Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Sinn Féin Submission on Justice Issues

The very comprehensive discussion paper issued by the Forum Secretariat acknowledged that the justice issue is indeed a broad one. While much of the debate has been confined to discussion of the conflict in the North, where most of the erosion of basic rights and freedoms have taken place, it has to be admitted that erosions of basic rights have applied to life in the South also.

Sinn Féin welcomes the Secretariat's proposal to establish a sub-committee to oversee work on fundamental rights and freedoms. Our paper on rights and freedoms called for such a sub-committee and for the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission which would allow all of the people on this island to enjoy the same guaranteed rights andfreedoms. We see this as essential in the promotion of peace and reconciliation. We would urge that the terms of reference be sufficiently broad to address all relevant justice issues so that the root causes of conflict are identified and removed. Change is necessary to ensure that all enjoy the same political, civil, social, economic and cultural rights.

It is our contention that this issue cannot be approached simple and narrowly as the "management of conflict", as if those involved in agitating for justice are somehow a problem "out there", to be managed by a privileged elite in the field of policing and the law. This would be a flawed context within which to examine the emergency legislation issue. This type of legislation has in fact predated the conflict of the past 25 years. Its impostition has less to do with British crisis management, little to do with justice and everything to do with the maintenance of injustice. The conflict is not about the "threat posed by violence on the one hand and protecting the rights of the individual on the other", as the discussion paper puts it. The conflict is about the denial of rights. Some "individuals" do not have rights and indeed never had them. Emergency legislation has never been a simple law and order response to some inexplicable conflict - it has been a mechanism to crush and demoralise opponents of injustice. Such legislation has been politically directed by Stormont and the British Government in the attempt to sustain a State built on injustice.

Emergency legislation stifles the emergence of democracy and of democratic voices. There are those who argue that the well-being of the state dictates that its protection is of greater importance than the well-being of all or a part of the citizenry. However, when that State takes it upon itself to meet dissent with repression and censorship, to meet reasonable requests for justice with harassment, internment, imprisonment and state directed murder then we have to ask questions about the nature of that state. When the innocent and political opponents are framed and tortured, when the State's security forcescollude with death squads, when the judicary is biased in favour of a particular viewpoint, when the police force is a paramilitary body, when it and the locally recruited militia shares the same political and sectarian bias, then the nature and legitimacy of the state is very much the central political question. If the very ethos and structure of the state is designed to deny economic, cultural, social and political rights to a section of the population we have to ask: is this state worth protecting, was it ever a democray, can it ever become one? The evidence to date suggests it cannot.

Has censorship, North and South, Ireland more democratic or did it, as we argue, make society less able to face and resolve conflicts? Did the heavy handed security measures make Ireland more democratic? Did the demonising of opponents of the Northern State make Ireland or Britain more democratic? In our opinion they did not. Such measures merely helped to perpetuate injustice and caused further injustices.

A country seeking peace between all its people has no need of a political culture overshadowed by repressive legislation. To put the past behind us, to engage in deabte about the way forward, to create a political climate free from victimisation requires us to accept that all shades of opinion and argument are allowed examination on their merits and not under the shadow of censorship and official intimidation.

A very heavy price has been paid as a result of the imposition of emergency legislation. Miscarriages of justice have been the norm over the course of the past 25 years. Respect for the law, of impartial law has been replaced by the fear of martial law, of an unacceptable police force. This problem is not confined to the North. The victums of internment, of beatings and torture, of paid perjurers, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Ballymurphy Seven are joined by the victims of the Heavy gang, the Sallins frame-up victims, by Don O'Leary who was jailed for the possession of a poster and by Paul Walshe, also convicted of IRA membership on the basis of notes in a notebook.

The price paid has not only been felt by the immediate victims. Those campaigning against injustice have themselves been demonised and intimidated by the state. Crude harassment has been aimed at campaigners against injustice. Those campaigning against the Birmingham Six frame-up were stifled by the efforts of both Irish and British politicians and civil servants, not only here but also in the USA. We should all be extremely grateful that there were and are those who are willing to defy the attempts to stifle protest. Those who campaign for justice when the establisment makes it unpopular are to be congratulated. After all, they draw odium and harassment on their own heads for championings the rights of the innocent and the oppressed.

Diplock Courts, staffed by those quick to accept the word of a fellow unionist in uniform, while rejecting that of ordinary nationalists; the admissibility of confessions; the ending of a right to silence; the refusal to video interrogations should themselves be judged in the light of continuing complaints of forced and fabricated confessions. Immediate access to a solicitor is denied to suspects, who are usually held for a full seven days. Such people feel that silence is the only defence against a corrupt system. In cases where ESDA testing of RUC notes of disputed confessions is proposed, the notes are conveniently"lost".

The CAJ publication, "It's a Fact of Life Here", by Dr Robbie McVeigh should be read by all those wishing to understand the implications of the RUC's Stop, Question and Search powers. These powers are a means of detaining and harassing political opponents, prisoners' families and thousands of ordinary people, Catholic and Protestants. The charges emanating from these activities have been minimal, the powers have been clearly abused.

The question of the use of lethal force by crown forces has been topical of late in the light of the Clegg case. The facts of this case, coupled with the British Establishment backed calls for Clegg's release, are interesting for what they reveal about British notions of justice. Obviously there is an inherent racism contained in the British definition of the concept of justice. Anyone familiar with the circumstances of numerous British army murders of civilians will know that there has long existed a device for getting army murderers off the hook. For years the simple 'suspicious movements' which had made thekiller believe his life, or those of his colleagues, were in danger, was sufficient to secure an acquittal. In countless cases such as the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry or the murder of Fergal Caraher in Cullyhanna, there were many witnesses to refute such claims. A such witnesses were Irish, however, their evidnece was ignored in favour of the standard version advanced by the killers. RUC killings were justified with similar claims of suspicious movements and imaginary road blocks. Some state murders were carried out by proxy, by killers using information supplied by crown force personnel. The State has used lethal force to gun protesters off the streets, to forment sectarian strife, to eliminate republinan activists or to remove those, such as Pat Finucane, who were deemed too effective in their opposition to injustice.

We want no more lethal force in Ireland. We want no more emergency legislation. We want peace and want rights. We want everyone on this island to enjoy the same rights, no more, no less. From the denial of the people of this island's right to exercise national self-determination flowed a series of human rights abuses which all gave rise to conflict. Emergency legislatiobn designed to maintain a fundamentally unjust society gave rise to further abuses and an escalation of that conflict. There is now a need to demilitarise our political culture as well as to demilitarise the six counties. There is also a need to release all those who are imprisoned as a result of the conflict.

None of us, British or Irish, deserves to live in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. We all of us deserve a better life than any of us have yet known. We can make Ireland a place where everyone's rights and difference are accepted and respected. We don't need emergency legislation to do it - we need each other.