In the wake of the Omagh bomb massacre, there was a demand for more powers to be given to police and prosecutors in an attempt to stymie extremists waging war on the peace process.
In the Republic, the swift governmental response to the bombing included the introduction of legislation to counter the crime of ‘directing terrorism’.
Though a similar law existed in the North, and had led to the conviction of Johnny Adair, its extension to the South was greeted with trepidation by civil liberties groups who pointed out that the existing emergency legislation in the Republic is among the toughest in Europe.
In the intervening years, those responsible for the Omagh attack, which killed 29 people including the mother of unborn twins, have not been brought to justice.
Claims that the RUC botched the investigation and that some of those who carried out the market town attack were in fact police agents have never been satisfactorily rebuffed by the authorities on either side of the border.
In such circumstances the bringing to trial this week of alleged Real IRA commander Michael McKevitt, under the new legislation is a poor substitute indeed for justice for the Omagh victims.
Having failed to put a cogent case together against the gang responsible for the Omagh bombing, the authorities in the South have resorted to the use of an American agent provocateur of very dubious reputation (and paid over a million dollars to boot) to make their case against Mr McKevitt.
The experience in the North has been that informers in court will sing whatever tune their paymasters ask for. Rather than deliver justice, their use serves only to sully the entire justice system.
Some may argue that the Real IRA and their cohorts have no respect for human lives, never mind human rights, and that therefore anything goes in the battle to stop their campaign. But that’s an argument which ultimately reduces the rest of the community to the level of the dissidents who are content to kill anyone who disagrees with them.
It’s crucial that the authorities, especially in the South, succeed in their campaign to derail the campaign of the zealots who want to bomb us all back to the past. However, this week’s activity in the Four Courts not only plays fast and loose with the right of the accused to a fair trial but risks lowering the Irish state to the level of regimes such as that of Colombia, which regard the courts as no more than an arm of the military.
In the case of the show trial in Colombia, the Irish Government, to its credit, has made known to the Colombian Government its anxiety. With the Colombian prosecution case – which relies heavily on informers – falling apart, civil liberties organisations have joined Irish elected representatives to demand that Jim Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley be released immediately.
Sadly, the Colombian authorities — who boast one of the worst human rights records in the world and preside over a civil war which has claimed 60,000 lives since 1985 — view the show trial as a way of demonstrating to the US that they’re a willing partner in the global coalition against terrorism.
After Israel, of course, Colombia is now the biggest recipient of American military aid. In such circumstances, the Colombia Three are no more than pawns in a much bigger and murkier power-play.
In any country where the rule of law is respected, the trial of the Colombia Three would have been dismissed long ago. It’s essential that the Irish Government get that message through to their Colombian counterparts.
While Taoiseach Bertie Ahern may argue that the separation of state and judiciary absolves him of any culpability in the trial of Mr McKevitt, the reality is that ultimately political leaders must carry the can for any erosion of the right to a fair trial. Police officers will always lobby for more powers — as Hugh Orde does in an interview wit us this week — but it’s the job of responsible politicians, North and South, to make sure that the police are the servants of the public and not the other way about.