On suspect terrorism legislation…

Danny Morrison reveals a fascinating undercover game that took place throughout the troubles to highlight some of the difficulties he believes are inherent in the Terrorism Bill going through the Westminster parliament just now.By Danny Morrison

Radio Ulster’s ‘Arts Extra’ – one of local BBC’s best programmes – had an item on last week about the Terrorism Bill currently making its way through Westminster. The presenter, Marie-Louise Muir, interviewed John Gray of the Linenhall Library about that part of the bill dealing with “indirect incitement/glorification” of terrorism and how it could be used against librarians.

There are also potential ramifications for the media in publishing announcements or claims from proscribed organisations since such statements could be interpreted as promoting the objectives of terrorism or inciting fear. Indeed, only this week we have learnt of a suppressed memo which shows that George Bush had to be talked out of bombing the Arab television station, Aljazeera, using that very rationale, that the station was promulgating Islamic terrorism.

Under the proposed legislation a person commits an offence “if he – (a) distributes or circulates a terrorist publication; (b) gives, sells or lends such a publication; (c) offers such a publication for sale or loan; (d) provides a service to others that enables them to obtain, read, listen to or look at such a publication…”

We already have had a foretaste of this in the recent case of John O’Hagan – as the alleged book borrower. He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for having documents “likely to be of use to terrorists”, which included extracts from two borrowed books from Belfast’s Central Library – biographies on former senior Conservatives, John Major and Norman Lamont.

Linenhall Library’s John Gray told ‘Arts Extra’ that when the Northern Ireland Political Collection was first established in the early days of the conflict the library was visited by the RUC who said that they would be back in the afternoon to seize the material and arrest the librarian. However, the library contacted Stormont and obtained permission from the then Ministry of Home Affairs to collect and preserve such material. Under the new legislation it would be potentially illegal to possess much of this material particularly if it “glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts” [of terrorism].

Ironically, one of Linenhall’s largest donations came from Sinn Fein Councillor Tom Hartley, a republican archivist of great prescience who has been collecting material for over thirty years. It was Tom who preserved the history of the prison protests and hunger strikes contained in prison ‘comms’ [communications], which are currently held in the National Library of Ireland.

The issue of what is an illegal document has always been open to widespread abuse by the political police in Ireland, North and South.

Former Secretary of State, Roy Mason, took exception to ‘Republican News’ publishing the confidential itinerary of Queen Elizabeth’s planned visit to the North in 1977 and ordered a crackdown against the paper. Millions of pounds were spent mounting a case against the editorial staff of ‘Republican News’ and the Belfast executive of Sinn Fein. Around fifteen people were arrested and charged with IRA membership and conspiracy to pervert the course of public justice.

Many of the documents used against us – I was the editor of the paper – were from the archives of the Northern Ireland Public Records Office – documents, including telex messages and press releases, which Tom Hartley had been lodging with NIPRO under an agreement that they would not be made available to the public for thirty years. However, the Special Branch was secretly seizing the documents almost as fast as Hartley was lodging them. I was charged with IRA membership because my fingerprints and handwriting were on a copy of a telex message which contained an IRA press release. I had made a synopsis of some paragraphs before re-sending an edited version of the IRA statement to the ‘Irish People’ in New York for which I wrote a weekly column called ‘Seven Days’.

I would have been sentenced to five years had it not been for another exhibit which Tom had lodged and the Branch had seized. It was another of my telexed weekly columns, which contained a UVF statement claiming responsibility for a fatal sectarian bombing. On it were my fingerprints and handwritten amendments to the UVF statement. Why wasn’t I charged with UVF membership on the same basis as the IRA charge, I asked the judge, who agreed, and granted me bail. A few months later the case against all of us collapsed and the charges were withdrawn.

In 1985, during a debate in Leinster House, Limerick TD Dessie O’Malley, complaining about the security situation, said it was clear that, “The IRA calls the shots.” That week’s ‘An Phoblacht/Republican News’ re-used the quote beside a large photograph of an IRA Volunteer and later Republican Publications reproduced the front page illustration as a poster which sold in its thousands. Subsequently, the Special Branch raided the Cork offices of Sinn Fein and charged local organiser, Don O’Leary, with membership of the IRA on the basis of possession of the poster. He was sentenced to five years in jail for having a poster which reproduced the words of government minister Dessie O’Malley.

In 1986 the RUC seized a blank RUC diary from my car and arrested me. The diary had been in my car for some time and hadn’t been taken in earlier searches. It had actually been thrown into my car by an RUC man the previous December at a checkpoint at Harpers Bridge in Tyrone in exchange for sweets which he ‘stole’ from my passenger seat. I took a court case to have the property returned but the judge refused. He said that the diary contained information “likely to be of use to terrorists”, that is, the name of the printer and of businesses which had placed advertisements.

Yet the diary was freely circulating and available, at least within the unionist community, and only became ‘illegal’ when it was in the possession of a member of the nationalist community. No wonder there is great concern within British Muslims at this new legislation.

Clearly, with some twisting, turning and distorting almost anything – a telex message, a news report, a biography, a poster, a diary – can be turned into an item “likely to be of use to terrorists” – although through hard experience we know that in reality all such materials are more likely to be of use to oppressors.

First published in Daily Ireland Wednesday 30th November 2005

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