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http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,482-1277065,00.html September 24, 2004

If chaos rules, ransom pays

Simon Jenkins

Mr Blair says he refuses to bargain with terrorists on principle, so what about Northern Ireland?

THE BRITISH Government refuses to help to save the hostage, Ken Bigley, from death at the hands of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As one of the de facto rulers of Iraq, Tony Blair will not release two women, Rihab Taha and Huda Ammash, remaining from some forty-five once imprisoned in Abu Ghraib and other jails. They have been held for 18 months without trial, subject, so some Iraqis believe, to constant sexual abuse. Iraqi officials were at one point ready to release the women on bail. Britain and America will not allow this. To Mr Blair and his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, this is a matter of principle. Ransoms should not be paid to kidnappers nor should prisoners be released at their bidding. Mr Bigley took a calculated risk in helping to build an American base. He may have thought that his courage entitled him to British help in the event of his getting caught. Certainly Western companies and governments are paying kidnappers all over Iraq. Where anarchy rules, ransom is currency. But Mr Bigley ’s price is not financial. It is judicial. His fate is therefore a matter of principle.

I wonder what principle. On Thursday last week, Ken Barrett, murderer of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, was convicted and sentenced at Belfast Crown Court to 22 years in prison. He admitted to a horrific murder. In 1989 he went to Mr Finucane’s home and shot him fourteen times in front of his wife, whom he also shot, and his three children. The killing was described by the judge as “cruel, callous and merciless”. Barrett was a loyalist, Finucane a Catholic. The crime was intended to deter other lawyers from defending Catholics. It was terrorism redolent of Saddam Hussein at his most brutal.

Mr Blair intends to let Barrett go scot-free, on the grounds that his deed was “political”. He should be out of prison by May. Mr Blair has already freed dozens of convicted IRA killers in the hope that his gesture might encourage the Provisionals to disband. He therefore feels he must release loyalist killers as well. Most decent Ulster people are understandably appalled. Yesterday’s announced inquiry into the killing will not affect the decision, or their horror.

The prisoner releases were the most naive of Mr Blair’s Good Friday agreement concessions to terrorism. Gerry Adams got his men out of jail without disbanding the IRA, and has been able cleverly to blame the Unionists for each subsequent failure in the agreement. The message of this appeasement of terrorism is that violence pays. It has brought Sinn Fein to its present pre-eminence and sent Unionist politics rushing to the extreme. It has thus sabotaged the Province’s best hope of restored self-government, the leadership of David Trimble.

So where stands principle? The only principle I can see here is that when politics calls, justice can go hang. In politics everything is negotiable. In England pathetic Jamaican mothers are jailed for ten years for acting as cocaine “mules”. In Ulster a man can slaughter another in front of his family and walk free. Peace in Northern Ireland may have been “worth a Mass”, but the IRA ceasefire was initiated by John Major, not Mr Blair. The Good Friday agreement has led neither to IRA disbanding nor to devolved government. Now we have the monstrosity of Barrett’s impending release.

In Iraq no one has laid any charges, let along secured convictions, against the two women for whose continued imprisonment Mr Blair and Mr Straw are ready to sacrifice Mr Bigley. They have been held in custody for 18 months on the strength of their being dubbed “Dr Germ and Mrs Anthrax”. Since the women have been barred from any judicial process their fate has been left to the law of the jungle, along with that of thousands of other Iraqis. Under that “law”, millions of dollars are being paid to kidnappers and fanatics. It is the only way the coalition can get its military bases erected.

Iraqis and foreigners alike are being seized, ransomed or killed every day. Every day coalition bombs and shells decapitate innocent men, women and children, without anyone bothering to count the pieces. This is apart from those killed by other Iraqis because the coalition refuses to police the streets. Amid this mayhem it is hopeless for Westerners to jump on a soapbox and plead for a single Briton’s head. Al-Zarqawi’s demand for the release of jailed women (abhorrent to most Iraqis) must be one of the cheaper deals on offer in the Baghdad hostage market.

Mr Blair has said that leaving Mr Bigley to his fate will deter further hostage taking and avoid ministers having to “bargain with terrorists” or give in to violence. Yet the coalition has dealt with the equally murderous Moqtada al-Sadr. It is bargaining with terrorists in half the towns in Iraq, in the desperate hope of finding someone strong enough to leave in charge.

The idea that ignoring al-Zarqawi will “teach the barbarian a lesson” may be rhetorically appealing. “I will not give in to violence” sounds fine on the BBC and reads well in an editorial. But British governments have dealt with terrorists from the Mau Mau to the PLO to the IRA. The realpolitik of present-day Baghdad is of bribery, threats and blackmail, a realpolitik created by the coalition itself. As for giving in to violence, what else is releasing Ken Barrett on to the streets of Belfast?

We will be told that a different political climate prevails in Ulster and Iraq. They are at different stages of political evolution, requiring a different pragmatism. In which case, so much for principle. But if that is the argument, Mr Bigley’s family can surely plead that where anarchy prevails they might at least be spared Mr Blair’s principles. And Mr Finucane’s family can surely plead that where order prevails they might be spared his pragmatism. They should not endure the sight of their father’s murderer walking free.

Deterrence theory in Iraq just now is for the birds. Common decency demands that everything be done to rescue Mr Bigley. Common decency demands that Barrett serve his sentence in jail. The trouble is that when politicians plead principle common decency vanishes. It fades like the cat on the branch of the tree, until all that is left is a cynic’s smile.