The latest atrocity in Northern Ireland – the Omagh bombing – has justifiably led the Government to recall Parliament to ascertain the appropriate legislative response.
Catching the perpetrators of such an outrage and deterring others from committing similar acts is very important at such a delicate stage in Northern Ireland. The government's reaction is further validated by the degree of public disgust that such an act could have been carried out when Ireland – north and south – had voted overwhelmingly to support the Good Friday Peace Agreement.
But in the interests of civil liberties and good law, the government needs to proceed with great care. The peace agreement is based on the principles of human rights and civil liberties. Draconian legislation such as that being mooted goes against these fundamental principles and would also seem to go against the spirit of the agreement. How can allowing suspects to be convicted for being a member of a proscribed organisation on the evidence of a senior police officer inspire confidence in the justice system?
Not only is it likely that the proposed new offences contravene international human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, but they undoubtedly open up the real possibility of miscarriages of justice. In Northern Ireland, this would be the revisiting of a nightmare. But it is also topical in the rest of the UK – indeed the Metropolitan police have just set up a task force to investigate possible miscarriages.
However, in a precarious situation such as Northern Ireland's, where the role of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is not universally supported, the spectre of miscarriages of justice is much more serious. No matter how pressing the need to be seen to be reacting, the government must be seen to be fair. Otherwise it will end up passing counter-productive legislation. As one solicitor says in our analysis (see page 15), public opinion is the biggest weapon against terrorism.
The government's task is to ensure effective legislation is put in place. Unfair laws make for unfair convictions and do little to inspire confidence in the justice system. An overreaction will not, in the long term, assist this task.