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Issue 32, November 1998

Standing up for democratic rights

THE IRISH SECTION of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), the Socialist Party, is represented in the Dail, the Irish parliament, by Joe Higgins, the TD (parliamentary deputy) for Dublin West. Joe spoke in the debate on the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill that was introduced into the Dail on the same day that the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill was debated at Westminster. His intervention is reprinted below. Only four other TDs, two from the Green Party, the Sinn Fein representative and an independent, joined the Socialist Party in opposing this new assault on democratic rights.

"THE INTRODUCTION of this Bill is an incredible exercise by both the British and Irish governments. The equivalent of what we are doing here today is being done in the British House of Commons - members there got sight of the Bill virtually hours before the debate. It is quite clear that this is but a cynical ploy by both governments in response to the natural outrage expressed by people throughout Ireland at the atrocity of the Omagh bombing.

In that cynical response, failing to learn from the mistakes of the past, the government is introducing proposals that play fast and loose with the civil rights of our people. They are imposing these laws on 3.5 million people in an attempt to deal with what is estimated to be 50 to 100 people in the organisation, North and South, which carried out the Omagh atrocity. It is quite clear how this organisation (the 'Real IRA') should be dealt with. They have been dealt with in many ways already, not by this hastily cobbled together legislation, but by the mass movement of opposition and revulsion by the ordinary people of Ireland. It is the visible expression of that opposition in protest demonstrations throughout Ireland that has made this organisation scurry into a hole.

The powers being introduced by this legislation are quite draconian on top of the already draconian powers under the existing Offences Against the State Act, 1939, and subsequent amendments. That is itself, by any stretch of the imagination, draconian legislation, many of the provisions of which are glossed over by the media and political parties which have been clamouring for the introduction of these new powers. The Offences Against the State Act, for example, gives the power to suppress protest movements or political movements of a very wide variety, totally unrelated to the activities of paramilitarism. For example, a boycott of the payment of motor tax organised by a residents' association to protest against the state of our roads could be declared unlawful and suppressed under the legislation.

Today's Bill creates new all-encompassing offences with abandon. It is as if the government is intent on passing out lucky bags. Under section eight, it is an offence for a totally innocent person to have information which could be useful to a group of paramilitaries. Teaching a person to use a hunting rifle or a shotgun for innocent purposes - I disapprove of such activity - can be deemed an offence under the legislation. There is also an 'out' clause whereby it shall be a defence if a person can prove they were engaged in certain activities for innocent reasons. The onus of proof will be turned on its head, which will be a major interruption of, and interference with, the administration of justice in a fair and equitable way.

  The Bill will rig the justice system to allow convictions to be made at the whim of individual gardaí (police) and anyone could be subject to its catch-all and wide-ranging provisions. That is alarming. If gardaí so wish, they can use the legislation as a virtual internment mechanism. On this occasion, however, they will be able to do so under cover of a court hearing. The Bill is an extremely cynical exercise in that regard.

It is incredible that the government, with the agreement of the opposition parties in general, is rushing this far-reaching measure through in one day without engaging in public debate. Such action represents an affront to the democratic rights of the people and shows that we are dancing to the tune of the gangsters who carried out the atrocity at Omagh instead of dealing with the problem in an entirely different way. It is little wonder that a member of the Birmingham Six has voiced strong opposition to the Bill, because it creates the conditions where people can be wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. The Bill will be counterproductive because, following the passing of the tragedy at Omagh into memory, crude use of its provisions will lead some people to have sympathy for those who might have been responsible for that atrocity.

Have the 30 years of the Troubles not shown the government that repressive legislation will not solve the problem and that in the past such legislation has only exacerbated the situation? I am totally opposed to the Bill and will vote against it at all stages. This is a bad day for the democratic rights of the people.

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