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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Between Theory and Reality

Eamon Sweeney • September 4, 2003

“In all democracies the law is part and parcel of a wider notion called “the rule of law”. By this is meant that no-one, whether an individual, a company, a private body or an organ of the government can be above the law: the law must apply to everyone equally, without unfair discrimination…..”

These are the words of none other than Brice Dickson, current Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, writing in the introduction to the 1997 publication “Civil Liberties in Northern Ireland: The CAJ Handbook.”

Fine words and ideals you must agree. In chapter three of the book, “Powers of the Police” Dickson outlines the powers of the then RUC “which people in Northern Ireland are most likely to encounter in everyday life”. He continues to lay down then the rights of police under the normal legislation as set out in England and Wales via the Police and Criminal evidence order (PACE) 1989.

In exemplifying this act he tells us that contrary to popular belief the general rule is that the police do not have the right to stop and question people. They can only attempt to stop and question people.

He correctly states that whilst many people will comply with such a request, that there is no obligation to stop or answer questions. The PACE order also confers upon the police the power to stop and search, but it does not remove the persons legal right not to be stopped for questioning. In fact to stop a person lawfully the police must make an arrest.

During the period of detention, the police can ask questions, but again the person is under no legal obligation to reply. Dickson actually states that when questioned at any time, “……it is very often sensible to remain silent until a solicitor is present.”

Again this is highly laudable and imbued with the spirit of egalitarianism.

It is also the point,in the context of Northern Ireland,where things begin to go sour.

The Criminal Evidence (NI) order of 1988, dictates that silence during questioning may later provide corroborative evidence that the accused is guilty of an offence. Data accrued in the course of any “interview” can then by at once destroyed by the police or “stored” indefinitely.

Under the auspices of the data Protection Act 1984 people cannot then access this material as it may be deemed “required for the purpose of safeguarding national security” or “held for the prevention or the detection of crime”. When we add to this section 25 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996, we enter a land of legal grey areas as regards the scope of these provisions. There are no stipulations as to how much detail a person much provide in terms of their identity, and their movements. There is a supposed duty to “answer to the best of one’s ability”, for which we can surmise that you must give as much information as the police require before they are satisfied.

For example an act of “terrorism” is deemed as “any (other) incident endangering life”, yet as Dickson points out this could relate to a fire or a road traffic accident. In terms of vehicle checkpoints, again there is no legal obligation to stop or produce your licence. However it is an easy way to prove your identidy,therefore proceed unhindered but at the same time having handed your details to the police.

There is nothing overtly sinister in these procedures, at least in a “normal” society. In Northern Ireland however there is a lot of ground between the theory of law and the reality of its application.

Therefore it was with a grim sense of amusement that I listened last week to the comments of PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde wax lyrical about about the depth of progress made in curbing paramilitary criminality on the event of his first anniversary in the job. As usual Mr.Orde involved himself in commenting on political issues that a police officer even in the six counties,should have no involvement in. Following on from his disgraceful remarks earlier this year about the speculated outcome of “The Saville Inquiry” in 2004, he gave us a verbal polemic on how mainstream republicans have a lot more to do to drag the peace process out of crisis.

“At some stage they (the IRA) have to make a decision, and that’s what normalisation is all about.” He then continued by voicing his disappointment at how the political process had not advanced in tandem with the improvements in policing.

Even making allowances for the fact that we are still by no means a normal society by any definition of the word, a stricture of any acceptable policing organisation is the non-interference of that organisation in politically sensitive issues. The irony of all this is that the comments were made after the announcement that an international conference on police corruption is to be held in Belfast in November this year.

In attendance at that conference will be Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Stevens who has in total spent fourteen years illustrating almost institutionalised abuse of the above legislation and its legal predecessors, by the RUC/PSNI. Surely the irony of the location of this meeting will not be lost on Stevens and the organiser, Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, whom I suspect may be having a mild chuckle to herself about this.

Reading between Orde’s comments I would suggest that he thinks that a cosmetic name change for the police service has transmogrified the inherent flaws, outlook and actions of the RUC/PSNI since its foundations and that it has also changed the attitudes of nationalist and republican people towards it. It may have tempered the attitude of political parties in their reaction to the service, but if its Chief Constable cannot make a distinction between the application of law and the political arena it does not bode well for his or the long term future of the PSNI; particularly in light of that organisations damning and murderous history, not forgetting that they did this with a little help from their friends. Thank God we no longer have to deal with the Special Powers Act, because as we can see that has had a cosmetic name change too.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

4 September 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


US Denies It Gave Safe Harbor to Brian Nelson
Fr Sean Mc Manus


Between Theory and Reality
Eamon Sweeney


In the Name of Security
Jim J Kane


Caught at it Again
Anthony McIntyre


The History of the Troubles According to the Provos
John Nixon


Moving Forward Past the Past
Davy Carlin


More Questions than Answers
Mick Hall


In Memory of Robert Emmet

Charles Murnick


Attempted Suicide by Iranian Asylum Seeker
Debbie Grue


Dublin: Maghberry Briefing Meeting
Mags Glennon


Belfast Anti-War Movement
Public Meeting


1 September 2003


Latest Police Attacks on Press Freedoms
Mike Browne


We Haven't Gone Away, You Know
The Blanket Back Online


The War Crime of Secret Graves
Anthony McIntyre


Horses for Courses
Eamon Sweeney


Rwanda: Crushing Dissent
Liam O Ruairc


Terrorists, Their Friends and the Bogota 3
Toni Solo


Aznar: Spain's Super Lackey
Agustín Velloso


Orwell Centenary Talk

John O'Farrell


The Letters page has been updated.




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