by MARTIN McMILLAN in BELFAST
It would be difficult, from a purely legal point of view. to refute Lord Gardiner's report on security, internment, and the punishment of terrorists in Northern Ireland.
Lord Gardiner, whose report was published last weekend, has been uncompromising in his view that political criminals must be treated no better or, for that matter, no worse than ordinary criminals.
Yet it is already being said that for the sake of political expediency the Government may simply shelve the Gardiner Report.
There are two main reasons for this. Mr Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, does not want to jeopardise whatever little chance there is of persuading the Provisional IRA to resume the cease-fire which they ended two weeks ago.
Secondly, he is afraid that the abolition of "political status" for convicted terrorists may provoke both the Provisional ERA and the Loyalist paramilitary organisations to further violence. Such violence would, without doubt, be mounted both inside the prisons and outside, where the public at large would suffer.
Lord Gardiner has recommended that the privileges enjoyed by "politically motivated" criminals be ended.
Indeed, his view is that such privileges should never have been granted in the first place, and that it was a mistake for Mr William Whiteiaw, when he was Secretary of State for Northern lreland, to succumb to the pressure of an IRA hunger
strike and grant political status to what have since been described as "special category" prisoners. Instead of being treated like other convicted criminals these special category prisoners have been granted what Lord Gardiner describes as "prisonerof-war" conditions. They are 'allowed to wear their everyday clothes. They do no prison work. They get extra visits from relatives, and extra food parcels. And, perhaps worst of all, they have the freedom to organise themselves within the compounds of the Maze and the Milligan prisons, to elect leaders, to drill and impose military-type discipline, and issue statements to the Press.
These privileges apply to the Protestant special category prisoners as well as to the Catholics. Yet they have all been found guilty, by the normal processes of the law, of crimes that range from petty theft to arson sabotage and murder.
The leader of the Loyalist special category prisoners is, in fact, a man named Gusty Spence who was sentenced in 1966, three years before the present troubles began, for the wanton murder of a Catholic youth named Peter Ward.
The murder of Peter Ward brought to light the extent of the anti-Catholic conspiracy among the ultra-Loyalists and resulted in the banning of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
If it had been proven at the time of the trial that the murder of Peter Ward had been politically-motivated Spence and his two accomplices could not have escaped the death penalty. They were, however sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison. Now like many terrorists who have since been convicted Spence enjoys "political status."
Lord Gardiner's desire to abolish this political status and to treat convicted terrorists in the same way as ordinary criminals will, therefore, be readily understood. The authorities in Northern Ireland will, however. find his advice difficult to accept.
If, by the way these "special category" prisoners had been convicted in British courts under the jurisdiction of Mr Roy Jenkins, the present Home Secretary, they would certainly have received no special treatment.
A plea of political motivation would make no difference in Britain nor, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland.
Yet in Northern Ireland where politically-motivated crime is being practised on an immense scale, and where many ordinary criminals are operating under the smokescreen of politics, the plea of political motivation brings privileges and special status.
Mr Rees might consider, like many of the people who have read and studied Lord Gardiner's Report, how far a Government may safely go in appeasing terrorists or what is in the end to be gained by such appeasement.
Furthermore, the degree of consideration given to political criminals contrasts rather distressingly with the way in which the civilian population, especially those who live in Catholic enclaves that are regarded as IRA strongholds, are often harassed by the security forces.
While the political climate, as Mr Merlyn Rees and his advisers see it, may be unfavourable to the views of Lord Gardiner and his committee, there may be practical reasons why the special category will be retained.
There is, no doubt, a dire shortage of prison accommodation in Northern Ireland, so much so that one suggestion is the generous remission be granted to ordinary prisoners in order to make room for those who are classified as political.
In addition to the shortage of prison accommodation there is an equally acute shortage of prison staff. Consequently, according to one semi-official viewpoint, it is administratively easier to allow the political prisoners to be responsible for their own discipline.
In fact, this has been one of the arguments which the Republican prisoners in the Maze Prison have advanced against the Gardiner Report. A statement issued by Republicans at the beginning of this week claimed that "the political prisoners in the camp lead their daily lives with a rigid self-imposed discipline that the establishment could never achieve."