Leading Article: Don't legislate in haste only to repent later

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The Independent Culture
BAD LAWS, as Edmund Burke said, are the worst sort of tyranny. MPs would do well to remember it when they reconvene to discuss the legislation deemed necessary to capture the Omagh bombers. Too often the proposition that terrorist suspects have civil liberties is regarded as being somehow frivolous or peripheral, or in some cases even treacherous. But this is to miss the point entirely: if civil liberties don't apply to everyone they don't really apply at all.

London and Dublin are co-operating more closely in this than ever before, we are told. And here is the rub: in the aftermath of a tragedy such as Omagh, the "do something" brigade are always vocal. It is, after all, human nature to want something positive to come from something negative, imposing order on an otherwise chaotic moral universe.

Dublin had already acted and been seen to take the lead on the issue so, in making yesterday's announcement, London was, implicitly, following suit (a political necessity, but regrettable from the standpoint of the Prime Minister). Coupled with the fact that the issues themselves are often perceived as esoteric, something brash was called for. And why just deal with things quietly in Whitehall, when you can tear MPs away from toe-twiddling on beaches and be seen to be acting? Especially during the August news tundra.

There are practical reasons why these new measures may be mistaken. There is a dangerous assumption in the air that the Omagh bomb is somehow going to be the last big atrocity of the troubles. This is a mistake, and a stupid one at that. We should not fall into the trap, as people living smugly at the end of a millennium, of thinking that each incident is the defining one, each moment more significant than the last. As with weather statistics that make everything the worst or the best since records began, we debase the currency of debate by making such assumptions. And nor should such a bogus belief be used as a pretext on which to hang infringements of civil liberties - even unconsciously.

The war against terrorism in Ireland and elsewhere will carry on, probably indefinitely. This will not be the last time the Government is asked to make a choice between less liberty or the status quo under these circumstances. While not wanting to become jaded, we should deal with this fact in a grown-up manner rather than being flung from one set of circumstances to another, constantly surprised by them. We should seek to develop ways of dealing with the perpetrators that bolster, rather than undermine, the case for a liberal democracy.

There is also the danger of the Government appearing short-termist and hasty: after the bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan comes the pelting of terrorist suspects with legal tomatoes. Allowing someone to be convicted of membership of a banned organisation, on the testimony of one policeman, seems a very bad idea under any circumstances - more so in Ireland now, when so many old personal scores remain unsettled.

And, by the way, isn't it worth remembering that three suspects arrested immediately after the Omagh bomb were subsequently released - presumably because there was a lack of evidence with which to condemn them? Under the new measures, would they still be languishing in a cell?

Also, when it comes to implementation, the distinct possibility exists of a credibility gap, caused by having a policy that is apparently going in two directions at the same time. Convicted terrorists are being released from jail and internment has been discarded. Yet strategic decision-making in the Northern Ireland Office must surely have been unravelled by yesterday's announcements.

Yes, Mr Blair: this is a war and it must be won. But we should guard against overkill.

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