Justice for Mark Duggan demands that we change the law on intercept evidence

Our absurd laws mean there may never be a public inquest into Duggan's death at the hands of the police.

On 4 August 2011, Mark Duggan was killed by police in Tottenham. Two days later, a peaceful protest escalated into a riot. The looting and arson that followed saw five people killed, dozens injured and businesses destroyed. This summer British troops protected Olympic venues. Last summer some wanted them brought in to restore order on London’s streets.

Yet remarkably, there may never be a public inquest into Mark Duggan’s death. The reason? Britain’s rules on the use of intercept evidence. For justice to prevail, the law must be changed.

Since 1194, coroners have held inquests to investigate deaths which are suspicious, violent or occur at the hands of the state. These inquests are public. They ensure not only that the facts are found, but also that justice is seen to be done. They satisfy our need to understand why the death happened and how future tragedies can be prevented.

As things stand, intercept evidence – records of tapped phone calls and intercepted emails – cannot be used in British courts or at public inquests. Therefore, because vital evidence regarding Duggan’s movements in the hours leading up to his death is intercept evidence, there can be no public inquest.

This is not the first time the British tradition of open justice has been hamstrung by these rules. Londoner Azelle Rodney died after being shot six times by Metropolitan Police officers in April 2005. Intercept evidence exists which could shed light on his death, but since this cannot be used in open court, no public inquest has ever been held.

The year after Azelle Rodney’s death, counter-terrorism police arrested 24 suspects in connection with a plot to bomb airliners by detonating explosives hidden in soft drink bottles. Yet even for this trial, intercept evidence obtained in Britain could not be used. In the end, prosecutors were able to show the jury some evidence but only because it came from the Yahoo server in the USA, not Britain.

The government has promised an inquiry, but that is not good enough. We need a full, public inquest led by a judge, with a jury deciding on the evidence. It is intolerable that in a civilised, democratic society the relatives of British citizens killed at the hands of the state can be denied a public inquest into their deaths. It is even more intolerable when that death led to days of chaos. We all have a right to an inquest.

The law is not only wrong – it is absurd. Intercept evidence is treated differently to other surveillance evidence. So if the police follow you, they can use what they see as evidence in court. But if they tap your mobile phone, they can’t even tell the court that they did it, let alone tell the court what they heard. On this issue, Britain stands alone. There is no law like this in the rest of Europe or the US. Indeed, the Americans would not have been able to jail mafia bosses like John Gotti without the use of crucial intercept evidence.  The Independent Police Complaints Commission agrees with us, as do the Metropolitan Police and politicians of all parties.

The communities affected by the riots are still tinder boxes. To avoid a repeat of that appalling violence, we need a public inquest which is open, fair and completely beyond suspicion. We need a renewed commitment to our country’s history of open justice. This is not the first time a death at the hands of the police has passed by without an inquest. If this law on intercept evidence is not changed, it will not be the last.

David Davis is Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden. David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

Friends and family attend the funeral of Mark Duggan at the New Testament Church of God in Wood Green on September 9, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Davis is the Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden

David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser