Mr Wilson's Irish Question

Article excerpt

The New Statesman

6 December 1974

The most depressing aspect of the House of Commons debate on Mr Jenkins's new laws against terrorism was not the desire of most MPs to be seen as more vociferous in their demands for retribution than all but the most vengeful of their constituents. Nor was it the fact that so few seemed to have given thought to how Mr Jenkins's measures might work in practice. The character of the debate which should have induced near despair was the passionate desire of a British Parliament to batten down the hatches, to shut out the ugly, dangerous infection which threatens us from outside.

At a time when the British public's attention was uniquely and tragically directed to Northern Ireland, what stood out was the Government's failure to focus that attention on the need for a new start in Ulster, and to question whether it is likely to be effective to try to re-create the same measures to deal with violence here which have so obviously failed there.

One might have expected the debate to analyse the likely effects of the new laws on the situation in Northern Ireland, in the Republic, on Irish people in this country. All those questions are linked, and if there is one lesson to be learned from our experiences in Ireland over the past five years, it is that we cannot tackle terrorism without taking into account the effects of what we do in one sphere on the other parties to the situation.

A handful of MPs did try to consider the implications of the new measures. But they were few and far between, which is why I hope readers will bear with me if I attempt to fill the gap here.

There are first the possible effects on Irish people in this country, which could easily be counter-productive in the fight against the bombers. Some Labour members and one Liberal, Alan Beith, did express concern that if the laws are seen as labelling all Irish people here as potentially suspect, that is what they could very easily become. At the moment Irish people in this country are horrified by the bombs and the IRA. Most came here to build a new life and have resolutely refused to become involved in questions of Irish politics over here. Yet already one senses that such people--in the face of the kind of speeches emanating from the House of Commons--are beginning to think of themselves as consciously Irish, to draw closer to each other as a community.

No one, to my knowledge, raised the question in the House of Commons of the likely effects here if the new Act is used even the slightest bit indiscriminately and a deportation order for suspected terrorist activity is issued against an innocent man, say someone who has lived here for 15 years, may have once held Republican views, who has children born and bred here, British citizens. If the goes on the run, does Mr Jenkins expect his wife, his children, his workmates to co-operate with the police in finding him, or does he see that such things tend to discredit the law and the police? …