One Eye on Ireland

6-04-07, 9:14 am

Northern Ireland's devolved power-sharing assembly at Stormont is settling down to business.

However, in a timely reminder of where the real source of power lays, the most significant political development in relation to the future of the revived Good Friday process took place, not in Stormont, but in the imperial parliament at Westminster.

On 21 May, legislation paving the way for full devolution of policing and justice issues and the ending of no-jury Diplock courts completed its parliamentary stages and now awaits royal assent.

However, while these key aspects of the legislation are to be welcomed, along with the strengthening of the six county's Human Rights Commission, other elements are not. The granting of extra powers to the British army to question people in connection with explosions in the north is particularly disturbing, not least because it is both unnecessary and flies in the face of all other measures aimed at demilitarisation and so-called 'normalisation'.

The legislation is not alone in reminding us that Britain's colonial endeavours in Ireland will continue to have an impact on both sides of the Irish Sea until such time as a united and independent Ireland comes into being.

A while back I argued that former RUC chief constable Ronnie Flanagan should be removed as the head her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary. I argued this on the grounds that as a long-serving senior Special Branch officer who went on to head the force, his protestations of ignorance concerning the widespread collusion involving the Branch and loyalist paramilitaries were simply not credible. Either that, or they represented a clear dereliction of duty.

Senior figures within the Home Office and the police establishment, including government ministers in both Tory and Labour governments, clearly think otherwise - Flanagan received an OBE in 1996, a knighthood in 1999 and the Queen's Police Medal for distinguished service in 2006.

Nor has it hindered his employment prospects given that he now heads up the state body charged with examining and improving the efficiency of the police service in England and Wales.

The inspectorate also continues to have a role in Northern Ireland through its role as advisor to the Ministry of Defence Policing and Guarding Agency.

Another figure with an equally dubious track record in the six counties is Jonathan Evans, recently appointed as the new head of MI5.

Evans had been an MI5 agent for 11 years before he was sent to Northern Ireland to assist the notorious Force Research Unit, now renamed the Joint Support Group and currently serving in Iraq, which has been linked to numerous murders and criminal activity arising from the infiltration of Irish republican groups and collusion with loyalist death squads.

According to one former FRU member, one of Evan's 'major triumphs' was to provide the IRA with sophisticated bomb-making technology on the grounds that this would enable them to track and develop counter measures more effectively.

That such a dangerous and seemingly wreckless approach had a downside was demonstrated by the 'Flash-gun' triggered IRA bomb which exploded near Newry in March 1992 killing one RUC constable and seriously wounding another.

As more information becomes available raising concerns about the role of the security forces in infiltrating, aiding and even directing terror and criminal activities throughout the in Northern Ireland conflict, it is inevitable that questions are raised concerning its methods of dealing with Islamic extremist groups.

Another highly controversial figure with a past in Northern Ireland conflict is former Scots Guards commanding officer Tim Spicer's, whose mercenary outfit Aegis has just been re-awarded a major US contract to provide 'security services' in Iraq. The contract is believed to be worth $475 million.

According to a recent report by bestselling author and investigative reporter Jeremy Schahill 'there are at least 126,00 private personnel deployed alongside the official armed forces ' in Iraq.

Aegis personnel, who provide a range of security and logistical support' to both the regular occupation forces and the Iraqi army, are a part of this private mercenary force, taking part in what Schahill describes as 'the most privatized war in history'.

Back in 1992, Spicer was commanding officer in the British army in Belfast when two of his men, privates Mark Wright and James Fisher, murdered 19-year-old Peter McBride, an unarmed father of two.

Convicted of the murder and given life sentences, the two soldiers were freed in 1998 allowed to resume their army careers. Both have served in Iraq.

As the Derry-based independent human rights organisation Pat Finucane Cente sums up in a recent briefing paper, Spicer, who gave evidence for the defence during the trial and played a prominent role in lobbying for the two men's release from prison '...has consistently portrayed a fictitious version of the circumstances surrounding the incident.'

The Centre also points out that various mercenary companies run by Spicer, such Sandline International and Aegis, have since been the centre of scandals in Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea and Iraq - the latter including the appearance on a web message board used by company employees of 'trophy videos' appearing to show Aegis employees firing randomly at Iraqi civilians.

In 2005, an Aegis employee was sacked after a British newspaper revealed that he was implicated in the army's Deepcut bullying scandal.

The family of the murdered Belfast teenager is currently mounting a legal challenge aimed at excluding Aegis from from contracts awarded by the British government. However, despite Aegis's highly dubious track record, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has dismissed the family's well-documented concerns and has, to date, refused to give an undertaking not to consider the company for further security contracts.

A further worrying example of how British involvement in the six counties has a habit of washing back across the Irish Sea, with direct implications for civil rights and democracy in Britain, has been the Home Office announcement earlier in the week concerning the proposed extension of police stop and search powers.

Under the proposals, the police would be able to stop and question individuals on the basis of suspicion alone. Failure to provide a name and an explanation of what you've been doing, and who you've been doing it with, could result in a charge of obstructing the police and a fine of up to £5,000.

Stop and question powers, not unlike the hated 'Sus' law, hastily withdrawn in England a quarter of a century ago after its racist application triggered major inner-city disturbances, have long continued to apply in the six counties.

It had been widely expected that they would be set aside in the north as part of the 'normalisation' element of the Good Friday process. The announcement of plans to extend stop and question powers as by part of new so-called 'anti-terror' laws being prepared by John Reid, have now brought this move into question.

Set alongside concerns raised over both the past and current roles of those like Flanagan, Evans and Spicer, or the possibility of an extension of draconian police powers, David Trimble's long-expected defection from the Ulster Unionist Party to the British Conservative party seem positively benign.

However, it does raise the unpleasant and unpalatable spectre of, in the event of a Conservative victory at the next UK general election, the dour right-wing former UUP leader being given a prominent role in a future Tory cabinet.

And if that isn't a big enough incentive to consign 'New' Labour to the dustbin of British political history, if only to give Labour a fighting chance of defeating Cameron's soft-focus Thatcherites at the next general election, I don't know what is.

From Morning Star