The State, Domestic Extremism and Terrorism.
The Fenian Dynamite Campaign was carried out between 1881 and 1885 when Irish-American Fenianism undertook a sustained terrorist campaign incorporating a series of explosions in British urban centres.The London Underground was the main target, with the bombing attacks creating a sense of terror throughout London. For the first time in British history, the Irish question was not confined to Ireland but now affected daily life in British cities through the unprecedented experience of political violence.
To combat this threat, a covert operation known as The Special Irish Branch was formed in 1883 whose a remit was to spy on and infiltrate Irish radicals. The Special Irish Branch eventually became known as simply The Special Branch and while it continued to spy on Irish activists, it soon broadened its remit as it moved to tackle what is now called “domestic extremism”. The role of The Special Branch, particularly in connection with domestic extremism, is possibly a source of greater controversy today than when it was involved in the late 19th century war on terror.
A century later The Chief Constable of The Greater Manchester Police, Sir Cyril James Anderton CBE was to say: “From the police point of view… theft, burglary, even violent crime will not be the predominant police feature. What will be the matter of greatest concern will be the covert and ultimately overt attempts to overthrow democracy, to subvert the authority of the state.”
Anderton also remarked that: “We are witnessing and passively acquiescing in a quiet but hardly bloodless revolution. If disciplined and established institutions like the police service which embody commonly accepted values and stability can somehow be discredited, the way is set to demoralise and vanquish the public. Indeed the police service in the United Kingdom represents the largest single obstacle to politically contrived domination and totalitarianism”
Ever increasing parliamentary legislation¹ always claims to be in the interest of preserving democracy and protecting the public. It is difficult to reconcile Anderton’s views of the Police being the enforcers of the law of the state, with them also being the obstacle to politically contrived totalitarianism. It’s the Judiciary who protect a citizen’s civil rights under the authority of the state, a key element of which is the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act².
As Michael Zander QC says: “Habeas corpus has a mythical status. . . . In reality it is no longer of great practical significance as there are today very few habeas corpus applications, but it still represents the fundamental principle that unlawful detention can be challenged by immediate access to a judge—even by telephone in the middle of the night.”
Despite debate and periodic suspension by government, habeas corpus has endured within law because the idea of an authority having the power to imprison someone without cause is abhorrent to general sensibilities.
The current counter-terrorism legislation allows the police, in certain specified circumstances, to arrest individuals reasonably suspected of being terrorists. A suspect may be detained without charge for extended periods, with pre-charge detention (habeas corpus) having been increased from 2 days to 28 days and even a Government proposal that sought a 90 day period. More than 300 years of the Habeas Corpus Act, which a government has powers to suspend, has now been changed by parliament.
The line between domestic extremism and terrorism has become increasingly blurred. The present Government policy to Protect the UK Against Terrorism has amended, but not revoked, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which governs the use of covert techniques by public authorities. This, in addition to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), which establishes the powers of the police to combat crimes while claiming to protect the rights of the public. Habeas corpus is a citizen’s first defence against the ever increasing authority of the state. Seeking remedies that extend further the authority of the State, should not lead to a situation where increased police empowerment is itself the covert, and ultimately overt, threat to democracy³.
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