The price of liberty


The Nuremberg Files is the name of an American website so "pro-life" it advocates the murder of doctors who carry out abortions. It lists their names, their home addresses and their children's names. It was taken down last week after an Oregon jury awarded damages of $100 million to some of the people it threatened, and First Amendment lawyers are upset by this decision.

There is a horrible and thought-provoking analogy to the case on this side of the Atlantic. It involves the British government assisting in what looks like an incitement to murder. If you look in Hansard, which is on the web - and much easier to find and search there - as well as on paper, you will find that on 27 January, Ian Paisley named a number of republicans as members of the gang which in 1975 murdered ten Protestants in a carefully targeted sectarian attack. At least one of those named, Eugene Reavey, is now in fear of his life.

It seems likely that this is one of the effects Paisley was hoping for. In parliament he said: "There is something seriously wrong with any country - and any government - that permits known killers to walk the streets with impunity while their victims lie in cold graves. The fact that the killers could operate both inside and outside the IRA name, according to political circumstance, is no comfort to the community. It is an indictment of the government's and the legal system's failure to address the problem."

In context, it seems a clear enough invitation for the illegal system to address the problem. There is a precedent for such remarks to be heard and acted upon by the paramilitaries of Northern Ireland. In 1988 Pat Finucane, a Belfast lawyer, was assassinated six weeks after Douglas Hogg, then a Conservative minister, had complained in the House that there were solicitors working hand in glove with the IRA. The link between the folly and the crime seemed clear enough to observers in Ulster.

At the time, I caught a brief but entirely convincing glimpse of the reasoning behind this from my own family. My father was brought up in Belfast and kept his tribal reflexes throughout a distinguished career as a British diplomat, long after he had abandoned any religious belief. He took the view that since Finucane had had the misfortune to be born into a republican family and that several of his relatives had been jailed for terrorist offences, he could not innocently have defended suspected terrorists. Since he had taken on cases like that, my father thought, it couldn't have been that much of a crime to kill him. And my father thought of himself as a moderate unionist, which is to say that he also believed that some public benefactor should have shot Paisley 30 years ago. But he understood the politics of Ulster were clan-based and ultimately dependent on the credible threat of violence.

So I think that anyone whom Paisley named should go in fear of his life, especially if they are innocent. One of the men he named has since been denounced as a prominent member of the "Real IRA", but he is presumably armed and well guarded against assassination attempts. It's the innocent who have no guns or bodyguards. Paisley's source was an internal document, probably originating in the UDR, from which he quoted the kind of circumstantial detail that anyone, journalist or policeman, who has collated gossip will find in their files. But circumstantial detail proves nothing. Information can be convincing without being in the least bit true. Even policemen can be mistaken. That's why there are courts and trials and all the tiresome paraphernalia of the rule of law.

Yet the accusations are up on the web, placed there by the British government. They might well lead to murder. Admittedly, the Hansard report lacks the bloody decorations and other graphics of the Nuremberg Files website, though these can be read out of Paisley's prose. And it certainly is not the intention of the publishers of Hansard that it should lead to death or harm. The website is not crucial in these affairs. Paisley's speech was, I believe, broadcast live, so the people most interested in his allegations would have heard them anyway.

Still, the principle of the thing is clear enough. The freedom of MPs to speak freely on the floor of the House, and to have their remarks accurately recorded, is one of the basics of the British constitution, at least as fundamental to us as the First Amendment is to America. If Eugene Reavey is shot, partly as a consequence of Paisley's exercise of that freedom, we law-abiding British would say this was horrible but in the end a price worth paying for our constitution. It's not a very comfortable position. It just seems better than the alternative.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think