Pagemaster: Brendan O'Neill (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Let the dead bury the dead
During a recent visit to Ireland to bury a dead relative, I was horrified to find the rest of the country obsessed with digging up the dead.
On Friday 28 May, just two hours after the discovery of the body of Eamon Molloy close to the Irish border with Northern Ireland, the British and Irish governments launched the cheery-sounding Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains. Intermediaries pass information from the IRA to the commission on the whereabouts of people killed and secretly buried over the past 25 years, while TV news audiences watch with bated breath as sites are excavated in counties Louth, Monaghan, Meath and Wicklow.
Digging up these 'disappeared' victims is presented as a necessary measure to 'enable reconciliation'. One media commentator at a run-down car park in Louth, where 10 brothers and sisters were awaiting the excavation of their mother, described it as 'digging up the past to improve the future'. But how can such a ghoulish obsession with those killed years ago and buried anonymously under car parks and bogs contribute to a 'better future'?
And it is not only opponents of the IRA who are looking to disinter the deceased for political purposes. The ongoing inquiry into Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers shot and killed 14 civilians in 1972, is becoming a nationalist version of digging up the dead in order to influence the living.
It is understandable that the relatives of victims of 'the Troubles' should want to know what happened to their loved ones, and why. But there is something else going on when Ireland's entire political and media agenda can be reorganised around such morbid concerns.
Today it seems that what counts in Ireland is not political conviction, but to what extent you can claim victimhood. Nationalists and Unionists vie for status as the most victimised community - with nationalists evoking '800 years of oppression' and the continuing spectre of Orange marches, and Unionists claiming that, after facing the IRA's '25-year murder campaign', their 'heritage' is being consigned to the dustbin of history. Now it seems that all sides are using their dead to get a foot-up in the victim stakes.
The growing number of campaign groups seeking to 'discover the disappeared' emphasise that not only those killed by the IRA were victims, but that those left behind are victims, too. As Ireland approaches the millennium, the dead are being awoken and called as witnesses, to stalk the national consciousness and remind everybody that this is a country of victims, hidden and unhidden. The sooner all this is dead and buried, the better.
The conservative demands fewer rights for the defendant and better 'law and order'. The liberal calls for due process and 'civil liberties'. Experience, however, can change the most entrenched views - hence the old adage that, in matters of criminal justice, the definition of a conservative is 'a liberal who has just been mugged' and the definition of a liberal 'a conservative who has just been arrested'.
If you haven't had the requisite experience, try to imagine it: you've had a row with your partner, you're late for work, you've got a blinding headache. You dash into a shop, grab a newspaper, join the queue, pick up a magazine and slip the paper under your arm. A boring old acquaintance taps you on the shoulder for a most unwelcome chat - suddenly you're at the counter, you decide to buy the magazine and pay for it while reluctantly conversing over your shoulder. You leave the shop and a store detective takes you by the arm - the one holding the newspaper that you haven't paid for.
You have to convince a court that you did not 'dishonestly' take the newspaper, that it was all a mistake. You are given a choice between trying to persuade three lay justices in a 'summary trial' in the Magistrates' Court or a jury of 12 people chosen at random to deliberate in the much more thorough proceedings of the Crown Court. While you are pondering, you might like to consider that in 1993 the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice referred to research which indicated that the rate of acquittal in the Magistrates' Court was just 30 percent, while in the Crown Court it was 57 percent. Take your time.
Jack Straw proposes to take this difficult choice out of your hands, and give it to the magistrates. He thinks jury trial is too lengthy, too expensive and too manipulated by defendants. His critics have rightly lambasted his cheapskate approach to justice, his further undermining of the presumption of innocence, and his creation of second-class procedures for second-class citizens (anybody with 'previous').
To these points we should add that it is not only defendants (or even our imaginary defendant) who will be wounded by this measure. So will every potential juror, which is to say most of us. The word has gone out. The government does not trust the jury; it doesn't trust us. It has confidence in the functionaries which it appoints to the bench, but is not prepared to maintain this rare opportunity which ordinary people enjoy to make public decisions which really matter. New Labourites love their citizens' juries - it's the real thing that frightens them.
John Fitzpatrick is a lecturer in law at the University of Kent and director of the Kent Law Clinic
The British Medical Association (BMA) caught the headlines in mid-May with a flimsy report calling for 'an open-ended moratorium on the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) crops', because 'once the GM genie is out of the bottle, the impact on the environment is likely to be irreversible'. Nobody asked the obvious question: when did the trade association for doctors become an authoritative voice on crop biotechnology?
Soon after, Prince Charles got in on the act. Long ridiculed for talking to plants and being out-of-touch with the nation (if not his own mind), Charles was suddenly hailed as a man of 'the People' when he raised 'serious questions' about the dangers of GM. The prince's concerns were enough to make Tony Blair deny that the government supports GM developments, and instead 'has no position, except to have an open mind'. Meanwhile, a report by the prestigious Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which concluded that GM foods are as safe as any others, and that there is a 'compelling moral imperative' to develop them to fight hunger in the third world, was dismissed as if it were the work of cranks.
When the unsubstantiated concerns of the BMA and a princely fool can renew the fears about GM foods, it is clear that the public discussion of this issue is driven entirely by fear. Nobody has died as a result of GM foods, nobody has got sick. In fact, nothing much has happened at all, except for a big increase in crop yields. But raising the question 'what if?' in the same sentence as 'GM food' is enough to guarantee headlines and get the government to capitulate.
As Prince Charles says, when laboratory tests in America suggest that pollen from GM maize can cause damage to the caterpillars of monarch butterflies, 'what damage might they cause to other species?'. Nobody has made a scientific case that GM crops pose a problem for the diversity of Britain's wildlife. But single tests of questionable relevance can now become the focus of public fears.
'What sort of world do we want to live in?' is the last on the prince's list of questions. How about a world where people are not predisposed to panic, and where we can all enjoy the potential benefits of innovation - even if they don't quite offer the rest of us the chance to live like kings?
Sleep peacefully - Crimewatch's Nick Ross is to front a £5 million government campaign which promises to debunk millennium bug panic stories. An accompanying pamphlet, 'Facts not fiction', says you will be able to get cash from the hole in the wall and planes will not fall from the sky come year 2000, but you may suffer delays on some international phone calls. The pamphlet will be given out for free through Sunday newspapers.
The cabinet office has been doing its homework in more ways than one. Since January it has commissioned a detailed monthly opinion poll. The first results, released in April, found that only two percent of the population was very concerned about the bug. Now is obviously the time to reassure the public. It seems that Blair and co can now safely jump on the bandwagon of proud British experts and companies who have been telling us that technical issues around the millennium bug are largely resolved.
In July we can look forward to a public shaming of organisations which are still behind on Y2K work, by Action 2000, the government watchdog which remains bullishly determined to stoke the year 2000 panic. Jumping the gun in May, a self-styled vigilante group, Taskforce 2000, took the police to task for their lack of year 2000 preparedness. Backed by outfits such as Bass, Dixons and ICI, smug about their own Y2K readiness, the group 'shamed' several police forces including the Met.
The Met, already shamed quite a bit recently and an easy target nowadays, complained that the information was six months out of date. A taskforce spokesman, upset that his figures, despite coming straight from central government sources, were behind the times, accused Scotland Yard of 'disgraceful behaviour' for not providing up-to-date information. Perhaps they had better things to do; perhaps not.
Mark Beachill is a computer programmer.
The what's NOT on guide
PUNCHED: The producers of Radio 4's The Archers received complaints after broadcasting a scene in which farmer David Archer was punched by an anti-GM protester. 'There is no evidence that there has ever been any violence to people in these situations', complained the Genetic Engineering Network. But what about the violence to plants? Don't GM crops have rights, too? SPIKED: According to the Sunday Telegraph, former England Rugby Union captain Lawrence Dallaglio fears he was 'drugged' into confessing the sins of his private life to News of the World reporters, by drinking a laced glass of champagne. 'I think Mr Dallaglio's claims are absolutely wonderful', chuckled NoW editor Phil Hall. Less wonderful is the future of press freedom. According to the Observer, the Press Complaints Commission is under pressure from Whitehall to 'step in to stop publication of stories that are not in the public interest'. Is Lord Wakeham now to decide in advance whose tits we can see and whose shenanigans we can snigger at? DO NOT PRINT: After his usual publishers, Serpent's Tail, declined to proceed, cult writer Stewart Home struck a deal with Do Not Press for the publication of his novel, Cunt. But Do Not Press had to try 44 printers before they found one that would do the job. Jim Driver of Do Not Press said, 'I was physically thrown out of one printer's by a bloke who said, "no one prints books called Cunt, you wanker"'. QUIRK: Lined up for inclusion in the 'Poems on the Underground' series, 'Quark' by Jo Shapcott was referred by the commercial director to the managing director of London Underground because it contains the ancient word 'bollocks'. A spokesman explained, 'when we carry 2.7 million passengers every day, we have to be aware that people can be offended'. But 'bollocks' is surely a word which passengers are familiar with, given the standard of service on the Underground. TAPED: A British school trip to go boating in Holland was cancelled, after three feet of water was considered too deep to meet capsize regulations. A planned mountain climb for British sixth formers in Uganda was stopped because there was no European-standard hospital within a day's march. These were two of the stories told at a meeting called by the Royal Geographical Society to highlight how new regulations and fear of litigation are stifling the adventurous spirit of young people today. A teacher from Harrow School declared that 'in my 40 years of field work and leading expeditions, I have never felt so constrained by red tape and restrictions'. After all, pupils get enough of that back at Harrow.
Compiled by Andrew Calcutt
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999