Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for what we have said. I agree that those who carry out appalling killings in the name of loyalty to the United Kingdom commit a profound act of disloyalty to the United Kingdom, and they will not affect the Government's judgments in any way.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and the assurances that he gave. They are a further demonstration that he and his Government, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, want to do everything possible to bring fairness, justice and the truth to the Province of Northern Ireland. Will he assure us that there will be no sidetracking of evidence, but no one will be intimidated against giving evidence, and that we shall obtain the truth, which will be published and presented to Parliament?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I can give those assurances. Certainly, the evidence will be properly considered and the results given to the House.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I sat through the debate to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the former Prime Minister, referred, on 1 February 1972, and heard how earnestly hon. Members on both sides of the House desired to establish the truth--the then Minister of State for Defence, Lord Balniel; Robin Chichester-Clark; the Home Secretary; Merlyn Rees, now Lord Rees; and Harold Wilson. Lord Widgery produced an exemplary report, which was remarkable for its clarity and objectivity. May I say to the Prime Minister that we need to look resolutely forward to secure reconciliation? The wounds run too deep. May I say candidly that reinvestigating these matters will just exacerbate the pain, sorrow and grief, and lead to further alienation of loyal people in Northern Ireland, who look to their Government to secure and protect their birthright and inheritance?

The Prime Minister: First, I do not cast any aspersions on the decisions that were made at that time. Many

29 Jan 1998 : Column 514

hon. Members have given graphic descriptions of the circumstances in which those decisions were taken. In the end, it is a matter of judgment. We must make a judgment on whether it is possible to look forward without having sufficiently looked back and sorted out the problems that history has left us. My judgment is that we will not be able to move on to the next chapter until this chapter is properly closed.

I understand why the hon. Gentleman may disagree with that judgment. It is a fine judgment to make, but I came to it on the evidence. This issue will not go away. The residue of anxiety and grievance will not disappear while the evidence remains so clear that it is necessary to reconsider and re-evaluate what happened on that day. I do not doubt that that will be painful in many circumstances, but it is always better to search out and reach for the truth than to decide that it is too painful to get at and we should move on.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, and for establishing the inquiry. Will he assure the House that all Government and military departments will give their full co-operation, that the evidence that was ignored by the Widgery tribunal will be made available to the inquiry, and that witnesses, from whatever quarter, who require financial support for legal representation at the inquiry, will receive it?

All of us who want peace in the Six Counties recognise that it has to be based on honesty and truth. The inquiry will help to give an awful lot of people confidence that the Government are serious about the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister: The Ministry of Defence will advise any of those serving at the time who give evidence to the tribunal, and will ensure that they are looked after properly. Other questions of representation will be for the tribunal to decide.

A lot of evidence will be examined afresh, although it is also fair to say that some of that evidence will be re-evaluated; it was available at the time.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): The Prime Minister has told the House that a judicial inquiry is needed because he wants to get at the truth, which he said was particularly important as an arm of the state was involved. Is he aware that another event--one that did not occur 26 years ago when someone else was Prime Minister--occurred in HMP Maze not much more than 26 days ago while he was Prime Minister? A man under the controlled custody and care of the state was murdered. A civil service-type inquiry is being held into that incident. Why can we not have a full-blown, judicial, public inquiry into those events, especially in view of the fact that a number of innocent people have been killed as a result?

The Prime Minister: There is already a perfectly well-established procedure for inquiring into such events. Two inquiries are already under way: one by the RUC and the other by the person specifically appointed to look into incidents in prisons. We have made it clear that we shall inform people of the results of those inquiries, and I am satisfied that that is the best way to deal with the matter.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I assure the Prime Minister that my question implies no criticism

29 Jan 1998 : Column 515

either of the decision to reopen the inquiry or of the two eminent Commonwealth judges who are to sit with Lord Saville. Will he explain why he has decided to have two Commonwealth judges, as opposed to three United Kingdom judges?

The Prime Minister: Because it is important to make it absolutely clear that the inquiry will not only be impartial but will be seen to be impartial. Those appointments give the best chance of credibility. We have considered the matter carefully. We believe that it is right to have a senior British Law Lord, and that it will assist the inquiry to have two Commonwealth judges, who come from outside our jurisdiction but are familiar with its rules, sitting alongside him. That has been broadly welcomed across the spectrum.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Almost every hon. Member will agree with much of what the Prime Minister has said. I certainly do, and I do not doubt his good intentions. Does he accept that, since the Widgery report in 1972, the operational conditions of the Army and the security forces have changed dramatically, with the introduction of the yellow card and more stringent regulations? Because of that, two guardsmen, Fisher and Wright, are now languishing in gaol because they believed that they were doing their duty--mistakenly, as it happened.

Does the Prime Minister accept that, apart from the families of the deceased, with whom we all sympathise, the people who will gain the most satisfaction from his announcement may easily be--I regret to say--the IRA and Sinn Fein? As the Prime Minister rightly pointed out, they were responsible for Warrenpoint and Enniskillen, but he recently met their representatives at No. 10 Downing street.

Finally, will the Prime Minister accept my assurance that, whatever he may believe, the announcement of an inquiry will make it more rather than less difficult for the security forces on the streets of Northern Ireland to carry out their task?

The Prime Minister: I do not agree with that. If I had thought that, it would have been a very strong reason for not having an inquiry. I have to say that I think the single best weapon in the hands of those who are on the extreme side would that they could say, "They are not having an inquiry even when the evidence demanded it, because they are afraid of having one." I think that the greatest benefit of being seen to be unafraid to establish the truth in an inquiry will go to the democrats, who are able to say, "We are the people who recognise that we do things in a different way from terrorists, and when allegations are made about the way in which we have done things, we are prepared to have them investigated, and investigated properly."

As for the way in which the regulations have changed since 1972, yes, they have changed considerably. In respect of the case of Messrs Fisher and Wright, leave was granted in the High Court on Monday to seek a judicial review of the Secretary of State's decision. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to

29 Jan 1998 : Column 516

comment further while legal proceedings are in train, but the hon. Gentleman will have heard the response that I gave an hon. Member yesterday.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the Prime Minister welcome the support that his initiative has received from many parties in the House, including the Liberal Democrats? Will he confirm that the intention is not to carry out a witch hunt, but to hold an inquiry that is seen to be absolutely independent? Lastly, does he agree that the intention is not to build a monument to anguish, but to dismantle one, so that we can lay to rest the 26 years of uncertainty that many have experienced--and, perhaps, find it a little easier to look forward to a more peaceful future rather than back to a troubled past?

The Prime Minister: I agree with that entirely.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Will the Prime Minister comment on one problem that will clearly arise from what he has said today?

I think that it is common ground between us that there is a strand within the Republican movement--it is probably a majority strand, although I accept that it is not a unanimous strand--that has not been seeking an inquiry for all these years, but seeking a verdict. The verdict that those people have been looking for is that a British army of occupation murdered peaceable people in the street.

I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that people in that frame of mind will not be satisfied by any form of inquiry that does not give them the verdict that they seek. While I do not for a moment minimise the difficulty of the decision that the right hon. Gentleman felt that he had to make, there is a sense in which what he has done today, far from laying the matter to rest, means that it will stay there in perpetuity.

There are those who would believe--and I think that they would believe it without criticising the Prime Minister for the decision that he has made--that the interests of the innocent people of Northern Ireland, and of the British Army that has protected them with such conspicuous courage, would have been better served if the House had said collectively, "A judicial inquiry was set up by a democratic Parliament, and we should have the confidence in our own institutions to stand by that original verdict."

Next Section

IndexHome Page