THE British government's two new initiatives in the struggle against sectarian violence illustrate the hazards of believing that some situations are so serious that a society cannot afford to maintain civil liberties. The Thatcher government announced last week a ban on live or taped radio or television interviews by British broadcasters with members of the illegal Irish Republican Army; its political wing, Sinn Fein; the Ulster Defense Association; or other proscribed organizations.
The government also announced moves to limit the right to silence for those suspected of terrorist crimes in Northern Ireland. A proposed change in the criminal law, announced Thursday by Tom King, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, would still allow such suspects to refuse to answer questions from the police and to remain silent in court, but would allow judges and juries to draw what inferences they will from those silences. The two moves come in response to the stepped-up campaign of IRA violence over the past few months.
The broadcast ban is an odd creature. The intent is to avoid giving terrorists a respectable platform from which to win converts. The press is completely unaffected. Whether this has to do with the greater immediacy of broadcast than print, or the government's lack of confidence in the judgment of those who hear rather than read the news, is unclear.
In any case, broadcast reporters can show silent footage, or footage with captions or voice-over direct quotations from members of the affected organizations. But the terrorist is to be deprived of his own voice.
The ban is quite similar to - actually a bit less restrictive than - one that has prevailed in the Republic of Ireland for years. But British broadcasters call it an infringement of free speech, and moderate nationalists in Northern Ireland and Labour members of Parliament are complaining that the ban will only play into the hands of the terrorists, who will cite it as an example of British repression when they go fund raising among ill-informed Irish-Americans.
Westminster has announced its intention to avoid providing terrorists with the ``oxygen of publicity.'' But hearing Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams defending the tragic Enniskillen bombing last year probably did more to make nationalists in Northern Ireland turn from the IRA with revulsion than all the speeches the Thatcher government has ever given on the subject.
And it gets even trickier: The ban covers some legal as well as illegal organizations. The IRA is outlawed, but Sinn Fein is not; neither is the Ulster Defense Association, their (Protestant) unionist opposite number, although some subgroups under the UDA umbrella are. And however despicable we find his views, Gerry Adams is a duly elected member of the Parliament at Westminster, though he has never taken his seat there. What do we make of the government of a parliamentary democracy silencing a member of its own Parliament?
The limit to the centuries-old right to silence is similarly troubling. Not only is the presumption of innocence central in Anglo-American justice, but time and again, attempts to revise due process under stress from terrorism have simply not worked. Internment without trial and the ``supergrass'' mass trials of a few years back not only infringed civil liberties, they did not make for good jurisprudence.