Leading Article: Internal exile does the UK a disservice

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INTERNAL exile is a sentence normally associated with the Soviet Union, not with a liberal democracy. Yet the case this week of John Matthews demonstrates how a system that was abolished in Russia survives in the United Kingdom. Mr Matthews, though born in Liverpool, has been banished to Northern Ireland on evidence that was kept secret from him and was judged inadmissible in court.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has presided over this Kafkaesque episode. Mr Howard is a barrister. One would expect him to hold dear the principle that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But he seems to have suspended such legal principles in branding Mr Matthews a terrorist and excluding him from a part of the UK. Mr Howard imposed internal exile on Mr Matthews on the day he was released by a magistrate who said he had references of 'the utmost distinction'. Peter Bottomley MP said that Mr Matthews was 'an entirely innocent and honest citizen'.

If Mr Howard knows otherwise he should make the evidence public so its truth can be tested. He evidently has an inordinate faith in the police and intelligence services. The history of internment and highly publicised miscarriages of justice shows how wrong they can be.

The Matthews case typifies dozens of examples of second-class justice in which people with Irish connections have been excluded from Britain. The use of exclusion orders under the Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism Act, first enacted in 1974, has been condemned by Lord Colville, the Government's own adviser on the legislation. The Labour Party, wary of appearing soft on terrorism, has called for the abolition of such orders. But the Government preserves powers for itself that tarnish the UK's reputation for justice and insult the people of Northern Ireland by dumping alleged terrorists on them. The legislation makes a nonsense of the Union.

Time will not even give Mr Matthews a real chance to clear his name. Appeals may be lodged with the Home Secretary and are reviewed by a specially appointed adviser, whose identity is frequently kept a secret. However, the excluded person is still not informed of the evidence and is in effect blind to the accusations in preparing a defence.

By abusing principles of fairness, Mr Howard has handed a propaganda victory to the IRA, which contends there is no such thing as British justice. He has also given another name to those who construct terrorist hit lists. Mr Matthews has arrived in Londonderry labelled a terrorist at a time when loyalists are only too willing to kill those they think are associated with republican paramilitaries. Kenneth Clarke, Mr Howard's predecessor, was left with no choice but to revoke an exclusion order on Terence Harkin when the Royal Ulster Constabulary revealed that Mr Harkin was on an assassination list.

Mr Howard should do the same for Mr Matthews if he can offer no proof of his allegations. He should then dispense with legislation that does the UK as much disservice as it did the Soviet Communists.