Omagh Aftermath: Dublin to bolster anti-terror law

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THE Irish government is expected to give the go-ahead to a wide- ranging toughening of anti-terrorist laws following the Omagh bombing.

The package, believed to be the toughest in 20 years, will introduce laws making it easier to convict people suspected of being members of a terrorist organisation.

Senior officials from the Republic's Department of Justice and the Attorney- General's Office are finalising legislative changes which will be presented to the Cabinet at an emergency meeting today. The programme will be buttressed by a cross-border dimension aimed at ensuring paramilitaries cannot strike at Ulster from the Republic.

The RUC Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, has held several meetings with the Garda Commissioner, Pat Byrne, to discuss how best to tackle dissident terrorist groups such as the republicans who killed 28 people at Omagh on Saturday.

Sources say that the package being discussed includes possible curbs on the right to silence for terrorist offences; a law under which police can use evidence of known association between a suspect and a convicted terrorist to charge people on membership of an illegal organisation; and toughening up laws on bail for terrorist suspects.

The package has come swiftly following Saturday's atrocity, with the governments in Dublin and London keen to ensure that it does not start to unravel the Good Friday peace agreement. Tony Blair met Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, in Ulster on Sunday and discussions have continued with lengthy telephone conversations. On Monday Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, held more discussions with John O'Donoghue, the Irish Justice Minister.

In Ireland the Offences Against the State Act 1939 allows members of proscribed organisations to be charged before the Special Criminal Court. The law was extensively used against the Provisional IRA in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the rate of convictions dropped when suspects began to dispute police intelligence evidence about their links with convicted terrorists and judges began to seek other incriminating evidence such as documentation.

Security sources in Dublin stressed that the new laws are not tantamount to introducing internment through the back door, and also denied that internment was part of the agenda. However, the measures are likely to attract opposition from civil-liberties groups in the Republic.