On Tuesday January 12th, the European Court of Human Rights delivered a landmark judgment relating to Section 44 stop and search powers of the British government’s ‘Terrorism Act’ which have been used with increasing frequency by the PSNI.
The Strasbourg case involved two people, one of whom was a journalist, who were stopped near an arms fair in London in 2003. The European Court adjudged that “it considers that the powers of authorisation and confirmation as well as those of stop and search under sections 44 and 45 of the 2000 (Terrorism) Act are neither sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse. They are not, therefore, ‘in accordance with the law’.”
By asserting that such powers, which it described as “coercive”, constituted a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the court clearly determined that Section 44 is an invasion of people’s right to liberty and privacy.
Despite the Court’s damning rebuttal of these powers which the British government has vested in the PSNI and other British police forces - or the fact that the PSNI’s ability to use “arbitrary” stop and search powers should now lie in tatters - a virtual blanket of silence descended over the Six County media, politicians, and human rights bodies in response.
Given the manner in which civil liberties in the Six Counties have been continually eroded, the question must be posed - Why such silence?
After all, this European judgment is particularly pertinent to the Six Counties given the dramatic rise in the use of these draconian stop and search powers under Section 44.
Only two months ago, it was revealed that there were more than 20,000 stop and search incidents in the Six Counties under the British government’s ‘Terrorism Act’ and ‘Justice & Security Act’ during the nine month period from January 1 to September 30 last year.
Over 17,000 of those stop and searches were conducted under Section 44 - the same “coercive” power which the EU now deems illegal. Such figures indicate a force using repressive measures with relish. It is a picture far removed from that continually portrayed by the constitutional nationalist politicians who support the PSNI.
Those figures and the European Court’s ruling clearly demonstrate the illegal and arbitrary nature of policing in the Six Counties. It is somewhat astonishing that the only nationalist politician or Six County Policing Board member from whom public comment came either did not know the full extent of the PSNI’s use of stop and search powers or deliberately sought to underplay its impact by referring to “hundreds” of people, rather than 20,000 plus, being affected.
This is typical of a political establishment that spends so much time obsessing about power and personalities that it fails to read or monitor the laws being enacted and implemented on their watch.
The political establishment cares little for civil liberties as its ambition entails the creation of a highly controlled and monitored society.
The surveillance of individuals, of our streets and towns has increased without public scrutiny or debate. Privacy is under threat, as widespread interception of telephone and email communications increases. The PSNI has greater powers of arrest, to use stop and search powers without any suspicion of crime, to deploy covert British army units, to continue retaining DNA and fingerprint samples of innocent people [deemed unlawful by a European Court ruling in December 2008], to collaborate with MI5, and to take punitive action against political activists. To compound all this, the length of time that persons can be detained without charge has been increased to 28 days.
All of the above has occurred under the watch of those who promised to deliver new beginnings and greater accountability.
The European Court also stated there was a clear risk that such widely framed Section 44 stop and search powers could be misused against peaceful demonstrators and political activists in breach of Article 10 and/or 11 of the Convention. That was the case in relation to the PSNI’s use of those powers in response to a totally peaceful protest organised at the British army’s telecommunications post in the Belfast hills in November last year and on many other occasions.
Presently, much speculation surrounds the ‘deal or no deal’ saga of the devolution of limited policing and justice powers to Britain’s Stormont administration. Such a move, should it occur, will actually do little to enhance civil liberties in the Six Counties as decisive power over “national security matters” - the interests of the British state in Ireland - will remain, as always, the sole prerogative of the British government.
And, acting to reinforce that reality, the British government contemptuously announced after the Strasbourg judgment that the discredited and unlawful Section 44 powers will remain in use.
Therein lay the reason behind the virtual blanket of silence which descended over the North in response of the European Court judgment.
Those who have clamoured most for a policing and justice ministry at Stormont were simply incapable of explaining what little palpable difference such a minister could ever make while the British government and its forces in Ireland continue to ignore internationally recognised human rights’ conventions, just as they do elsewhere.
In condemning Britain, the European Court unwittingly removed a fig-leaf to expose the short-comings of those who run the Six Counties on behalf of Britain.