Blair is right to join Dublin in an anti-terror crackdown

Ahern described the legislation as `draconian', but without it the violence will return
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IN THE days after the Omagh bomb, Tony Blair, in consultation with the Irish government, decided on today's recall of Parliament in order to push through sweeping anti-terrorist measures. Blair's critics have not been slow off the mark. They accuse him of making a selective attack on terrorism, in this case Irish, and for a misguided abandonment of reliance on existing domestic law, which, they claim, is already adequate. More, Blair is accused of fitting Britain with a noose of emergency powers that will lead in jig time to a choking of civil liberties. But with his eye unwaveringly on the Irish problem as it has been since he came into power, Blair knows that by far the greater risk will be to ignore the rare opportunity which has arisen as a result of the Omagh atrocity.

These are times of rapid change in Ireland. In a political landscape notorious for its dogged lack of change, the speed of the current transformation is awe inspiring. The hope over long years by a committed few, sustained in the face of odds beyond imagination, has finally found fertile opportunity in a confluence of factors: an American President who has been persuaded to make peace in Ireland a priority of his administration, and a British Prime Minister who, uniquely, is both interested in solving the problem in Ireland once and for all, and who has the political means to do so.

Once and for all. Or, "over, done with and gone". The words of resolute men and women, they ring with the finality of the utterly determined. Gerry Adams used just this language two days ago in drawing a line under the violence of the past, and whether or not his motivation sprang from expediency dictated by the prospect of his meeting at last with David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists and Northern Ireland's first minister, or from a wish to ingratiate himself further with Bill Clinton who comes to Omagh today, or because Sinn Fein thought such a statement might head off Britain's emergency legislation, or for all or none of these reasons - the fact remains that he said it. Add that to Sinn Fein's unique and unequivocal condemnation of Omagh, and the speed of change in current Irish politics becomes apparent.

The problems of Northern Ireland are not solved, of course, but the dreadful events in Omagh on the afternoon of 15 August may just have tipped the scales at a crucial moment. On the following morning, I drove half the length of Ireland, listening on the car radio to seasoned reporters speak in breaking voices of the scenes of desolation all around them. I went that afternoon to Croke Park in Dublin with 50,000 others to watch Waterford play Kilkenny in a hurling match. We stood for a minute's silence before the game. Men and women wept. The silence could have lasted 30 minutes and no one would have been the first to speak. This was the Irish heartland come to Dublin - and it was shocked and shamed and heartsick to a man.

But mood is ephemeral. Five years ago, in the wake of the Warrington bomb when, in a British newspaper, I called for Ireland to confront the ghost in its psyche and repeal those articles of its constitution repugnant to Unionists, going on a popular Irish radio programme to defend my case, my voice was in a minority of one. Callers to the programme were overwhelmingly opposed to my suggestion, despite Warrington and the deaths of children. Militant Irish republicanism is deeply entrenchedand its followers are never on the back foot for long,

But they are a tiny minority. Moderate republicanism in Ireland is a proud and honourable tradition, but where England is concerned, one which is rooted in mistrust. What has there been in the canon of history between the two countries which might persuade the Irish that England or its justice can be trusted? Not a lot. The cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six were spectacular failures in the responsibility which the justice system of one sovereign country is obliged to extend to the citizens of another. Trust is slow to grow in such a hinterland.

Bertie Ahern understands this. A canny political operator, already backed by a massive 94% vote in last May's referendum which at last jettisoned Ireland's constitutional claims over Northern Ireland, Ahern has now seized the new mood of revulsion which has swept Ireland and has moved ruthlessly into territory which before, due to the historical lack of trust, would never have allowed him a safe passage. Ahern was the first to use the term "draconian" to describe the new legislation, also being debated in Dublin this week in tandem with that at Westminster. The Irish courts will be girded with new powers. Terrorists from now can be arrested on the word of a police officer of, or above, the rank of superintendent and brought to trial on such a basis. The courts may order the seizure of the assets of those so convicted, similar measures to those already successfully introduced in Ireland to curtail drug smuggling. Omagh, designed by the executioners of 28 people to destroy the Good Friday Agreement, has been a tactical disaster for the terrorists. Far from shaking Ahern, the taoiseach's hand has been strengthened even more.

But for Ahern to have attempted such legislation alone would have been a nonsense. If terrorists could skip across the border to a safe haven in Northern Ireland or in England, finding a sanctuary within the very body politic they are sworn to destroy, then Ahern's new legislation would have been toothless. And without Ahern's measures, when the mood of Omagh eventually ebbed, the men and women, for whom no greater ideal exists than the blood sacrifice of 1916, would rise up, or crawl out, again, and the cycle of violence would be resumed.

Like Blair, Ahern is a man for his time. The time is now and it is for a final end to the misery. Over, done with and gone. The people of Ireland have spoken and although only some of them are his people, Blair believes in the integrity of the argument and is prepared to take risks for what he believes in. Recalling parliaments and giving laws both sides of the border a sound footing is another step in the new era of trust between the countries. Anything less from Britain at this moment, and Ireland, a young country with a long memory, will never reach the promised land that the overwhelming majority of her people north and south wish for.

Peter Cunningham's new novel, `Consequences of the Heart', will be published at the end of this month by Harvill