Omagh - excuse for draconian laws

New attack on democracy

Making advantage of the universal revulsion at the Omagh bomb, Tony Blair has proposed yet more wide-ranging and authoritarian laws. The word of a “senior police officer” will be sufficient to convict a person of membership of a proscribed organisation. Refusal to answer questions or disclose “relevant information” can now to be taken as proof of guilt. All this amounts to internment by another name.

Most seriously of all for the international struggle against imperialism, refugees from oppressive dictatorships will no longer be able to carry on political struggle from within the UK without the risk of being accused of terrorist conspiracies. Marx would have been arrested in London under such a law. The distinction between dissent and so-called terrorism is being blurred. Hundreds of MI5 officers made technically redundant by the outbreak of peace in Ireland will find new work targeting émigré groups.

In the 1970s mass opposition to British rule in the Six Counties made draconian  legislation counterproductive, boosting support for and recruitment to the IRA. The government was compelled to abandon internment. This is an important lesson for revolutionaries - only mass working class resistance can protect our vital interests, not abstract appeals to justice and bourgeois law. As Marx pointed out, bourgeois right is purely formal. Such political and civil rights that the capitalist state has been forced or has seen fit to grant us for its own purposes, it will not hesitate to take back when conditions change - unless the working class organises itself to fight back.

In contrast to 1971, Blair calculates that in the current post-revolutionary situation in Ireland repressive measures against ‘terrorists’ will be widely accepted. His statement last week that he would not send in the SAS against the Real IRA shows that he still wants to be seen to act within the bounds of bourgeois legality. That is why parliament has been recalled during the summer recess to rubber-stamp the new laws. Once in place, they are ready for use not only against Irish republicans, but if needs be the working class.

In the days since Blair’s statement announcing the new legislation, tentative voices have been raised questioning the wisdom of rushing through such laws. First the bourgeois press, then the Sinn Féin leadership, and now a motley collection of Labour backbenchers and liberal peers have expressed doubts, fearing that such measures may discredit the peace process. Inevitably there will be embarrassing miscarriages of justice.

The nature and extent of the protests made by Adams and McGuinness is dictated by their need to balance two conflicting aims. They want to stay in line with moderate opinion and avoid damaging their own political ambitions for power within the new Stormont government. On the other hand they want to avoid strengthening any opposition to the peace process within and around their own ranks. Blair can afford to ignore their misgivings. As to his opponents in parliament, in a gesture of appeasement Blair has now made a few token concessions which change nothing in the substance of his new police powers. For example, they must be renewed annually in parliament - easily achieved using a three-line whip on ambitious Labourites. The new laws will, according to Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam, be “compatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights - which British governments have had no compunction about ignoring in the past.

During the cold war we were constantly told that we lived in the ‘free world’, where, in contrast to the USSR, human rights, seen as natural and universal, were honoured. The need to demonise socialism is no longer such an imperative. The emphasis on ‘freedom’ is less essential. Indeed the ruling class whips up fear of crime and terrorism to make the British people more than willing to discard the freedoms they were once taught to hold so dear. Shopping centres and railway stations are full of surveillance cameras watching our every movement. Phone numbers are provided to enable neighbours to denounce benefit ‘cheats’ to the authorities. Trade union rights, destroyed by the Tories, are not restored by New Labour. The unemployed must obey ever more stringent conditions to qualify for the derisory ‘job seekers’ allowance. We are slowly being conditioned to accept universal ID cards.

Blair’s new laws seem to imply that a fair trial is a luxury the state can no longer afford. In this connection, the home office is now viewing with approval suggestions from the judiciary that a defendant’s criminal convictions should be made known to the jury in the course of criminal trials.

During the long boom, and during the current period of working class passivity and demoralisation, capitalism in Britain has been secure enough not to resort to the censorship of the press and bans on public meetings that less firmly entrenched capitalist regimes, such as the one Marx laboured under in Germany, required. The liberalism of modern capitalism has been a sign of its strength. It knows that its ideas are the ruling ideas and are spontaneously generated in the minds of the working class.

Even in periods of social peace, bourgeois political rights exist mainly for the benefit of the capitalists themselves, serving to safeguard according to Marx their “need and private interest, the conservation of their property and egoistic person”. Nevertheless we fight to defend and extend these rights, insisting on the social and economic rights we need to live a fully human life.

Mary Godwin