The recent incident in which two brothers were arrested (and now released) after an early moring raid on their house interested me. Not only because it was a terrorist story which from the outset didn’t feel quite right but because the police had acted as a result of intelligence and surveillance.
25 years ago I was caught up on the edge of a terrorist incident in which the boyfriend of my housemate was arrested as an IRA terrorist suspect. Surveillance was a big part of that story too and while I personally wouldn’t have been surprised if the trading standards people had taken interest in some of the activities that were being observed, “boyfriend” was definitely not involved in terrorism.
An acquiantance of “boyfriend” was a second hand car dealer and he had a number of cars to sell but was off for an extended holiday. He asked “boyfriend” to mind his business for him and offered him a good share of the profits if he could sell any of the cars. For a while the cars were parked on the road or in pub car parks near our house, but because some didn’t have valid tax discs they came to the attention of the police. “Boyfriend” needed to move the cars that were parked on the road. He decided to offer them on “trial” to prospective purchasers. A friend of a friend of a friend said he know someone who was interested and a car was duly delivered. The prospective customer had the car for about six weeks during which time “boyfriend” visited him several times. It turns out that during this time the prospective customer was under surveillance as a suspected gun runner for the IRA. Anyway, the car was eventually returned to “boyfriend” but almost immediately it was followed by an offer to buy it – from the very same prospective customer. “Boyfriend” took the car back to conclude the deal and while he was there the place was raided and he was arrested and detained under the then anti terrorist legislation.
“Boyfriend” was wary of the police. I doubt whether he had done anything more serious than dabble in the second hand car market and allow the niaive to believe he was a private seller, not a particularly honourable activity, but very far removed from terrorism. Nevertheless he decided “not to co-operate” and as the car was central to the surveillance evidence he was implicated and detained.
For two days my housemate didn’t know what had happened to her boyfriend. On the second evening we had a visit from an excitable Irishman. He was the friend of a friend who had needed a car. He told us that “boyfriend” was a guest of Her Majesty and that we mustn’t use the telephone because it would be tapped. He told us not to worry because he had more friends who would sort it and get him out and safely to Ireland where he could hide. The Irishman wouldn’t answer any of our questions and then he left. Needless to say we were seriously worried and had no idea what to do. Should we contact the police? What would we say?
The next day a very senior police man arrived with a companion. He asked if we knew “boyfriend” and whether he could come in. He explained to us what had happened. Because “boyfriend” hadn’t co-operated it had taken them a while to find out where he had been living. The police searched the house. We told them about the cars and the Irishman and then they left. “Boyfriend” was released. He didn’t seem particularly please we had explained about him minding the cars and the colleague who had put them in his care was even less pleased when he returned from holiday. I don’t think he ever went to the police to retrieve the car that had been at the centre of the surveilance.
The police clearly believed my housemate and me and they didn’t find anything in our house (although they didn’t search for days as in the recent case). I presume that our account of the unusual car dealing matched with the surveillance observations of the comings and going of the vehicle. Maybe we just came across as honest. I don’t think they could work out where “boyfriend” fitted into the picture and were annoyed he wouldn’t co-operate. Maybe he had wasted a lot of their time. I don’t know. But I sometimes wonder if the story would have had the same ending if “boyfriend” had been Irish or if either my housemate or I had been Irish or if there had been an actual incident and the police were under severe pressure to get a conviction. After all this was only a few years after the Guildford 4 and the Birmingham 6.
Since the Birmingham 6, new rules have been introduced to prevent miscarriages of justice but many commentators and politicians today argue against them, saying they should be relaxed for suspected terrorists. Are they, as they appear to be, assumming that those arrested are guilty and there is something wrong with the system if they are not convicted. Our system requires guilt to be proven. It has to be that way as it is almost impossible to prove a negative. The danger now is that too many people assume that those suspected and released or acquited have got away with it because the evidence wasn’t found. But no evidence will be found in the case of the innocent and innocent people can get caught up on the wrong side of surveillance, as did “boyfriend”. In the new climate of fear will they therefore be forever under suspiscion?