So long Section 44

The end of Section 44 in the PSNI’s armoury was treated to a typically mixed reception from either end of the political spectrum, ranging from something nearing relief in nationalist circles to regret from unionist representatives.

The controversial section of the Terrorism Act 2000 allowed police officers to enact stop and search powers on a mere hunch. However in January it was found to contravene Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to a private life by the European Court of the same acronym.

Perhaps nowhere will be as glad to see the back of Section 44 as Strabane. The Strabane Policing District has spent most of the last few years hovering around the top of the table of Section 44 hotspots across the North.

NOT ADDING UP

In the last financial year (dating back to April 1 2009 through to March 31 2010), the PSNI enacted Section 44 3,630 times in the Strabane District, an average of 10 times per day. 10 is also significant as it is the number of arrests made as a result of those 3,630 stop and searches, using Section 44. That’s an arrest rate of 0.275%.

The 3,630 enactments of Section 44 is interestingly treble the 1,221 times it was used in West Belfast during the same period, which produced more arrests. At this time I do not have the resulting conviction rates, but it is sure to be lower again, perhaps even nil.

Across all areas, Section 44 was used 27,588 times in the 2009/10 financial year, with 171 arrests arising, leaving an overall arrest average of 0.62%.

LOSING OUT?

So with unionist representatives lamenting the loss of “considerable powers in tackling terrorism”, are police being disadvantaged here?

Well the answer is no, not really. Section 43 of the Terrorism Act grants the same powers of stop and search, the only requirement being “reasonable suspicion”. One would have thought the presence of those two important words fundamentally important to ensure police do not abuse their powers.  Section 44, it could be argued, provided a shortcut for police, threatening to produce lazy police work and causing friction in areas were police/community relations were most fragile.

Alex Maskey’s relief that the powers are being dropped perhaps also reveals something of a relief for Sinn Fein that an important propoganda tool for its political enemies has been defeated using democratic means.

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About AldousDuke
Mid Tyrone journalist, not so freelance any more.

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