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Asinine law can make an ass out of politicians

(Patrick Murphy, Irish News)

"The law is a ass", Mr Bumble, the Beadle, said in Oliver Twist. While he may not have had a comprehensive grasp of English grammar, Mr Bumble had the good taste to question not just the law, but those who make it and why they do so.

Right now he would be in his element in this country, where we have a long tradition of legislation for political ends – and a sad history of the subsequent civil unrest it inevitably generated.

The Special Powers Act and the Flags and Emblems Act, for example, gave the Unionist government at Stormont absolute power in defiance of basic human rights.

It is a popular misconception that those days are over.

Recent events here suggest that laws are still being drafted and selectively applied for specific political outcomes.

The fine print of the 'On The Runs' (OTR) legislation, for example, was based on a secret deal between Sinn Féin and the British. It was a political law for the benefit of both sides to the exclusion of relatives of the victims of both sides. Republicans claim they did not know that Britain intended to apply it to its own security forces.

If Sinn Féin foresaw the legislation being used to absolve police and army crime, they misled the public. If they did not foresee it, they were unusually short-sighted. Either way they focused on their own narrow political interests at the expense of justice – a practice used by unionists here for 50 years.

Under pressure from the families of victims of security force crime, the party no longer supports the proposed law.

British abandonment of the legislation would challenge even the discerning Mr Bumble. It would mean scrapping a law because of belated opposition from a political party which refuses to sit in the parliamentary chamber – but which sits in the room next door and, of course, in Stormont.

The proposed OTR legislation indicated Sinn Féin's political influence.

Dropping it would confirm its powers of patronage over British legislation relating to Irish politics.

Even more intriguing is the fact that should London drop the proposed law, Dublin will abandon its proposed presidential pardons for on the runs.

For the first time in history the behaviour of an Irish president depends on events in the British parliament. It is, as Mr Bumble might say, a case of English law producing an Irish ass.

It is not just new laws which are politically inspired. Existing law can be selectively applied for political purposes. The dropping of charges in the alleged Stormont spy ring has now been linked to the British cabinet. Whether the intention was to protect Denis Donaldson and others, or to avoid embarrassing Sinn Féin, is unclear. Whatever the finer detail, the legal decision was political in origin and intent.

(Both sides were spying on each other in the same way that the British and French still spy on each other – as much out of historical habit as contemporary necessity. In politics it is more important to spy on your friends than on your enemies.)

If the law is political, then the police, as law enforcers, are also political.

Sinn Féin's stance on the PSNI is therefore valid. But the weakness in their position is that they do not want to de-politicise the police, they simply want to re-politicise it in their own image.

And it is this attitude which explains Sinn Féin's involvement in the use of the law as an agent of party political power. Whereas in 1921 republicans negotiated openly with the British government on behalf of the Irish people, in recent years they have negotiated – mainly in secret – on their own behalf.

Not only have they never made the slightest effort to represent unionists (whom they see as British), they have not always worked in the best interests of nationalists who are not Sinn Féin members.

Despite the popular belief, Sinn Féin does not mean ourselves alone. But the party's advocacy of proposed and existing laws for their own political benefit will do little to dispel this popular myth.

The design and implementation of the law for political purposes led to 30 years of violence in this country. It subverted democracy and protected the rich and powerful. Events in the past 10 days show that little has changed here and that Mr Bumble's analysis is still largely valid.

What he failed to observe, however, was that support for an asinine law can make a complete ass out of those who originally suggested it.

December 26, 2005

This article appeared first in the December 24, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News