Blair loses support of parliament
Blair loses support of parliament

There were echoes of the final days of Margaret Thatcher in London this week as Tony Blair suffered his first parliamentary defeat.

An incredible repressiuve measure to allow police to jail people without charge for up to 90 days was defeated by 322 votes to 291, overturning Blair’s sizable majority in the House of Commons.

However, an amendment double the present permitted period of detention from 14 to 28 days, despite the concerns of human rights and civil liberties advocates.

The scale of the government’s defeat shocked ministers, some of whom had privately urged the increasingly wild-eyed Mr Blair to drop the proposal. In the end an estimated 49 Labour MPs joined forces with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, the DUP, SDLP and Scottish and Welsh nationalists to defeat the vote on “anti-terrorist legislation”.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said Mr Blair risked becoming “a lame duck” prime minister unless he realised he could not behave in a “quasi-dictatorial way.”

Putting a brave face on his defeat, Mr Blair insisted: “Sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing, than to win and do the wrong thing.”

If passed, police would have had the right to impose the equivalent of six-month prison sentences, without even a minimum evidential requirement.

Nevertheless, politicians and human rights groups in the north reacted with disappointment to the extension of detention to 28 days, in a House of Commons vote that was carried with a majority of 33.

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International’s Belfast office said their members will continue to campaign against “counter-productive anti-terrorism laws”.

“This is a sad day for liberty,” Mr Corrigan said, “It’s true it could have been much, much worse and, I suppose people must be partially thankful. Doubling up the extension period will do nothing to win the confidence of already marginalised minorities in society. “

Mark Thompson of the Relatives For Justice group re-iterated this sentiment when he said: “This new legislation is just another form of internment designed to further intimidate and harass ethnic minorities.”

SDLP South Belfast MP, Alastair McDonnell, said his party were opposed to the bill.

Dr McDonnell said: “We have seen how the stain of internment in the North robbed many people of their rights and only served to further alienate one section of the community. It is shocking that this government has not learned the lessons of the past.”

However, the SDLP controversially backed the 28-day amendment.

Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy has said that there was “widespread disgust and anger” at SDLP support for what he described as “the power to intern people for up to 28 days”.

“Irish nationalists and republicans are only to aware of the fall out from the use of repressive powers and arbitrary detention,” he said.

“Tens of thousands of people have been detained under such powers here in the six counties. We have lived through the years of internment without trial, we have lived through the years of the torture centres and conveyor belt justice. The Good Friday Agreement was about ending all of that.”

“ The victims of this measure will be young Muslims in England and given the experience of the past week young nationalists and republicans here in the six counties. The SDLP action has been greeted with disgust and anger within the broad nationalist and republican community.

“It is now clear that the SDLP is very much part of a new policing establishment. They already support the use of plastic bullets and CS gas on our streets and now they have clearly given the green light to the re-introduction of internment as well.”

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© 2005 Irish Republican News