as to why they might wish to heighten the sense of alarm.

THE way this legislation has been rushed through parliament, and in particular the failure of the British Labour Party to take principled stand on it, must raise extremely depressing questions for the Government.

It seems worth recalling a very few facts about the Prevention of Terrorism Act, since it was first introduced as a reaction to the Birmingham bombs in 1974. The first person to be arrested under the legislation was Paul Hill, followed almost immediately by the other three members of the Guildford Four. In the intervening years we have had tragic miscarriages of justice. (I do not need to be told that the primary responsibility for these cases lies with the Provisional IRA which planted the bombs in Guildford and elsewhere. That does not detract from the damage done to the reputation of the British legal system.)

As well as these cases, thousands of Irish people have been detained, questioned, frightened and harassed. In his book Suspect Community, Paddy Hillyard has documented how the PTA has been used to deter and silence political activists, no matter how worthy their concerns, and the devastating effect it has had on people's lives and relationships.

He makes the point that 86 per cent of people detained under the PTA have been released without any action taken against them. Having been questioned under the Act myself, a good few years ago when I was returning from France after a long and exhausting journey with small children, I can vouch for the truly terrifying effect - even on a journalist with an up to date press card - of being told: "You have no rights. We're questioning you under the PTA."

BUT then, it seems that the Act is designed, at least in part, to frighten people. Most people believe that the new police powers to search pedestrians, will be used primarily against young people who do not know their rights. As one politician remarked last week, the police would not have stopped the IRA activist who blew himself up with his own bomb recently, because there was no reason at all to suspect him. The youths they will stop in the street are likely to look as though they may be in possession of drugs, i.e. to be non white and less than respectful in their attitudes to the police.

This suspicion almost certainly accounts for the fact that as many as 30 Labour MPs were prepared to stand up and be counted in the House of Commons this week. A fortnight ago, when the supposedly temporary provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act were once again renewed, only 20 Labour MPs were prepared to oppose it.

We have known for some time that Tony Blair is determined not to allow a millimetre of political space to come between his New Labour Party and the Conservative government on Northern Ireland. He makes no secret of it. Since the IRA ceasefire there have been repeated attempts by most of the political parties in this State to persuade Mr Blair to exercise gentle pressure on John Major to move on such issues as the treatment of republican prisoners in jail in Britain.

The refusals have been polite but absolutely firm. For the Labour Party, the first and only priority is to win power. The argument is that the future of democratic politics in Britain now depends on ousting the Conservatives who have been in government for far too long. That means doing nothing which might risk alienating a single voter in the south of England.

Regrettably, just about anything to do with Ireland falls into that category. So paranoid is New Labour on this score, I was told, that it suspects the Home Secretary introduced the new emergency powers in the hope of provoking angry opposition, which the Conservatives could then exploit in a forthcoming by election to suggest that the Labour Party is "salt on terrorists".

For some time now Irish officials and politicians involved in the peace process have nurtured the hope that the British Labour Party in government, with a secure majority, would be quite different from Labour in opposition and desperate for power. Maybe. And then again, maybe not. It is by no means certain that Labour will win a secure majority, or even that it will win at all.

Once an election campaign gets under way and the Conservative appeal to its voters' self interest is pitted against their traditional mistrust of Labour's ability to handle the economy, the gulf between the two in the opinion polls will dwindle fast. A more likely result is that, if Tony Blair does win, it will be with a small majority. If that does happen, we must hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, as far as the peace process is concerned.

One political commentator, with long experience of observing the House of Commons, said to me last week: "Don't expect Labour to be brave on Ireland. They've decided that it's just not an issue. The question is will they ever be brave about anything again, or have they forgotten how to be?"