Lawyer Gareth Peirce told an audience at Amnesty International that Britain “had not learned a single lesson from the Northern Ireland conflict.”
Mrs Peirce joined a panel made up of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg, Irish Post editor John Myles and Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi. The debate followed a screening of Steve McQueen’s award winning film Hunger about the life of Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. Others in attendance at the event included Guantanamo detainees Binyam Mohammed, Sami Al Hajj and Omar Deghayes.
Mrs Peirce declared that one lesson that could have been learned from the north of Ireland was that injustice breeds a reaction. “Continual injustice builds interminable reaction,” said Mrs Peirce, who described how this country had “torn up our history and started all over again.”
She told of “the brutalisation of civilians and falsification of evidence to gain convictions.”
Mrs Peirce believes that things have got even worse now than in the days of the conflict in the north of Ireland. “Now we are not just locking up and destroying the rights of those who have gone through the criminal process. We’ve created a new system based on secret evidence,” said Mrs Peirce.
This system has been visited on those who fled their own countries for fear of torture and worse. The British government now seeks to deport them back on the basis of assurances gained from those very same torturing countries. “We have destroyed and undermined a whole system of rights and justice. We have been willing to enact measures beyond war time measures, yet we are not at war,” said Mrs Peirce. “We are sowing the seeds of injustice that breed conflict.”
Moazzem Begg told how the scenes in the film from Long Kesh resonated with his own experiences of Guantanamo Bay. Further parallels were drawn between the comments of Margaret Thatcher and her ministers during the hunger strikes with Tony Blair and today’s politicians’ comments about the Muslim community. “There are parallels between the way the Irish and Muslim communities have been criminalised and paralysed,” said Mr Begg, who went on to describe how the law had been extended from those days to penalise the Muslim community. “What we did not see in those days was the power of the police to extend detention beyond seven days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Now there is 28 days detention and the government had wanted 90 days and 42 days,” said Mr Begg. “These things were not seen even at the height of the IRA campaign.”
Mr Begg paid tribute to Bobby Sands as providing an inspiration to people around the world seeking to get their most basic rights. “People went on hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay because of Bobby Sands and their desire to get those most basic rights,” said Mr Begg.
Irish Post editor Jon Myles recalled how during the Troubles Irish people would keep their heads down and not admit they were Irish. “It is similar now only with another community,” said Mr Myles.
The Irish Post editor criticised parts of the media for looking to demonise groups, often just to sell papers. He recalled how the Irish Post was founded in the early 1970s because Irish people felt alienated and that they did not have a voice in society.
He recalled how Irish people would be pulled out of queues for flights and boats between Britain and Ireland. “86 per cent were released without charge,” said Mr Myles, who called for people to stand up and act against the onset of authoritarianism.
He said the lessons of the past were not being learned and now there are another generation of kids going to school and having to hide their cultural background. “They should be celebrating that background,” said Mr Myles. “It is all our responsibilities to do something about it.”
Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi highlighted how the government was now intruding into every element of Muslim people’s lives. He told how whole families were being stopped at ports and airports, with parents and grandparents humiliated in front of their children.
Teachers are being told to look out among children as young as five for those who are likely to become extremists. “Staff at universities are being told to keep an eye on students,” said Mr Versi, who recalled how last year an Nottingham student was arrested for downloading some information on Al Qaeda to do with his dissertation studies.