Over recent weeks we have witnessed something of a resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland that appears to be attributable to the so-called ‘Real IRA’ and ‘Continuity IRA’, which the Irish Times tells us seem to be joining resources. The Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern (left), has now stated that there is a serious threat from this violence not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic of Ireland as well. What I found particularly interesting in this Irish Times report is the use of the word “terrorist” in relation to recent violence. This is the first time I have seen that word used in relation to these attacks in the mainstream media—previously they were mostly described as ‘dissident’ attacks and ‘dissident’ groups, perhaps as a result of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and the rather resolute feeling that terrorism has no more role to play in this country. In this article reference is made to “dissident groups” and “terrorist incidents” and the headline refers to a “terror threat”.
If past experience is anything to go by, this is not an incidental matter. History teaches us that the use of the label “terrorist” says something very important about how the politico-legal landscape is preparing to react to perceived or actual threats. That reaction is usually to enlarge the powers of the state and reduce some elements of what we see as the standard rights-protections inhering in the criminal justice system. Whether this change in language will continue past this article and penetrate the politico-legal debate remains to be seen but it is certainly an interesting development.