Thursday, 21 November 2019

Supreme Court: Gerry Adams's appeal

'I'm sufficiently old to be able to remember something of the contemporaneous events,' says Lord Kerr, who is presiding over R v Adams. To the girl who briefly sits beside me, flicking through WhatsApp, it's ancient history.

I remember the British confusion when the IRA bombing campaign reached the mainland in 1973. Metropolitan litter bins disappeared. Public lavatories at railway termini were briefly closed. It was said that the Bakerloo line would never be bombed as it serves the Irish community in Kilburn. I was told about a girl with an Irish accent carrying her brother's birthday cake on the Tube: the police cut the cake into little pieces to prove that it didn't contain explosives. Did that happen? There were more sophisticated ways of dealing with suspect devices but it was plausible at the time.

Lord Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice, has joined the Supreme Court bench today. Gerry Adams is absent. The court is tumbleweed alternating with tour parties who come and go with a swish of Gore-Tex on the wood and leather seats. The air conditioning is barely audible; the bagpiping busker outside can't be heard thanks to triple glazing. Now and then the Welsh slate clock on the wall makes its sinister rasp; disappointing too was the harsh, dissonant voice of Gerry Adams once the British were allowed to hear it, instead of the silver-toned actors who dubbed him from 1988-1994, when a broadcast ban applied to Irish dissident groups.

Professor Alan Paterson, author of Final Judgment, about the early years of the Supreme Court, slips in towards the end of the appeal.

At one point Lord Kerr, who was previously the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, appears to be attending to a paper cut on his finger. This is not the time or place to hold a silence for the adults and children killed because of the Troubles but a tiny drop of blood shows up as a pathetic fallacy.

Gerry Adams is trying to clean up his criminal record. In 1975 he was convicted twice for attempting to escape from the Maze prison where he was interned without charge or trial. But government papers released under the 30-year rule showed that his interim custody order, made by the Minister of State under the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 art. 4(1), had not been considered by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was then Willie Whitelaw. Does this make the order invalid?

The wording goes under the microscope. As with Brexit ('a' customs union versus 'the' customs union) we are in 'a' Secretary of State versus 'the' Secretary of State territory. In play is Carltona Ltd v Commissioners of Works which equated acts of government officials with acts of the minister.

Counsel makes a reference to 'groping at perpetual twilight' and when the Supreme Court puts the recorded film on its website I will be able to check the context but meanwhile I am left with Isaiah 59:10: We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noon day as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men.

After the hearing I encounter a real live hunger strike on Victoria Street, far in distance and time from the ten Provisional IRA hunger strikers who died in the Maze in 1981: beyond House of Fraser's twinkly Christmas display, Extinction Rebellion campaigners are lodged outside Labour Party HQ.

Further up and down this street which connects a Protestant abbey and a Catholic cathedral, rough sleepers are muffled against the cold or insensible to it. A woman handing out leaflets says, 'Give your lives to Jesus, people.'

Coda: the British have a long and painful tradition of indifference to/ignorance of Ireland. I am beyond sickened by those who would trash the Good Friday Agreement for the sake of pitiful delusions about Brexit. It has been keeping a fragile peace, more or less, since 1998.


Friday, 1 November 2019

Noises on and off: in the magistrates' court

When it comes to penetrating the studied opacity of a magistrates' court I'm a bungling novice, so I'm waiting for the appearance of a defendant who's already been bailed and gone home.

I'm encumbered by my sodden folding umbrella (the stand at the entrance is reserved for weapon-umbrellas, the non-telescopic kind).

I am in a row of public seats at the back. About 18 inches in front of these seats is a horizontal steel cylinder, the height of my jaw when seated. I feel penned in. When I inadvertently knock the bar's upright hollow metal support, it sounds like the demonic church bells from the drug-induced Dream of a Witches' Sabbath in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

The courtoom is largely composed of horizontals, from the long wood panels behind the wide raised bench to the narrow stripes in the carpet tiles. This makes the greenish verticals between the security glass panels of the dock rather striking: they evoke bars.

The dock's separateness says 'guilty as hell'. It has a locked glass door to the courtroom and another door at the back leading to mysteries below. There are chairs and a big red panic button. Defendants who have been detained emerge through the internal door. Those who have not been detained are ushered into the dock from the courtroom by an official and locked in. (This contrasts with the doorless lavatory cubicles in the same building.)

The official takes away the key. The defendant stands when addressed by the person I assume to be a district judge, no longer called a stipendiary magistrate, who is wearing a lot of very white pearls.  

When it's quiet you can hear the clock ticking. The microphones for bench, clerk and advocates create a flattering, authoritative resonance. The person in the dock is miked differently if at all and speaks from a different acoustic: the effect is drier, duller.

In Winchester Crown Court I saw the Naked Rambler lean forward in the dock at times, straining to catch through the glass what was being said in the courtroom, and thereby forced to adopt a servile posture.

Much has been said about the message sent out by the dock. At least this one can be seen from the public seats. In many courts, including some built this century, it is not.

To the left of the bench, a door leading backstage is propped wide open with three legal tomes. Behind it, another door stands open onto a corridor from which we occasionally hear incongruous snatches of conversation and laughter. Mortals at liberty are glimpsed walking past on a raised level, indifferent to the courtroom scene.

The accumulation of cases is depressing. If someone is already working mostly to pay fines, what is the effect of imposing another fine? If someone can be provoked to violence, or has a mental disorder, or has been changed by long-term use of drugs, or has had a miserable education or a rotten family life or any combination of these factors, is another prison sentence going to accomplish anything other than keep an offender out of the public's way for a while?

During a brief adjournment, someone pops his head round the door for a chat with his colleagues.
'What have you got later?' he asks.
'All your rubbish from Court 10.'

Outside in the waiting area, a lawyer at the end of his tether addresses the air: 'I've been waiting for a Polish interpreter for one and a half hours.'  He is a living cliché from the well-documented, underfunded travails of the justice system.

The day ends with a surprise trip to A&E for excellent treatment from EU citizens in an understaffed hospital, a last hurrah before the NHS swirls down the plughole of despicable political ambition.Will the justice system join it?