Terrorists are target of plan to use phone taps as evidence

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SENIOR ministers are supporting plans to allow conversations recorded by telephone taps to be used as evidence in court. The move would greatly increase the chances of finally being able to put the 'godfathers' of Ulster terrorism - both republican and loyalist - on trial.

The Home Office is considering the scheme, which ministers believe should apply to the whole country and not just Northern Ireland, as they fear that taking action in Ulster alone would give the Provisional IRA a propaganda victory.

Ministers recognise that allowing secretly recorded tapes to be admitted as evidence will meet resistance from civil liberties groups and are therefore proposing that judges should be brought into the process at an early stage.

Telephone taps would continue to be authorised by ministers in the first instance, but when the intelligence services believed that they had built up a case which could go to court, they would apply for special authorisation from a judge so that the tapes subsequently made could be regarded as admissible evidence.

The changes have been recommended to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, after strong lobbying by Sir Hugh Annesley, Chief Constable of the RUC. Sir Hugh last week reinforced his demand to ministers for intelligence evidence obtained by telephone taps to be made admissible in court when he warned that the current upsurge of terrorism could get worse.

Northern Ireland ministers support Sir Hugh's case and are pressing the Home Office to approve a change in the law. Sir John Wheeler, the Minister of State, has proposed asking judges to authorise taps to overcome legal objections to the use of surveillance tapes as evidence in courts.

The use of tape-recordings of taps in American courts has led to a breakthrough in the war against the Mafia. Several Mafia bosses have been jailed for racketeering, thanks to tapes of their secret conversations, detailing bribes, extortion and ordered killings.

Sir John recently returned from the United States convinced that a similar system should be introduced in this country, although he has told officials that priority must be given to continuing to thwart acts of terrorism before trapping the republican or loyalist planners and 'bankers'. Taps, if disclosed in courts, could blow undercover surveillance work.

The intelligence and security services have become increasingly frustrated at their inability to use evidence gathered from bugging devices to convict known organisers of terrorism. The taps, planted in houses used by the IRA, and attached to telephones, have enabled terrorist attacks to be defeated.

However, making the tapes admissible as evidence would meet fierce resistance. There would be concern that the tapes - like police officers' notebooks - could be tampered with. Civil rights groups would also raise concern about the change in the law leading to more bugging by the security services.

It is unlikely that a change could be made to the Criminal Justice Bill, now going through the House of Lords, and ministers have confirmed that consideration is at an early stage at the Home Office. But there will be increasing pressure on Mr Howard to approve the idea.

Another Ulster death, page 2

Leading article, page 15