There are two approaches to counter-terrorism in Britain—the judicial track, emphasising evidence and due process; and the secret service track, which focuses on intelligence. How does today's terrorist threat affect the balance between the two?by Conor Gearty / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
In the darkest days of the Northern Ireland conflict, when British and Irish officials barely spoke to each other and politicians in the province paraded their enmity to the world as part of their vote-catching appeal, a group of academics, journalists and businesspeople created a parallel universe in which genuine debate was possible. Protected from the noise outside by rules of confidentiality, the British-Irish Association’s annual conference in an Oxford or Cambridge college may even have helped to change the political tone in Northern Ireland.
With a new terrorism risk arising from political Islam, many of the factors which distorted debate over Northern Ireland have re-emerged. Government and civil liberties groups often speak past each other, the first declaring we are on the verge of terrorist chaos, the second that we are about to become a police state. What would happen if people on all sides of the argument got a chance to speak to each other under conditions of confidentiality? Could the British-Irish Association magic work here too?
The LSE Centre for the Study of Human Rights (with the support of the Economic and Social Research Council) decided to give it a try. The organisers fixed upon six seminars spread over two years. The participants came from the senior ranks of government, the judiciary and the media, as well as politics, law, academia and civil liberties groups.
The first central theme to emerge was the issue of trust. It is well known that belief in government’s assertions on national security reached a low ebb after the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Less appreciated is how damaging this has been for counterterrorism. The seminars revealed the extent to which disbelief has become the standard response not only of activists, but of many academics and journalists. In one seminar, a journalist asserted that “the deployment of tanks at Heathrow one day before the biggest march against the war in Iraq led many to suggest a link.” This comment provoked an exasperated snort from a senior official who had been intimately involved in the deployment, and then a brief but impassioned discourse on what, in his view, had really happened.
The government is to some extent paying a price for the escalatory language of its predecessors, going back more than a century. So when the home office…