Leading Article: A victory for terror

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MINISTERS are right to remind us, as they frequently do, that terrorists are no better than common criminals. Political objectives, no matter how ancient, no matter how often celebrated in poetry, do not justify the use of lethal weapons. Bombs planted in the cause of Irish unity are no better than bombs planted by the Mafia in Italy or the drug barons in Colombia. The aim is similar: to intimidate the state and to defy the rule of law. This is what distinguishes terrorism from other forms of criminal activity. The intention is not to kill or maim particular people; it is not to achieve material gain or sexual gratification or the resolution of some personal animus. It is to put the terrorist group above the law and above the normal political process. The targets are, therefore, indiscriminate and the threat is to society as a whole.

Terrorism is thus a special class of crime that is peculiarly difficult to prevent and detect because nobody can hope to predict where the bomber will strike next. So there is nothing inherently wrong in Parliament approving laws that give the authorities specific powers, such as longer periods of detention for questioning, to deal with terrorist offences, just as they have specific powers to deal with fraud. But such laws should be effective enough to justify the inevitable diminution of civil liberties and there should be adequate safeguards against abuse.

The case of John Matthews creates doubt on both counts. Last week, Mr Matthews, a 22-year-old graduate of Queen's University, Belfast, was cleared of the attempted taxi bomb attack on Downing Street in April. The prosecution offered no evidence in court. The stipendiary magistrate said that he had received references of 'the utmost distinction'. Yet Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, using powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, immediately excluded him from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, sending him into the kind of 'internal exile' that was once familiar in the Soviet Union and in South Africa under apartheid.

Mr Howard was not obliged to give reasons but said - in response to Peter Bottomley, the Tory MP and former Northern Ireland minister who took up the case - that he was satisfied that Mr Matthews was involved in terrorism. He refuses to publish the evidence but acknowledges that it includes 'material which would not be admissible as evidence in court proceedings'. This presumably means that MI5 or Special Branch have told him that Mr Matthews has associated with people thought to have IRA connections. Such sources do not inspire confidence. During the Gulf war, the same people told one of Mr Howard's predecessors, Kenneth Baker, to detain some 80 Iraqis. Later, they all turned out to be innocent. Yet Mr Matthews has no right to see the evidence against him and no right of appeal except to the Home Secretary.

Even if the evidence is good, it is hard to understand what Mr Howard and his advisers think they are up to. If Mr Matthews is a danger in London why is he not an equal danger in Ulster where he can travel freely? The answer, no doubt, is that a bomb in London has several times the propaganda value of one in Belfast or Londonderry. But ministers should understand that they are fighting a propaganda battle on several fronts. When the police or security services act to make it more difficult for the bombers - by increasing motoring restrictions, for example - much nonsense is talked about 'a victory for the IRA'.

The use of exclusion powers, however, is truly a victory for the terrorists. It suggests that ministers already regard Northern Ireland as a foreign country whose citizens can be left, as the saloon bar wisdom would have it, 'to fight it out among themselves'. It tells the IRA that, psychologically, the British Government is prepared for disengagement. It tells the Ulster Catholics, who account for most of the 400-plus people excluded since 1974, that they are United Kingdom citizens only on sufferance. It tells the Unionists that the Republic's latest proposals - that Dublin and London should agree a political settlement over the heads of the people of Ulster - are not so fanciful. The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, the Government's watchdog on anti-terrorist legislation, has repeatedly called for the abolition of exclusion powers. It is time that ministers paid attention. The answer to terrorism is better policing and better intelligence, not illiberal and counter-productive laws.