Not Saussure

October 18, 2006

John Reid and being ‘soft on terrorism’: Plus ça change

Filed under: civil liberties, history, UK, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 4:22 pm

The Guardian reports

Opposition parties have been calling for Mr Reid to make a formal emergency statement about the disappearance of the men – said to be dangerous – to the Commons today. A Home Office spokeswoman said this morning that there were no plans for such a statement.

However, Mr Reid did speak to reporters at a photocall in central London [Miaoww!] aimed at increasing support for controversial government plans for compulsory ID cards.

He said: "The opposition in parliament is led by the Conservatives and the Liberals. They are the first to complain when things go wrong and the first to run away when very difficult decisions are made in parliament.

"If they want to prove their credentials, why don’t they vote in parliament for every single stronger measure that we bring to combat crime?"

Mr Reid said a litmus test would be how the opposition parties decide to vote on forthcoming ID card legislation, which the home secretary said would be crucial in fighting terrorism. Critics of ID cards say they do not stop terrorism and point to attacks such as the train bombings in Madrid, where ID cards already exist.

Hmm, thinks I.   That’s a familiar line of argument.   Let’s cast our minds back 10 years, to 9 January 1999.   Then the House of Commons was debating  the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill, as they had annually to do..     The then Labour Northern Ireland spokesman, the late Dr Mo Mowlam, had moved an amendment opposing this, largely on the grounds it retained powers for the Secretary of State to resurrect the long-unused provisions for detention without trial, subject to their being debated by Parliament within 40 days of their reintroduction.

Dr Mowlam was at pains to stress that Labour, then  in Opposition, weren’t soft on terrorism;

In answer to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, I have made it clear that we would support sensible new legislation in response to terrorism. We do not oppose counter-terrorism legislation; we oppose the nature of the Bill.

We recognise that, while violence and intimidation continue on the streets of Northern Ireland, certain procedures under the existing system cannot be changed overnight or without introducing new legislation. That is a criticism that the Liberal Democrats always make of us. They say that we vote against a measure because we disagree with it in principle, but that in practice we do not leave anything on the books. If a review had been carried out during the past eight months, we could have had before us different legislation that we might have felt able to support.

We have consistently maintained that the EPA [Emergency Powers Act] is unacceptable. Our opposition to one of its central tenets– the power of imprisonment without trial–is well established, yet it remains in the Bill.

This, however, was insufficient to convince Mr Nick Hawkins (Blackpool South):

Unless and until they support the Government on every piece of anti-terrorist legislation, the voters of Britain will never take seriously any of the weasel words of Labour spokesmen from the leader downwards on the strength of the Labour party’s policy on crime. If the Opposition will not support us on measures against terrorism, they cannot be taken seriously. It is a measure of the desperation of their opposition for opposition’s sake that the Opposition intend to vote against these important and crucial powers tonight.

That, of course, was hardly a new line of argument even in 1996.   On December 6, 1988, only a year after Dr Reid entered Parliament, Mr Ian Stewart, then then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was telling MPs in closing a similar debate, where Labour were very upset about holding terrorist suspects for 4 days without charge or access to legal advice,

The important point is not so much what the Opposition might do in office, but that, if they treat legislation in the way that they are treating this legislation, they will have no right ever to hold office again. It is an important test of a responsible Opposition that they should look at the central purpose of legislation before deciding to vote against it or to produce what is called a reasoned amendment.

Dr Reid rightly then rejected Conservative accusations about people who voted against what they considered bad bills and unnecessary or counterproductive measures.   I wonder what’s changed.  

And before anyone objects that we face a new threat in the form of Islamic extremists, who’re far more dangerous than PIRA ever were;  perhaps that’s true — of the Mainland.

But I, for one, will need more convincing that in Northern Ireland, PIRA and the Unionist paramilitaries were ever less numerous or  well-organised, commanded less support in their respective communities, had smaller armories of guns, ammunition and explosives or were any less murderous than any religious fanatics in Bradford.   Or don’t the Irish count?

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