An article about the Prevention of Terrorism Act from Black Flag #216 1999.
Pleasing as it was to see Mandelson and Robinson go from the government, their resignations have deflected attention from a much more significant aspect of Blair's agenda. Many on the Labour left believe Mandelson's resignation will allow the re-emergence of "Old Labour" and that there is a contest going on at Cabinet level between advocates of Keynesian social democracy and proponents of "19th century liberalism". None of us who believe in working class self organisation can afford to buy into such notions. What Blair and the government actually represent was made explicit in December 98 with the presentation to Parliament of a Home Office consultation paper, "Legislation Against Terrorism". The paper sets out the government's proposals for replacing the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 and the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996 (the EPA). It is, in effect, a review of the existing - temporary - anti-terrorist legislation, in light of the purported peace dividend of the Belfast Agreement. We are told by the likes of Hugo Young and Will Hutton that Blair's government could be one of the great reforming governments, a champion of civil liberties and constitutional reform.
It is significant that the "great reformers'" response to the cessation of violence in the Six Counties is "to repeal the PTA and the EPA and to replace them both with one piece of permanent legislation which will apply throughout the United Kingdom and to all forms of terrorism, including new forms of terrorism which may apply in the future." We are told the government's agenda includes the "normalisation" of politics in Northern Ireland, and the transformation of the "security environment". But what the consultation paper proposes is the "normalisation" of the previous temporary provisions, and the extension of the "security environment" of the Six Counties to the entire UK.
The paper argues that there is no peace dividend to be had, that "regardless of the threat of terrorism related to Northern Ireland ... the time has come to put the legislation onto a permanent footing." Far from embracing the notion that political normalisation should lead to an extension of civil liberties, the breathing space in the Six Counties has led the government to conclude that "there now exists a clear and present terrorist threat to the UK from a number of fronts" and that "new counter-terrorist legislation should be permanent." Clearly, for all the report's inflammatory references to "religious cults" and Islamic extremists, there is no real terrorist threat operating in Britain such as would fall into the existing definition of "terrorism" as set out in the PTA. Moreover, the report's references to "800 incidents recorded by the Animal Rights National Index .. in 1997 .. and total damage at .. œ1.8 million" is hardly evidence of economic chaos such as resulted from the Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf bombings.
The paper proposes, therefore, a new definition of "terrorism", as "the use of serious violence against persons or property, or the threat to use such violence, to intimidate or coerce a government, the public or any section of the public, for political, religious or ideological ends." With the redefinition comes an extension of police powers operative under the PTA and EPA to the mainland, as follows:
1. Making it an offence to raise or launder funds for "terrorist purposes", and extending the powers of the police and courts to seize cash and property.
2. The power for the police to arrest without warrant anyone whom they "reasonably" suspect of being involved in the preparation, commission or instigation of such acts of terrorism.
3. Powers of the police, Army and "others" to stop and search pedestrians, vehicles and their occupants should be made applicable throughout the UK, as also the powers of entry, search and seizure".
4. The extension of current proscription powers - the power to ban political organisations and make membership of them a criminal offence, to all the UK.
The redefinition of "terrorism" is, we are told, designed to encompass "extreme elements of the animal rights movement". The redefinition includes both use and threat of violence, against both persons and property and is drafted deliberately to allow the proscription and repression of such actions as anti-road protests and militant anti-fascism. It is clear that the proposals, if enacted, could have been used against exiled ANC activists in the UK in the 60s and 70s and against groups like Anti-Fascist Action today. Moreover, on the basis that the threat of violence is sufficient it is arguable that any group which supports, publicises or condones effective, direct action (anti-bailiff, anti-JSA etc) is likely to fall under the ambit of the proposed extension of powers. Blair's agenda is clear; the formation of a "coalition", whereby "centre" politicians such as Ashdown and left Tories are drawn into Cabinet in support of a political status quo based on a low-wage, "flexible" economy with coercive measures such as workfare/JSA to ensure the unemployed act as an effective anchor on pay; a legal opposition in the form of the Labour left in Parliament and the dissenting "good" like the Observer and Guardian, and the criminalisation of any and all effective extra-parliamentary opposition. Let no one allow themselves the illusion that this is scare mongering. The consultation paper is explicit in its intent to transplant the "security environment" of the Six Counties to the UK as a whole.
We should remember that the "security environment" in the Six Counties did not prevent the nationalist community fighting the British state to a standstill or securing its place at the negotiating table. For those of us who care to look, there are lessons aplenty in how working class republicans coped with and overcame the repressive mechanisms of the British state. As the state develops new means of repression, we have to develop new techniques of resistance as our response.
In his book "The Longest War", the US journalist Kevin Kelley noted "What is clear .. is that the war in Northern Ireland had caused the oldest of Parliamentary democracies to discard many of its supposedly sacrosanct protections against abuses of the state and police authority. Laws such as the PTA, institutions such as the Diplock Courts and the Gulag-like detention centre at Castlereagh all showed plainly that statutory safeguards and legal precedents count for little when the state, even one that has produced "the mother of parliaments" feels itself seriously challenged." If Blair has his way, the mother of parliaments will seek to discard our civil liberties yet again.