“Political Prisoner” is a term to conjure with, a term that demands headlines. But woe to the campaign which tries to exploit this term’s unique resonance where the media finds the cause in question unfashionable. Martin Corey (pictured, left) was this week released after nearly four years in which he was detained in Maghaberry prison without trial, a detention affirmed by a tribunal hearing closed evidence against him with his interests controversially protected by a Special Advocate. His challenge to this detention reached the UK Supreme Court (and may yet be heard before the European Court of Human Rights). And yet, outside Northern Ireland his case is almost unknown. In a particular indignity, the Irish Times reported his latest Court defeat in December, but has yet to report his release. Stories about dissident republicans mustn’t sell enough papers. Continue reading “Martin Corey's Release: The Sound of Silence?”
Over recent weeks we have witnessed something of a resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland that appears to be attributable to the so-called ‘Real IRA’ and ‘Continuity IRA’, which the Irish Times tells us seem to be joining resources. The Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern (left), has now stated that there is a serious threat from this violence not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic of Ireland as well. What I found particularly interesting in this Irish Times report is the use of the word “terrorist” in relation to recent violence. This is the first time I have seen that word used in relation to these attacks in the mainstream media—previously they were mostly described as ‘dissident’ attacks and ‘dissident’ groups, perhaps as a result of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and the rather resolute feeling that terrorism has no more role to play in this country. In this article reference is made to “dissident groups” and “terrorist incidents” and the headline refers to a “terror threat”.
If past experience is anything to go by, this is not an incidental matter. History teaches us that the use of the label “terrorist” says something very important about how the politico-legal landscape is preparing to react to perceived or actual threats. That reaction is usually to enlarge the powers of the state and reduce some elements of what we see as the standard rights-protections inhering in the criminal justice system. Whether this change in language will continue past this article and penetrate the politico-legal debate remains to be seen but it is certainly an interesting development.
The members of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) may have thought that they were caught in limbo. Obliged under the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Act 2003 following an International Agreement between the British and Irish Governments, the Commission has in recent years been able to declare that many of the groups once central to the “troubles” are now committed to exclusively peaceful means. A successive series of their Reports dealt with ever decreasing levels of political violence. The Commission’s mandate, to “monitor any continuing activity by paramilitary groups” (Article 4) and to “recommend any remedial action considered necessary” (Article 7) in response to this activity, appeared close to obsolescence.
If the Commissoners had once come round to this way of thinking, this week’s Twenty-Second Report adopted a markedly different tenor. The IMC asserts (at [2.7]) that the main dissident republican groups (the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA) have expanded their membership base (although largely through recruiting ‘inexperienced young males’). Moreover, the IMC evaluates how the attack against the Massereene Army Base in Antrim on 7 March 2009 (killing Sappers Mark Quincy and Patrick Azimkar) and the murder of PC Stephen Carroll in Craigavon on 9 March presaged a summer of increasingly ambitious attacks, often only thwarted by effective policing on both sides of the border (see [2.6]).
In other respects the Report was more hopeful. Having asserted that the Provisional IRA is committed to an exclusively peaceful path in its Nineteenth Report (at [2.7]), the IMC emphasised that (at [4.4]), particularly after the attacks in March, senior figures in Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA, ‘have continued to give leadership to the republican community to refrain from violent and other crime, to adhere to the exclusively political path, and to reject the dissident republicans who want to destroy the peace process, pointing out the futility of their actions and the lack of a political strategy on their part’. Moreover, the leadership of loyalist groups were singled out (see [4.5]) for their, ‘efforts to prevent a violent reaction on the part of members to the dissident republican murders’. This position was bolstered, on 4 September 2009, by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning’s verification of the UVF and Red Hand Commando’s weapons. The IMC also cautiously welcomed (at [2.21]) the INLA’s renouncement of violence on 11 October 2009.
For the moment the dissident republican groups remain fragmented and fractious, unable, in the words of the IMC, to undertake ‘effective strategic collaboration’. Nevertheless, focusing police resources on the dissident republican threat to the peace process will not, in the long term, deflect attention from the power vacuum which is developing at the centre of the peace process as a result of stalled efforts to devolve policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly (a point addressed in some of my earlier posts). As part of its wide mandate to recommend remedial action to counter terrorist threats, the IMC emphasised the paramount importance of devolving these powers (at [5.1]):
‘There are security and intelligence contributions to be made to addressing the developing problems. However, the early devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive could provide a potent intervention. This would not be because the dissidents would be impressed by it. It would be because policing and justice would no longer be a point of contention across the political divide; rather, it would be a platform for co-operation against those trying to undermine the peace process.’
Polls continue to suggest that the vast majority of Northern Irish voters support parties which remain committed to democratic politics. The longer this enforced hiatus persists, however, the easier dissidents will find it to persuade some people, even if they are ‘inexperienced young males’, that the peace process is not serving their interests.