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The Prevention of Terrorism
(Temporary Provisions) Act – 1989



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The Prevention of Terrorism Act is possibly the best example (along with the Official Secrets Act) of legislation introduced because of an ‘emergency’, which legislation then never disappears. In this case, the executive still has the cheek to call the Act “Temporary provisions”, despite the fact that most of the provisions of this Act have been law since 1974.

‘Terrorism’ generally is a great word to use to justify the unjustifiable. ‘Terrorists’ are so far beyond the pale, that almost anything is reasonable to prevent these people doing whatever it is they wish to do. In the limit, extraordinary things are done to ‘prevent terrorism’. Here I quote from Robert Fisk in Pity the Nation,[5] which describes Lebanon's recent history. Here he refers to the events surrounding the massacres of thousands of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon. (The massacres were conducted by (Christian) Phalangists who were allied to the invading Israeli forces.)

“Pregnant women will give birth to terrorists; the children when they grow up will be terrorists” - quote from a Phalangist involved in the massacre when questioned by an Israeli tank crew.

“We know, it's not to our liking, and don’t interfere” - message from an Israeli army battalion commander to his men on learning that Palestinians were being massacred.

Fisk goes on to argue that the word ‘terrorism’ has become so amorphous, so extended that almost anyone in a certain group is suspected. “For the Israelis - for Sharon and Begin and their soldiers - ‘terrorist' did not have the same connotation as it does elsewhere. In Europe and America, in many Asian countries, even in the Soviet Union, the word ‘terrorism’ evokes images of hijackings, bombs planted on … planes, buses, trains or ships. But in Israel, ‘terrorist’ means all Palestinian Arabs - and very often all Arabs - who oppose Israel in word or deed. Loren Jenkins used to refer to the ‘careless depreciation of meaning’ that the Israelis imposed on the word…

“By labelling Palestinians as terrorists, the Israelis were describing their enemies as evil rather than hostile.” [my emphasis - MR]

And this is at the heart of the matter. ‘Terrorism’, exemplified by the horrific carnage at Omagh, has become a catch-all term justifying extreme restrictions on the civil liberties of everyone.

“At the Lord Mayor's annual Banquet in the Guildhall in November 1988, Mrs Thatcher said the following about her Government's legislative response to terrorism: ‘Yes, some of those measures do restrict freedom. But those who choose to live by the bomb and the gun, and those that support them, can't in all circumstances be accorded exactly the same rights as everyone else…Because in the battle against terrorism we shall never give in’.” [3]

Note here some trends. Firstly, (hopefully) nobody would argue that people who shoot others or plant bombs in the street should have the same civil rights as those that don't. But, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions, remember) (hereafter PTA-TP) does not affect only ‘terrorists’. It affects everyone. Anyone in Northern Ireland is a ‘potential terrorist’, just like all men are ‘potential rapists’ and all eggs are ‘potential soufflés’.

This is not to decry all Acts designed to ‘prevent terrorism’. Some measures may be justified, and all governments have a responsibility to protect the citizenry from acts of violence, whatever the motivation. Whenever civil liberties are restricted to combat ‘terrorism’, it is always worth asking; who is affected?

The PTA-TP Act was a response to a number of acts of violence by the IRA following their campaign of 1972. 7 people died in a bomb on an army barracks, and there was another death in 1973, along with 380 casualties. Another 20 deaths and 150 injuries in by November 1974, followed by the infamous Birmingham pub bombings in which another 20 died, and 184 were injured [3].

The then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, introduced the PTA-TP as a ‘draconian’ measure. Within 48 hours it was law, passed without material amendment. The law contained a sunset clause for May 1975. No government has ever sought to let this legislation die. It was reviewed in 1978, 1984 and 1989. In 1984, there was an absolute sunset clause of five years, which inevitably was renewed in 1989 in this Act. This Act contained no sunset clause, (only the need to be reviewed every year) despite the obvious fact that the level of violence was by then hugely reduced and the danger posed in 1974 had been substantially reduced.

So what does the Act actually allow?

It gives the power to; proscribe organisations (make membership illegal) and exclude certain individuals from Great Britain. The Act provides additional scope for arrest and detention.

Note here that the definition of ‘terrorism' is given very broadly; ‘the use of violence for political ends’. This (in theory at least)return to index includes any rioters in political marches e.g. the Countryside Alliance, anti-capitalism demonstrators etc. Already ‘terrorists’ potentially includes a lot of people.

Proscribed organisations
The Act makes it illegal to be a member of the IRA and INLA in the UK. Soliciting support for either organisation is also illegal. In Northern Ireland, Protestant terror groups (e.g. UVF) are outlawed. The maximum penalty is ten years. Note, a person doesn’t have to do anything here to fall foul of the law, only be a member of the proscribed organisation. The Act also prohibits attending a meeting (more than two people) designed to support the IRA or INLA, or at which a member of either organisation is going to speak.

In addition, wearing or carrying items that cause reasonable suspicion that you are a member of either organisation, mean you might incur a fine or six months imprisonment.

These represent restrictions on freedom of association and of expression. One would expect therefore that they would be justified in terms of arresting ‘terrorists’, or at least cutting funds to them. Not so. “It has never been seriously claimed that they have helped reduce terrorism…[indeed]… they may have achieved exactly the reverse. The purpose of these restrictions is to ensure that ‘the public should no longer have to endure the affront of public demonstrations’ supporting the IRA. [3], quoting Roy Jenkins]. So has it been effective? According to Ewing and Gearty, “there have however, been no prosecutions at all in Britain for membership or organising meetings and only a handful under the unlawful dress provision. This is hardly surprising. Routine public-order law is wide enough…”

So here is an example of the way in which ‘anti-terrorism’ law, designed no doubt to help in the ‘battle’ against terrorism gives the State the right to proscribe membership of organisations, yet has essentially zero effect. Despite the Home Secretary of the time calling the measures ‘draconian’, they still exist a quarter of a century later, despite proving largely useless.

This gives the Secretary of State the power to prevent entry to Britain is they are satisfied that a person had been or plans to be involved in terrorism. Note that no evidence as such is required, though ‘intelligence sources’ and silence during interrogation are legitimate reasons. A ban lasts for three years, and can be renewed.

Any non-British citizen can be excluded. So can any British citizen that hasn't lived in the UK for more than three years. (A parallel provision allows banning from Northern Ireland to other parts of the UK.) This is essentially aimed at Irish residents in Britain. Note the widening of those targeted by ‘terrorism’ laws to include essentially all Irish people.

There is a “right of appeal” of sorts. An excluded person can right to the Home Secretary and explain their grievance. The Home Sec can then send their complaint to one or more people appointed by… the Home Secretary. The Minister's opinion is final.

Arrest and detention
On the basis of ‘reasonable suspicion’, anyone can be arrested for being involved in any of the activities outlawed by the PTA-TP. These follow the normal procedures for arrests as in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE 1984), except that additional reasons for denying access to lawyers are provided for.

Without suspicion, anyone can be stopped and searched for up to 24 hours. If there is ‘reasonable suspicion’, this period is extended to 48 hours. By order of the Secretary of State, this can be extended to five days. If this happens, then all the safeguards in the PACE 1984 are void. No safeguards (e.g. regarding sleep, eating) apply during this additional five day detention period. There is no provision for challenge, nor does any rationale need to be given. This is truly “British law’s black hole for civil liberties” [Ref 3]. Arrest on suspicion, detention for up to one week without any safeguards regarding treatment.



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3. Geoffrey Robertson QC

Freedom, the individual and the law


7th edition, Penguin Books, 014024753X
UK: £10.39, USA:$29.95
(Available 26 July, 2001)
5. Fisk, Robert

Pity the Nation : The Abduction of Lebanon

op in us

3rd revised ed., Oxford Paperbacks, 0192801309 £7.99
(Available September 2001)

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© 13 May 2001

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