Searching for evidence instead of scapegoats

(by Paul Donovan, the Irish Post)

The police decision to blame the IRA for the recent multi-million pound bank raid in the North of Ireland has sparked a storm of protest. MP Sarah Teather tells Paul Donovan why she thinks the decision was wrong.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland's (PSNI) decision to point the finger of blame for the Northern Bank robbery at IRA paramilitaries has provoked a crisis in the peace process.

The truth of the claim is still a matter of heated debate - but the comments have left Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Sarah Teather was incensed. "I think it is quite unprecedented, nowhere else would a chief constable effectively appoint himself judge and jury and announce before something has gone to trial," said Teather. "It is hugely detrimental to the peace process. It is hugely detrimental to the normalisation process that needs to happen in Northern Ireland."

And the MP admits she is confused as to what PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde was trying to achieve with his comments." What are they actually saying by this - that everybody involved in that bank robbery will be proven to have direct links to the IRA. Surely we have a principle in this country of people being innocent until proven guilty and surely that must apply also to organisations?"

"The police need to prove both that the individuals they say were involved were involved and that there is a direct link between those individuals and the IRA. If they are confident that is the case why have they not put the evidence in the public domain?"

"The comments made were unacceptable as was the secretary of state for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy's actions in backing them up."

"I have no idea if the IRA were involved or not but I think the evidence should be brought before a court and tried. What happens if we find somebody else was involved - they can now say they have a cast iron alibi because the chief constable said in public that it was the IRA."

Sarah Teather is one of the youngest MPs in the House of Commons at 30. She was elected MP for Brent East in September 2003, defeating Labour candidate by a substantial margin. The unpopularity the Labour Government at the time and particularly its stance on the war in Iraq played an important part in her success. Brent boasts a wide range of different ethnic minorities, including the largest concentration of Irish people in Britain.

And the MP appreciates the role that Irish people have played in building Britain and is keen to ensure that they get a better deal in the future. She is also keen to see movement on the peace process - despite the controversy over the Northern Bank robbery.

"There is a real groundswell from the public in Northern Ireland that they want things to be resolved," she says.

"Maybe the biggest pressure needs to come from the community on their leaders.

"It is good that all parties now seem to be very engaged in the general election that is coming up. "Hopefully after the election, the institutions will be put back up and then the rule of the gun can be replaced by the rule of law.

"It is more than just being about the ceasefire. We need to deal with the level of lawlessness and paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland." The Brent MP recognises a parallel between the way the Irish community was treated in the past and the Muslim community today - especially over the recently announced policy of home detention instead of imprisonment without trial.

"The law lords challenged the Home Secretary on the basis that it was not acceptable to treat foreigners in a different way to British citizens so what are they going to do - treat British citizens as badly as foreigners.

"It is just as unacceptable in my view - maybe it will arouse public protest."

"They need to make much more effort to put people on trial. Home detention is only mildly better than being detained in prison. But it is still on the say so of a politician and not on the basis of evidence brought before a judge and jury.

"These people do not know what they have been charged with, if they don't know how can they possibly defend themselves.

"We need to make much more effort to ensure we get the kind of evidence to bring something to trial."

And she says she finds the basis of the present terror laws almost laughable.

"They are based on the premise that there are people in this country that are not too keen on the government and think their way of doing things is wrong.

"So you take this group of people, subject them to inhumane treatment and radicalise them. I wonder how they will feel then?.

"It is a ridiculous notion and an unacceptable way to run a country." Since becoming MP for Brent East Ms Teather has become acutely aware of the suffering of the Irish community.

"I see in my own constituency that Irish people are more likely to be in overcrowded accommodation, temporary accommodation and poor housing conditions'" she says.

"They are also more likely to be admitted to hospital with mental health complaints which go hand in hand with living in poor conditions. Yet they are not recognised as having particular needs because they are white and English speaking,

"I do see in my constituency an enormous number of Irish families living in very poor accomodation.

"Its quite a depressing thing when you think of the regeneration in Ireland as a whole."

At present there are 19,000 people in Brent waiting to be transferred to a property.

"It is heart rending to see people in the surgery every week, very very distressed unable to move, often with serious mental health problems," says Ms Heather.

"The children are doing badly at school, they've got nowhere to do homework, girls and boys in their teenage years sharing rooms, parents sharing beds with four or five year olds. It cannot go on,.

"We need to think more laterally. I think we should have much more flexible schemes, rent/deposit schemes allowing people to borrow money up front to get the first month's rent so they can get into the private sector." Health is another area where the Brent MP witnesses the Irish community in her constituency getting a particularly hard time. "It is very worrying that Irish people are more likely to be admitted to hospital with mental health problems.

"It can be for different reasons like they are not getting the early intervention that they need. It can be for cultural reasons about whether or not people are willing to discuss things with their families. It can be because the live in dreadful accomodation. It can be for all sorts of reasons."

Among the Liberal Democrat policies that she will be pressing at the next election will be the need to replace council tax, scrap tuition and top up fees and introduce free care for the elderly. The Liberal Democrats also want to see the NHS to be come more responsive at local level to local needs.

The Liberal Democrats also want to see the NHS become more responsive at local level to local needs. And on a local level she will continue to fight for a better deal for the Irish.

February 23, 2005

This article appears in the February 19, 2005 edition of the Irish Post.

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