Preventing further deaths at hands of the murderous few


It is hard to live with the fact that the endorsement by fivesixths of the Irish people of a settlement of the Northern Ireland problem has been followed by the worst atrocity in 30 bloody years of its history.

To those murdered, maimed or bereaved, it cannot matter whether the carnage was the intended result of this bomb or the consequence of bungling or panic. Either way, those who sent and delivered it to Omagh knew what they were doing and were fully aware of the potential consequences.

The two governments now have the task of deciding how to pre-empt any further loss of life at the hands of the few score members of this murderous gang. In this instance it is the Irish Government which has the primary responsibility for action.

For the headquarters and leadership, and most of the membership of this group, as well as their bomb-making activities and the car-hijacking to deliver these lethal loads have all been on our side of the Border.

At the purely operational level the best response might be internment, for the leaders and bomb-makers are known and, if they were locked up, the new members they seem recently to have recruited to deliver the explosives to destinations such as London, some of whom might be difficult to track down, would be rendered impotent.

Internment in Northern Ireland failed in 1971 because it was introduced in a partisan manner and was accompanied by extensive brutality.

I recall that when, a few days after that event, I called on a member of the Northern Ireland government, he admitted, by way of rebuttal of my assertion that half of those interned were innocent, that this was true of one-quarter of them.

Moreover he explained that he had been told that the absence of any loyalist paramilitaries among the internees was due the fact that the RUC had lost the file.

Internment on that occasion was further discredited by the fact that half of those arrested were brutalised and 14 were subjected to treatment which the European Commission on Human Rights subsequently found to be torture, but which the Court of Human Rights later redefined as "inhuman and degrading treatment".

These aspects of internment in Northern Ireland in 1971 discredited the concept to such an extent that in the years that followed it ceased to be a viable option in this State as well as in the North.

However, even if these events had not taken place, internment would probably have failed at any subsequent time during the subsequent quarter-century.

The adoption of this measure would have been unlikely to eradicate the capacity of the extensive Provisional IRA network to continue its campaign, aided by what would inevitably have become intensified support from an important minority of people North and South who tolerated and, in some cases, actively supported the Provisionals.

Accordingly, in the years after internment in the North ended, this option was not favoured by the security forces here or, so far as I am aware, in Northern Ireland.

However, following the vote by five-sixths of the people of this is land in favour of the Belfast Agreement and in the immediate after math of the Omagh massacre, internment is once again an option, as our Government has indeed made clear over the past few days.

If such action were now to be recommended by the security forces North and South, the Government would not be inhibited by any other consideration from so acting. Moreover, from what has been said in the past few days it would appear that, in whatever action it might take, including, by inference, internment, the Government would have the support of the Opposition parties in the Oireachtas and of the SDLP.

This is the case despite the fact that there remain theoretical as well as practical arguments against internment without trial.

In western Europe, even countries touched by terrorism have for a long time avoided such a measure. The weight of liberal opinion worldwide since the last war has, indeed, been largely hostile to locking suspect terrorists up without trial.

Such action is in fact excluded by the terms of the 1950 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which we ratified in 1953. However, the convention makes provision for a derogation in favour of internment, a provision that we invoked in 1957 and could again invoke today.

While internment is thus an option, the question of whether to introduce it in this instance is a prudential one.

The Government has to ask itself whether effective measures short of internment could be put into effect under existing law or whether alternatively measures could be speedily legislated for which would prove effective in halting the activities of this organisation. Or would the introduction of internment in fact be the best way of terminating these activities?

While not ruling out internment, indeed while specifically ruling it in as a possibility, the Taoiseach has indicated that there may be other provisions which could be invoked or legislated for. That he should look to such alternatives in the first instance is, perhaps, understandable, for even in present conditions there may be practical downsides to the internment option.

First of all, it is not at present an option which could be employed in Northern Ireland. For reasons that are not clear to me, in the recent batch of Northern Ireland legislation enacted at Westminster to give effect to the Belfast Agreement, the British government repealed its power to intern.

Although the leadership and much of the membership of the "Real IRA" are located in this State, key members, including reportedly the chief bomb-maker, live in Newry.

Clearly there would be little point in interning members in this State if members in Northern Ireland, as well as members here who might slip across the Border to Northern Ireland, could not also be locked up there.

Second, however unlikely this may seem, the Government will have to consider whether there is any evidence that if, for the moment at least, it holds back from such drastic action as internment, the "Real IRA" might collapse of its own accord because of its own members' reaction to the carnage of Omagh.

Third, it must consider to what extent attempts to intern members of the "Real IRA"/32-County Sovereignty Movement, as distinct from arresting them and charging them under the law, might create a mood of sympathy among certain fringe elements.

If this happened, such a development could then help those members of the "Real IRA" who might evade capture, as some are probably bound to do, to secure shelter in "safe houses" from which they might seek to continue their murder campaign.

Third, the Government will have to consider the possible impact on Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA of a decision to intern members of the "Real IRA".

Would internment, by eliminating the threat to its authority from this breakaway body, help the Sinn Fein/IRA leadership to carry recalcitrant grassroots elements with them in moving towards decommissioning?

Would those opponents of decommissioning within the Provisional membership be able to play on emotions which might be raised by internment so as to resist decommissioning even more vigorously, and thus make even more difficult the establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive Authority?

There is also an argument against a policy of trying other measures first and then falling back on internment only if and when they fail, as all previous attempts to eliminate terrorism by normal legal means have in fact failed. Internment would be much more likely to succeed if implemented immediately after the Omagh massacre than if introduced later.

These are the difficult considerations that the Government must weigh up when the Cabinet meets tomorrow. I do not envy it its task, knowing that, however carefully judged its decisions may be, whatever is decided could in the event turn out to have been a mistake.

The Cabinet may not take a final decision on this issue at that meeting. Ministers may not at that stage have a full report available to them, in which event they might, after full discussion of whatever may be brought to them at that point, decide to delegate a final decision to the Security Committee of the Cabinet, a body which can be readily convened at any time.