Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): When the Prime Minister speaks of the outrage and horror of the Omagh bomb, he speaks for both sides of the House. Each one of us has been appalled by the scenes of destruction in Market street and the tragedy wrought by the violence. Each one of us has been moved by the courage and professionalism of the emergency services and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as the Prime Minister described. Each one of us has been given hope by the determination shown by the people of Omagh not to let the men of violence win.

Like the Prime Minister, we utterly reject the excuses of those who carried out that atrocity. Like him, we extend our deepest sympathy to the devastated families involved. Like him, we wish to see no effort spared to bring to justice the evil murderers responsible for that.

The answer to one question above all must be clear in our minds. Why did those murderers commit their terrible crime? Why did they do it? The answer is cold and simple: they are prepared to do anything to prevent the people of Northern Ireland from living in peace, in the hope that they can achieve through violence what they know they cannot achieve through democratic persuasion.

Does the Prime Minister agree that anyone who thinks that has misjudged the people of Omagh, the House and the people of the entire United Kingdom? Is he aware that the Government will have the support of the Opposition if they do everything that they can to ensure that the terrorists do not succeed? He will also continue to have our support in implementing the Good Friday agreement and in carrying through the efforts of this Government and the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) to bring lasting peace.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, although we should welcome the words of the Sinn Fein president yesterday, tough words must now be matched by clear deeds, as the Good Friday agreement effectively links progress on decommissioning with the early release of convicted terrorists and membership of the Northern Ireland Executive? We welcome the first move by Sinn Fein to co-operate with the decommissioning commission by appointing a representative to work with it. I welcome what the Prime Minister said in his statement about the importance of the decommissioning of all paramilitary explosives and guns over the next two years, as agreed under the Good Friday agreement, supported by Sinn Fein and the loyalist paramilitaries.

If Sinn Fein's words are to ring true, we must now look for the actual dismantling of the apparatus of terror that paramilitaries on both sides have held over the people of

2 Sept 1998 : Column 697

Northern Ireland for so long. Can the Prime Minister assure us that terrorist prisoners will not be released early until the process of giving up guns and bombs has actually begun?

The Opposition will support the Government's legislation today, but can I put to the Prime Minister two specific concerns? The first is that, although today's proceedings and those in the Irish Republic will bring the law north and south of the border more closely in line, there will be one glaring difference. As such store is now being set by having the same laws in the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it was a mistake last autumn, as we argued then, to remove from our statute book the reserve power of internment, a power that is retained in the Irish Republic?

The second concern is that, although we support the legislation because everything possible needs to be done to combat terrorism, we inevitably worry about the effectiveness and the operation of any legislation that is so hastily conceived and executed. Will the Prime Minister agree to a full review of the effectiveness of this legislation, to be published before the Government come back to the House to seek its renewal in 12 months' time?

I welcome the release announced today of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. The Prime Minister will know that my colleagues and I have raised their case many times, and we are delighted that their cases have been reviewed and that they are now free.

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response, particularly for the words that he said about the emergency services and the RUC. It is also right that we should not forget the role of the Army in this. The Army and RAF helicopters also played a vital part in moving people from the scene of the incident, and the death toll would have been considerably higher had they not done so. Anyone who has travelled in and visited regularly Northern Ireland knows the debt of gratitude that we owe our armed forces for the work they do there.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that those who think that violence is the way forward have misjudged the mood of people. I was struck in Omagh by the fact that people from all parts of the community and those who supported all different political parties within Northern Ireland were unanimous in their view that the Good Friday agreement was the way forward. I pay tribute to the work that was done before this Government came to office by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) to try to bring about a process of peace.

I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the Good Friday agreement itself, and the words that are in it. All the parts of the agreement have to be read as a whole, whether on prisoner release, decommissioning or any of the rest of it. It is worth pointing out that, contrary to what some people sometimes say, decommissioning is part of the agreement. It contains an obligation for all weapons to be decommissioned within a two-year period. I hope that the process begins as soon as possible. We welcome what has happened today as a practical step on the way to that.

The right hon. Gentleman raised two specific concerns about the legislation. We had to make a judgment about internment. We have made it clear that we do not rule anything out for ever, but my judgment is that the history of internment as it operates here and in the Irish Republic is different.

2 Sept 1998 : Column 698

All the way through, we are trying to take carefully targeted measures that allow us to deal with these terrorist groups, but do not provoke such a backlash in other parts of the community that they undermine the fight that we are trying to secure. I agree that that is a matter of judgment, but that is our judgment; although, as I say, we rule nothing out for the future, should things be necessary. Although the Irish Government have the power of internment on their statute book, they do not intend to implement it at this stage.

As for the points about measures being hastily conceived, I believe that again, as a result of having targeted the measure carefully, we have steered the right course between a knee-jerk reaction that introduces measures that are not well thought through and measures that will give us practical help and assistance in trying to deal with those people who are members of the relevant proscribed organisations.

But, of course, this has to be seen against the background of the review of the terrorist legislation which is going on at present and will be published in due course by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I think that the publication date will be within the next six months. I cannot promise to have it done before the House reconvenes, but it will allow us to examine the ambit of terrorist legislation, how it works and how this particular legislation is operating. It will also give us the chance to consider some of the proposals being made by the RUC and the Garda for further tightening measures.

The process is already under way that allows us to analyse what we need to do for the future, but I believe that people expect us to do two things in the wake of Omagh. One is to take what security measures we responsibly can to try to deal with the small remaining groups engaged in terror. The second is to continue with the political process. I believe that the events of the past two weeks have shown that the will exists right across the community in Northern Ireland, and certainly in the House, to do both those things.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): I echo the comments already made, without necessarily having to repeat them, about the atrocity of Omagh, and especially the welcome given to Sinn Fein's helpful statement yesterday. Perhaps out of the horrors of Omagh we are at last going to see a real and historic opportunity for the people of Ireland to come together to build a peace for the future. In so far as this legislation is aimed at that purpose, we support it.

We are, however, glad that the Government appear to have amended the original draft legislation that we saw, because there were and remain some concerns. We are especially glad that the Government have agreed that there needs to be more than the statement of a single police officer to deal with the issue of proscribed organisations. We are also glad that there will be an opportunity annually to review and renew the legislation.

Many of the concerns will have been answered, but is the Prime Minister aware that one, it seems, has not? It is the Government's decision to add into the legislation matters that are nothing to do with Northern Ireland. I deeply regret that. I regret that, by adding complicating extra measures, which are, in my view, unnecessary, the Government will not have given the House a full and ample opportunity to debate the matter properly.

Nevertheless, the Government can count on our support, because we believe that these are exceptional times, which require exceptional actions--for three

2 Sept 1998 : Column 699

reasons. First, having maintained the cross-party unity on Northern Ireland matters that has subsisted in the House for 25 years, it would be wrong to allow it to be destroyed by the blood and atrocities of Omagh. The second reason is that precisely parallel legislation is now going through the Irish Parliament. We have long been in favour of that, and it would be a tragedy if the first attempt ended in failure when it ought to be a model for the future. I hope that the Prime Minister will confirm that that is what he would like.

Finally, the atrocity committed on that terrible day in Omagh was not against the actions of a single Government whom one group of people may or may not support, but was designed to undermine and destroy the sovereign will of the Irish people, who, in a referendum, overwhelmingly expressed the desire for peace. We cannot allow that to succeed.


Next Section

IndexHome Page