Fear enters the soul of the Mother of Parliaments

`We now have gangsters who are prepared to make a direct attack on the democratic system'
Click to follow
AS FAR as I can remember, the phone call came at around six o'clock on Christmas morning. We were living in Johannesburg at the time, about seven years ago, during the last big, violent upheavals against the white regime of FW De Klerk. The ringing of the telephone woke me from a deep sleep. The voice at the other end asked if I were Fergal Keane. It was a Northern Irish voice, but calling from South Africa. I mumbled a "yes" to the question.

"Well, I know where you live, you communist Fenian bastard. And you're going to get sorted out. You want those black bastards to take over this country," said the voice. And he then proceeded to tell me my home address. He knew exactly where I lived and assured me that I would be dealt with.

I was too groggy to think of a response, and simply slammed down the receiver. I woke my wife and told her what had happened and we both lay there, hearts pounding as the room filled up with light on Christmas morning. I took the threat seriously. South Africa was a violent place and killing journalists wouldn't have given the extremists (inside and outside the security forces) any moral problem.

The BBC appointed extra security to our house and the South African police promised they would keep an eye on the road outside for any suspect vehicles. (Mind you, the "protection" of the SA police was at the best of times a dubious proposition). Nothing ever came of the threat. The caller never rang back. But I was shaken. Not that I hadn't been threatened over my work before. In townships and war zones people had often warned me off. But these were always face-to-face threats made in the heat of a situation. They had nothing to do with me as a person, simply with what I represented. The phone call was different. It was premeditated and specific.

That Christmas morning call came back to me this week as I read about the troubles of the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, who is living under the armed protection of the Special Branch after learning that a pounds 10,000 contract has been taken out on his life. Go back and read that sentence again, please. A democratically elected member of the British Parliament is living in fear of his life because gangsters want him dead.

What is happening to this country, I ask myself? Mr Hughes is no obscure backbench MP. He is a popular and conscientious man and has been around for a long time. At one time he was a potential candidate for the leadership of his party. His crime in the eyes of the mobsters was to persuade several reluctant witnesses to give evidence against a gang of toughs who beat and kicked a young man to death on a housing estate in his constituency.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. In August 1997, 17- year-old Jamie Robe was set upon by a gang on the Osprey estate in Rotherhithe, south-east London. Jamie had been drinking and became involved in an argument with the gang. They attacked him and for about 10 minutes kicked and beat him. When he was unconscious, one youth is said to have jumped on his head three or four times, "just to make sure the bastard is dead". For the best part of two years the police investigation into the killing went nowhere, frustrated by the fact that key witnesses were afraid to come forward. Enter Mr Hughes.

His patient persuasion eventually led to a change of heart by several witnesses. Among them was Treacy Broughton, an 18-year-old girl who has had to be rehoused under the witness protection scheme. Without Mr Hughes's work, three young men from the area would never have been convicted of Jamie Robe's murder. And that is where Mr Hughes's problems began. As a woman on the Osprey estate told a newspaper reporter earlier this week: "It doesn't pay to get involved. There's still a lot of fear down here. The people who were capable of that are capable of anything." Simon Hughes, diligent and concerned MP that he is, got involved and now lives in fear of his life.

A death threat has one of two intentions: either to make the target shut up, or to indicate a desire for vengeance. In Mr Hughes's case it seems obvious that revenge is the motive.

The reaction to what has happened to him has been curiously muted so far. Am I alone in thinking that a death threat by gangsters against a member of our Parliament is worthy of loud and vigorous condemnation from the political establishment? It is the kind of thing you expect to see at the top of our political agenda. Now, if this were Russia or even Italy, then you mightn't be too surprised at such a development. But the United Kingdom, home of the Mother of Parliaments? Not, mind you, that we in the media have been much better; articles about what has happened to Mr Hughes are few and far between. Just search the archives of our national press, and you'll find out.

But the threat to Simon Hughes raises an entirely different problem. We now have home-grown gangsters who are prepared to make a direct attack on this country's democratic system. It reminds me of the murder in Dublin some years back of Veronica Guerin, the courageous crime reporter who was the scourge of the city's drugs barons. Guerin was gunned down by her enemies after spending years writing about their activities. When she died, the Irish people were profoundly shocked. It was as if the assassination of this young mother had suddenly woken them up to the scale of the evil that existed in their midst. A stable parliamentary democracy with a free press suddenly seemed vulnerable. For the gangsters who controlled the Irish underworld, the murder proved to be a step too far. Public and political reaction forced a clampdown and the establishment of a special unit to probe the finances (always the soft underbelly of mobsters) of the Mr Bigs. The killing of Veronica Guerin pushed the patience of the democratic state too far.

I've spent a lot of time in the past six months travelling around some of the toughest estates in this country. And I've heard a lot of stories that have fear at their core. There are families and gangs who terrorise whole neighbourhoods; people who can impose a reign of silence around their activities. Those who must live and put up with their activities complain of feeling powerless. The other day in the West Country I met a woman who has been tormented by a criminal family who live 10 doors away from her. She had the temerity to complain when one of their number tried to sell speed to her 13-year-old daughter. The result was a knock on the door and a threat of serious physical violence.

In the claustrophobic world of the ghettos, the Mr Bigs are the real power. Westminster - and the state power it represents - is an abstraction. What counts is the muscle on the street. Or, at least, so it seemed until one brave MP came along. Simon Hughes challenged the tyranny of silence and in doing so offered hope to thousands who live in fear of neighbourhood bullies. We often hear politicians talk about being a "voice for the voiceless". Mr Hughes is truly such a voice (so, too, were Treacy Broughton and the other witnesses who came forward). What Simon Hughes has done is one of the most significant acts in defence of our democracy that I can remember for many a long year. That is why the threat to him is a threat to all of us.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent