Lord Howell’s paper reiterates need for MPs to make clear the legal position on internment and to stop policy being constrained by courts

Few major court rulings in recent years have caused such a withering reaction as the Supreme Court’s judgment on Gerry Adams.

Wednesday, 10th June 2020, 12:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 10th June 2020, 1:18 pm
News Letter editorial

It was remarkable enough that a former Attorney-General for the UK, a former head of the civil service in the UK, a professor of constitutional law at Oxford (one of the best universities ever), and a former key legislative figure in the UK machinery of government all stepped in to demand that the law be changed after the ruling.

They were not calling for a legislative change merely because they did not like the outcome, but because they all unanimously felt that the court’s understanding of the intentions of the laws that brought in internment in Northern Ireland was so flagrantly wrong that the original — and plain — intention of MPs would have to be made crystal clear.

Now, in an even more remarkable development, Lord Howell, a former NIO minister now aged in his 80s, has stepped in. As David Howell, he was a minister of state to the then secretary of state William Whitelaw, and his testimony opposite — written for the Policy Exhange think tank but published in this newspaper first, see link below — emphasises that Mr Whitelaw, later Viscount Whitelaw, would have been closely involved in orders to detain people, even if he was unable to sign the papers. This shatters the basis of the ruling.

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The current UK government has expressed concern at increasingly powerful courts constraining the ability of elected administrations to act in line with their mandate. Few cases highlight the need for reform as much this one has done.

Also, the use of — and lavish legal funding for — judicial review in NI needs its own specific and urgent examination.

Further, the government shows continuing weakness on the legacy scandal here. Brandon Lewis is almost apologising when he implies that the UK will largely accede to nationalist pressure on this. Instead, root and branch reform is needed over historic processes that have turned against state forces that prevented civil war in face of the long terror campaign.

• Lord Howell: After the Gerry Adams ruling, Parliament must act to reaffirm its clear, obvious and original intention on internment orders [Scroll down the article and see links to other coverage of the case]

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Alistair Bushe