This week we have seen an attack by Islamist fundamentalists against queues in Moscow Airport that left many dead. Just such an attack – against the queues that extra security measures create – rather than against aircraft has long been predicted and the results have been bloody.
Similarly, today, dissident Republicans tried to detonate a large explosive device in North Belfast at the very point when the Home Secretary was making her statement about the Counter Terrorism Review. You can always rely on violent Republicans to be predictable!
But both these events serve to remind us of exactly why the Home Secretary is doing what she has done. We watched the nonsense of the Labour years as we discussed the need or otherwise to extend the period of detention without charge beyond 28 days. Similarly, the arguments about ‘stop and search’ powers also ranged backwards and forwards.
On top of this came the vexed question of control orders – all three making me want to jump up and down and shriek at my Parliamentary colleagues, ‘You just don’t get it, do you?’ The whole point of terrorism is not necessarily to kill or injure but is to terrorise – in other words, to control peoples’ minds. And the difficulty is, is that be they Islamist fundamentalists or Irish Republicans, they fully understand the power of the word rather than the bomb and they fully understand how damaging measures like these can be to the Government’s cause. All of these measures play directly into the hands of our enemies because they persuade minority communities that they are being subject to needless and draconian measures.
In other words, anything that helps to alienate people and increase recruiting for terrorist organisations is counter-productive. Sadly, I am not sure that what I have just heard from the Home Secretary’s lips is going to improve matters.
If we deal with this in details, I am delighted that pre-charge detention has, to all intents and purposes, been reduced to 14 days. I saw the damage that Internment caused in Northern Ireland and I have been passionate about opposing anything that might even look like it in current legislation. I think we won that one.
Similarly, powers to stop and search needed to be curbed. Although I understand their use and efficacy in Northern Ireland, they tended to be used improperly against non-terrorist suspects on the Mainland or in an extraordinarily blunt manner in sensitive areas where we were trying to gather information not gag it. Again, I think we won this one.
The use of intercept as admissible evidence, however, doesn’t seem to have made much progress, though. A written statement today says that it continues to be looked at but the authorities have been looking at this particular measure for years already and although the sounds are encouraging, I don’t think that we are any closer to getting this particular tool into our counter-terrorist armoury. Allied to this, there was no mention by the Home Secretary about the other two measures which, I believe, would be more than useful. First, the use of questioning after charge. Second, a more imaginative use of plea bargaining. These three ideas put together would, I believe, help to get terrorist suspects into court and a decision made on whether they were guilty or not. No progress to report on this so, I imagine that this one is a draw.
Now for the big one – control orders. There were some unfortunate statements made here by the Home Secretary. For instance, she suggested that curfews will be replaced by an ‘overnight residence requirement’. I won’t bother to analyse this, I’ll leave the reader to ponder why this raised a chuckle along the benches. However, forcible relocation will be ended and individuals will be given greater access to mobile phones and home computers (for which they will have to provide passwords) – this is welcome.
But there was some strange thinking on the idea of terrorist suspects’ ability to associate with others. These individuals are not proved to be guilty but there is very deep suspicion about their involvement with terrorists and terrorism. Does it not, therefore, make sense to allow these folk to travel and to associate whilst keeping an eye on them – so long as that surveillance is covert rather than overt? Surely, there is intelligence to be harvested from these people – that’s axiomatic.
But I’ll close, on the whole subject of surveillance. It’s expensive and resource-intensive. Although the Home Secretary announced extra monies for surveillance, trained operatives don’t grow on trees and, as I pointed out at the start of the article and in the House, we are facing very serious threats at the moment.
Whilst the Home Secretary’s announcements are a move in the right direction, the odious aspects of control orders remain largely untouched and, I suspect, that those that they affect will not be mollified by the adjustments. Sadly, we seem to have swapped control orders for orders of control.
> Robin Simcox: Theresa May has by and large got it right on Control Orders