Steve McQueen’s film Hunger has brought the tragedy of the hunger strikes to a worldwide audience.
The hunger strikes marked a hiatus in the Troubles. The injustice that caused the latest phase of conflict between Britain and Ireland began 13 years earlier with the civil rights protests. The state response was violent, deploying internment without trial, which in turn led to Bloody Sunday.
The latter two events have now widely been acknowledged as acting as recruiting sergeants for the IRA. Discredited in the latter part of the 1960s and known as “I Ran Away,” the IRA became a formidable military organisation. The scene was thereby set for decades of conflict.
The sacrifice of Bobby Sands in giving up his life and standing for the Westminster Parliament during the hunger strike then pointed the way to a future policy of armalite and ballot box.
Next Thursday (30/7), Amnesty International will be screening Hunger at its Human Rights Centre. After the film, a panel including lawyer Gareth Peirce, Irish Post editor Jon Myles and Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi will discuss the parallels between what went on during the period of Troubles and the war on terror today.
There are a number of parallels. First, there was internment without trial, deployed by the army in the North during the early 1970s. Internment without trial was re-introduced to Britain in December 2001 with the passing into law of the Anti-terror Crime and Security Act (ATCSA). This allowed the state to intern foreign nationals for an indeterminate amount of time. They could return to the country from which they had come but this was not usually an option as torture and death usually awaited.
In 2004, the Law Lords ruled that it was unlawful under the Human Rights Act to detain people without trial. It was as a result of this ruling that control orders were devised. This meant effectively being detained under house arrest. There were short periods when the individual could go outside into a proscribed area. They were also required to wear a tag and ring up the tagging company a number of times a day. Only individuals vetted by the Home Office were allowed to visit.
Since 2001, there have been a number of individuals and their families detained in prisons and under control orders. Many have suffered with mental health problems.
These individuals have been dealt with through the immigration system being detained under the aegis of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). This means that much of the proceedings are done on the basis of secret evidence that neither the individual nor his lawyers are permitted to see. Only the judge and appointed special advocates are able to view this material. The individuals being held under this process have not been questioned or told what they are supposed to have done.
There is a consistent thread that runs through from the time of the Troubles up to the present day. It started with passing of emergency powers in the early 1970s in the north of Ireland. These removed trial by jury and brought in the judge only Diplock Courts. These courts formed part of an illegitimate legal process, mirrored today by the SIAC.
Following the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, the Prevention of Terrorism Act came into force. Described at the time by its author Home Secretary Roy Jenkins as “draconian” the PTA allowed for seven-day detention. The PTA was then used to make a suspect community of Irish people living across the UK. People were routinely stopped and questioned at airports. No one knew if they were going to be stopped for 10 minutes or seven days. Many were picked up and detained before being released without charge.
The use of these powers again shows parallels between the Troubles period and today. Of 7,052 arrested under the PTA between 1974 and 1991, 86 per cent were released without charge. For the period September 2001 to April 2008 Home Office figures show only 13 per cent of those arrested being convicted of terrorism related charges.
The best example of there being an ongoing process of reducing rights came in 2000 with the passing of the Terrorism Act bringing 14 day pre-charge detention. This remember was post conflict in the north and pre-9/11.
Then came the ATCSA in 2001 to be followed by another PTA in 2005, which increased pre-charge detention up to 28 days. This was a setback for government, which had been seeking 90-day detention.
Successive governments since the early 1970s have pushed the premise of sacrificing liberties in exchange for security. The success of this approach in actually preventing terrorism has never been quantified. Indeed, most critics suggest that the effect has been to alienate the very communities from which the authorities seek co-operation.
The new development has been the increased use of secret evidence. Individuals being processed through a system, detained for years on end either in prison or under control order without every being brought before a court or told of what they are accused. This is a truly insidious development, which as recent international cases have demonstrated often masks the use of information obtained by torture.
There have been recent encouraging signs of growing resistance to the onset of the authoritarian state. The Law Lords recent ruling against the use of control orders. The start of a new campaign, titled the Coalition Against Secret Evidence, which aims to expose the injustices being done under the aegis of secrecy and in the name of national security. An Early Day Motion (1308) put down by Labour MP Diane Abbott calling for an end to the use of secret evidence has so far been signed by 89 MPs. So there are encouraging signs of resistance but there is still much to be done. The need to struggle for justice as typified by the hunger strikers of the 1980s is as relevant today as it was 27 years ago.
* To book a place at the Amnesty screening of Hunger next Thursday, see: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/events_details.asp?ID=1255
* Further articles on the subject -
New Statesman - 17/4/2008http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2008/04/taleb-deportations-algeria