Secret inquests for Troubles backlog abandoned

Is Justice Secretary Jack Straw stealthily about to demolish a bunch of the anti-terrorism laws brought in since 9/11? He gave a hint of it in a speech last Tuesday when he declared:

“There is a case for going through all counter terrorism legislation and working out whether we need it. It was there for a temporary period.”

He gave no details but there’s bound to be speculation that the government will retreat on the controversial 28 days maximum detention period for terrorist suspects.

Then today, buried under the weight of the MPs’ expenses crisis, Straw used the device of a written Commons statement to announce the abandonment of most of the heavily criticised plan to hold secret inquests which might have covered cases like de Menezes and soldiers killed by friendly fire – both categories causing excruciating embarrassment to the government. The prospect of secret inquests was greeted with uproar in Northern Ireland when it became clear it would apply to the big backlog of outstanding Troubles cases. However the alternative, more inquiries under the controversial Inquiries Act 2005, isn’t likely to find many supporters either.

A big defeat is dropping a proposal to modify the blanket ban on intercept evidence to allow its use in special inquests. An attempt to bring in bugging evidence in trials was defeated behind the scenes, despite support for it by the independent assessor of terrorist laws, Lord Carlisle.

Fear of defeat in the increasingly powerful reformed House of Lords largely accounts for these retreats.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London