UK should take the moral high ground

Emergency legislation has been a feature of Northern Ireland's legal life since partition. If a crime is committed, those suspected of political motivation can be detained for up to seven days without charge, with no access to reading or writing materials for seven days, no access to lawyer or family for up to 48 hours, the non-application of PACE, no jury trial and a different standard for admissibility of alleged confession evidence.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland takes the view that in the event of a lasting peace, any emergency legislation in the UK as a whole should be as near to PACE as possible. The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a civil liberties body in the province, takes the view that the permanent imposition of emergency legislation is a barrier in the search for a just and lasting peace. Mary O'Rawe argues on page 40 that emergency law has become so much part of the fabric of life in the UK in relation to Northern Ireland that the mindset of Parliament has veered away from viewing repressive legislation as abnormal.

The contrasting views are indicative of the difficulties ahead in the restoration of the province's legal system. The political and legal processes are entwined. However, as the CAJ points out, creating a climate of trust and faith in the rule of law is a fundamental part of the peace process.

What better way to do this than show that the Government has taken on board its responsibilities with regard to the various human rights treaties it has ratified? While the paramilitaries may not have respect for the rights of citizens, the UK Government should occupy the moral high ground. And perhaps it is time that the Northern Ireland Law Society assisted in the faltering peace process by actively contributing to the debate. If the removal of emergency law will assist the peace process, then surely it is the responsibility of all to ensure that it is at the top of the agenda.