One of the worst knock-on consequences of the Northern Ireland troubles was the erosion of some key civil liberties by successive UK governments, both in the province and later on the mainland.
The right for the accused to remain silent, for example, when questioned by police and during a trial without adverse inference being drawn – a right embedded in English common law since the 17th century – was shredded. First in Northern Ireland with the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 and then on the mainland with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
Then we had the broadcasting restrictions introduced in 1988 by the normally sound Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd that banned from the airwaves 11 Irish Republican and Loyalist organizations. The absurdity of that ban was highlighted day after day when radio and television companies circumvented the ban by having actors read transcripts of comments made by members of any of the 11 organizations.
Far from undermining Sinn Fein, for example, the ban was a PR disaster for the British government, especially when it came to overseas opinion. It had the reverse effect of its intention — instead of being a useful weapon against the IRA, it was turned by the likes of Danny Morrison and Gerry Adams into a propaganda tool for Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, and allowed the government to be painted as illiberal.
The same mistakes are being made now in the UK and in the U.S. and there seems no easing up the further we get away from 9/11 or the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005.
The Sunday Telegraph reports today that a handful of British police officers have lost their jobs in recent years when their security clearances were revoked by senior officers after checks were carried out because of fears of jihad “sleepers” in the ranks. The paper discloses the identity of one of the officers, who was suspected of being at a terror training camp in Pakistan in 2001.
According to the paper, Abdul Rahman had been a constable for about three years when MI5 warned that he might have visited a training camp in Pakistan. He resigned from the police force after losing an appeal against the revocation of his security clearance.
Obviously, it is disturbing to learn that al-Qaeda or any jihad group may be trying to place sleepers in the ranks of the British police, and vigilance is clearly needed to prevent this happening.
But far more concerning and corrosive is how this is being handled by the authorities, which, judging by the approach towards Rahman, have entailed severe breaches of natural justice and due process.
Rahman, a father of four, is suing for employment and racial discrimination and is seeking compensation from Scotland Yard. He admits he visited Pakistan – he was born in Bangladesh and raised in the UK – but claims he is entirely innocent and never attended a terror training camp, which would be a criminal offence under UK law.
He has never been charged with any criminal offences – nor even questioned or arrested under anti-terrorism legislation. After a five-year legal battle, according to the Telegraph, an Employment
Appeal Tribunal ruled that his case can’t be heard in public and should be held in secret and that Rahman and his lawyers can be banned from parts of the hearing.
Scotland Yard says that secrecy is needed to shroud the identity of sources and highly sensitive information. There is the hint that CIA sourcing may be involved – and as we know that agency never gets anything wrong!
A security-cleared “special advocate” will be appointed on Rahman’s behalf to listen to the closed-door evidence. What good that will do in terms of serving the former policeman’s interests is anyone’s guess. The special advocate will not be allowed to discuss what he or she hears with Rahman or his lawyers.
So, we have here national security once again overriding natural justice — another case of the authorities deciding when it comes to striking a balance between civil liberties and security to favor the latter.
Three weeks after 9/11, I wrote about the dangers of throwing out civil liberties in a column for the Washington Times.
The relevant passages are below:
“Some old rules about fighting terrorism, learned at bloody cost in Northern Ireland and during the Soviet-supported ‘wars of national liberation,’ need to be recalled and restated.
Veteran British antiterrorist experts say the first rule is to remember that terrorists feed on overreaction. Democratic societies that alter themselves by introducing draconian security measures that restrict civil liberties undermine the morale of their own people. Unleashing overly harsh retaliation garners sympathy for the terrorists, is counterproductive and risks making new enemies and inspiring more gunmen and bombers.
How do you defeat an elusive and fanatical enemy who fights in unconventional ways and doesn’t observe the Geneva Convention or worry about greater geostrategic constraints? And how do you do all of that without becoming like the foe you fight and closing your open society?
Some British politicians have reckoned they ignored those rules for too long in Northern Ireland. British prime ministers would march their troops to the top of the hill, only to have to march them down again. Pledges were made. Forecasts offered of victory. Threats thundered. And overreaction increased as successive governments implemented law-and-order measures that may have made life a little more difficult for the Irish Republican Army and occasionally foiled a plot, but which corroded the democracy and orderly society that the British saw themselves as defending.
Out went the right to jury trials in Northern Ireland; out also went the right of a defendant to remain silent, both fundamental principles in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence.”