How a Beatle could have gone to jail

A new bill would make it illegal even to speak up for the IRA. ByCorin Redgrave

I do not know the name of the MI5 agent who reported that John Lennon gave money to the Workers Revolutionary Party. It is said that MI5 gave information from its files on Lennon to the FBI in the early 1970s, when the Nixon administration was trying to have him deported. But the US Freedom of Information Act, though considerably less restrictive than Jack Straw intends its British counterpart to be (it will not permit any access to the files kept by the security services), does not allow the names of agents and informers to be revealed.

What I do know, as one who was then a leading member of the WRP, is that John Lennon never gave us a penny. I am also certain that he never gave money to the IRA. Yoko Ono has said that he did not. But neither her denial nor mine are likely to be widely reported. The lie, as is so often the case, has travelled three times around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.

Does it matter that so many newspapers have repeated these allegations as facts, and will continue to do so despite our denials? Actually, it matters a very great deal, and not just for the obvious reason that truth should always be preferred to falsehood. The Prevention of Terrorism Bill, now going through parliament, would have made John Lennon a criminal, not only for those things he is alleged to have done, but for those things which he certainly did and which thousands of us do today and want to continue to be able to do.

In 1972, Lennon wrote a song "The Luck of the Irish", dedicated to the victims of Bloody Sunday. The song appeared on an album "Sometime in New York City" and the proceeds were donated to the Irish Civil Rights movement. Clause 14 of the terrorism bill makes it an offence to ask for money, give money, or receive money or any property if a person knows or has "reasonable cause to suspect" that it may be used for terrorist purposes.

Clause 18 makes it an offence not to inform the police if one "believes" or "suspects" that a person has asked or given or received money from a proscribed organisation. This clause contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 10, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. It also offends against one of the principles of the convention, that a person is presumed innocent until found guilty. In Clause 18, as often elsewhere in the bill, the onus is on the person accused to prove his or her innocence. Subsection 3 says: "It is a defence for a person charged to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for not making the disclosure."

Earlier in the same year, 1972, at a rally in New York organised by the US Transport Workers Union, which was attended by members of the IRA, Lennon issued a statement saying that he was protesting "against the killing of Irish people in the Civil Rights movement". Under Clause 11 of the terrorism bill, he would have been liable to ten years' imprisonment. Clause 11 makes it an offence to "invite support for a proscribed organisation" or to "arrange", "manage," or "assist in arranging or managing" a meeting that a person knows is "to support a proscribed organisation", or "to further the activities of a proscribed organisation", or is "addressed by a person who belongs to or professes to belong to a proscribed organisation".

It is also reported that at a Bloody Sunday rally in New York, Lennon said: "If it's a choice between the IRA and the British Army, I'm with the IRA." That sounds like a quote from a police spy's notebook. But whatever Lennon actually said, he would have been guilty of an offence under the new law. Clause 11, subsection 3, makes it an offence to address a meeting if "the purpose of the address is to encourage support for a proscribed organisation", or if one knows that "the meeting is to be addressed by a person who belongs to a proscribed organisation". And, for the purposes of this clause, it makes no difference whether the meeting in question is an open-air rally in Union Square or a bed-sitting room in Kilburn because: "In subsections (2) and (3) 'meeting' means a meeting of three or more persons, whether or not the public are admitted."

If Lennon today were to give money to any party that supports the struggle of the Kurds against Turkish oppression, or that protests against the Russian authorities' torture camps in Chechnya, he would be liable to prosecution. He would also be liable if he gave money to a group organising a protest against genetically modified crops, or to a group protesting against the dumping of nuclear waste. The bill is designed to catch all of these activities and to make them illegal.

Whether the Crown Prosecution Service would authorise prosecution in any particular case would no doubt depend on the prevailing political climate: what kind of relations our government wanted to maintain with a foreign power, for example, or what it thought to be this country's economic interests. But the bill is so drafted that it will create a climate of fear, and it will severely limit the ability of any campaigning organisation to raise funds. And that, surely, is the point of it. Just as it may be the point, or perhaps merely an unintended side-effect, of the spate of articles about Lennon and MI5, to spread that climate of anxiety a little wider.