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17 Mar, 2009 07:53

‘Cutting out rights began with the Northern Ireland conflict’

It’s been heavily contested in the UK that civil liberties have been eroded in recent years to fight terrorism. British journalist Paul Donovan believes it could all stem from the 1970s conflict in Northern Ireland.

RT: In one of your recent articles you call for Britain to dismantle its own version of Guantanamo – what do you mean by that?

Paul Donovan: What we got here is very similar to what Americans created in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba – the whole number of structures built up in recent decades go back to the Northern Irish conflict, but particularly post-9/11 here when we brought in increasing levels of detention. We increased the level of pre-charge detention, but there've also been people held under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act that was passed, post-9/11, in December 2001. It has been administered through the immigration courts, a special immigration appeals commission and has really left a number of people – only a small number – in limbo. They are not allowed to see what they are charged with, they are not questioned – they are just kept here with a view to them leaving the country.

That's one element, but we've had other things as well – the whole use of surveillance cameras. We've got 5 million CCTV cameras, making this country one of the most-watched in Europe if not the world. We've got a DNA database which, until the recent European Court of Human Rights decision, meant that anyone who came into contact with the police had their DNA record kept. It was only the result of a case involving South Yorkshire Police that it's now changed and the European court ruled that it's a breach of Article 8 to keep those records.

ID cards – what's that about? It seems to be another element of this. But going back to Guantanamo particularly, these individuals who are going through a very difficult time during the 8 years they’ve been detained in prison, and then after the House Of Lords decision in 2004 that said it was illegal to detain without a trial, then they were put under control orders and then given a deportation notice, means they are still under control order-style detention. In many cases some are still in prison. There is a whole paraphernalia of security running in the country and a lot of people don't even know what is going on.

RT: What does ‘control order-style detention’ mean?

P.D.: Control order-style detention is when someone is put in a house or a flat. They live there and there's a very strict set of restrictions on their lives. They have to phone into a company a certain number of times a day. These criteria are set by the court so they have to check in and phone in. They may be allowed out for a certain amount of time. Most of them I think are detained for at least 16 hours [a day] in their place and, in some cases, it's been 24 hours.

So it's almost like prison outside so to speak. It's an interesting sort of move from being detained in prison to being detained in many of these cases with their family in the community. And some people argue they actually detain the family as well.

RT: How significant is the number of those people?

P.D.: It’s not a large number of people but the question is, why you take away people's rights. It's always been done on the premise of ‘we will give you security but you have to give up some of your liberties’ and that's been the equation that's going on. And the concern is, if you look back at history, every dictator has made this claim at one point and, if you keep giving up your rights, at the end you have no rights and then the state is at total will to do what it likes.

RT: How did Britain get to where it is now? Could you give us a little bit of history?

P.D.: I think what we need to understand is where it all came from, and I think it started with the conflict in Northern Ireland where you had the British Terrorism Act that was brought in 1974. That was the first one.
It was brought in following the Birmingham and Guilford pub bombings. And it was introduced at the time by [British Home Secretary] Roy Jenkins. And he said when introducing it, ‘this is a draconian piece of legislation, unprecedented in peace time’. And that brought the 7-day pre-charge detention in. But if you look at the statute, it had “temporary” in brackets, and so there was a debate every year on it. And for a long period of time, the Labour Party used to oppose the bill – until Tony Blair came in 1994, when he became Shadow Home Affairs Spokesman, he moved to abstaining. But there was still no absolute agreement. It always went through every year. There was that ‘temporary’ nature. The next great move came in 2000 when we had a terrorism act which came in. And remember, 2000 is post-Northern Ireland conflict, pre-9/11, and yet we bring in a very draconian peace of legislation, which brings us to the 14-day pre-charge detention. Then we get 9/11 and get the Anti-Terror, Crime and Security Act which brings in the ‘detention without trial’ element that I just mentioned earlier.

That turned up in the House of Lords in 2004. Then, in 2005, we get the latest Terrorism Act which brought in control of all this, but also brought in pre-charge detention of up to 21 days.

So I see this as a process. A process of cutting out rights which obviously started with the Northern Ireland conflict and has continued. Previously, the suspect community was the Irish because it was used against the Irish people here as well as in the Northern Ireland – ‘here’ meaning ‘Britain’. And to a large degree the Muslim community now since 9/11 have been treated in the same way so they become suspect and have withdrawn into themselves. It's not a particularly a great way of policing if they want people to come forward and talk about genuine dangers in the community.

If you intimidate the whole community that closes in on itself, it is not particularly responsive. That happened with the Irish with the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act against them, particularly in ports and airports while they travelled in and out. People didn't know when and what they are going to be stopped for. And the same things are happening to the Muslims.

RT: What could be the reasons for all this?

P.D.: It's a difficult question to answer because you have had all this stuff brought in – the CCTV, the DNA database as well as the detention elements. A citizen needs to know all of these things which, I suppose, is one of the problems because, as I said earlier, a lot of this has gone on in the shade and lots of citizens don't know what don't know is going on. But if people look at it in the round and they say ‘we have all this surveillance, we have got detentions, and that the country is much better as a result’, is the quality of life that much better? I mean if you say these things are being used to stop crime, then crime levels must not be rising. So you know it doesn't really count on that front either. So it’s very strange.

I am not sure there's any great Big Brother mind driving it all, but it does seem to have taken on a bit of a momentum of its own without questioning. Although there does seem to be an awakening now of the population who see what is happening. And we've had this thing when anti-terror laws have been used by councils to track kids who might be going to the wrong school or not in the…area. These types of stories and these cases get a lot of publicity here, so people are, on a wider basis, now realising that power's been misused and not being used for the purposes meant in the first place.

So there's an awakening but, as a lot of people have said, once the rights have been taken away it's very difficult to get them back. This is what people don't seem to understand. And the worrying thing in terms of the culture here is that how it seems to be to whip up popular opposition to something like the Human Rights Act. It's good that we’ve got the act and it's one of the good things the government has done but it's incredible how much opposition there's been to this act – that you can actually start supporting people that would take away your human rights. It's incredible – any totalitarian government dreams of such things.

RT: As a journalist you seem to be concerned about the erosion of media freedom post 9/11 – what do you believe are the main faults of modern journalism?

P.D.: What we've seen is the tendency to follow the official narrative, shall we say, on things. A lack of questioning

RT: Why did you take 9/11 as a point of reference?

P.D.: That’s the sort of a modern marker isn't it? Of the narrative. Up until the economic crisis we've got now, that was the narrative for a lot of things that happened
I mean 9/11 is an interesting point to take because it's always been a point of confusion to me as to why this country became so involved in the whole Bush war on terror following 9/11 because that actually happened in America. I mean other European countries did not take the same road that Tony Blair and this government took. You know, they stayed very much separate and didn't support his Iraq war whereas we jumped in and into our ‘special relationship’ – one-sided as it seems to be

RT: Do you believe that censorship or more self-censorship does take place in Britain?

P.D.: I think there's a lot of self-censorship. I think going back to the Irish conflict there was lot of self-censorship where the government line was being pushed all the time about the conflict and the paradigms of the conflict. And that was accepted to the point that any other view was not accepted or published. Today that would still apply. We're not lacking news. We’re getting a lot of news. But it's all of a certain type and all of a certain banality.

RT: What do you think could be done?

P.D.: As a journalist you're trying to raise awareness of what's going on, saying ‘this is what is happening here and there there's an injustice’. Maybe there's a link between these things; of a general growing authoritarianism and loss of rights. Maybe people need to become more aware and say this is not what we want or maybe people want this. Who knows? They might want this society and then I need to shut up and go away.