Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Corbett: Is it the right hon. Gentleman's understanding that, when an accusation is levelled against

2 Sept 1998 : Column 772

a defendant who chooses to remain silent, the court will be able to regard that silence as corroboration of the charge?

Mr. Major: I think that what I said a few moments ago implies that that is exactly my understanding, which is why I said that I hope that the provision has only a limited perspective and will be applied only to specific matters. It is a novel proposition, and it would perhaps not commend itself to many of us other than in the special circumstances of the horrors that we have witnessed in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) made the point that we must strike a balance between the absolute liberty of the individual who is charged and the general well-being. That is a difficult balance, and I do not criticise the Government on their efforts in that direction.

There are two halves to the Bill. Clauses 5 to 7 are potentially welcome, if and when they are well drafted, but their provisions would, frankly, have been better introduced in due course, after consultation, consideration and reflection, once we knew how to make them effective, rather than being rushed through so speedily. Clauses 1 to 4 appear--again, if the original reports were right--to have been changed and, effectively, watered down. That watering down is welcome, because of the objectionable nature of the original proposition, but the legislation that we have been called back to consider is unlikely to be as effective as many people may believe.

More effective may be the further enhanced security co-operation with the Republic of Ireland that the Prime Minister spoke of so rightly and so warmly this afternoon. It has improved greatly, and I hope that it will remain at its present high level. I do not wish to press the Home Secretary on the details, but I hope that when the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach met they considered carefully how we could continue to enhance that co-operation. It would perhaps be unwise of me to suggest to the Home Secretary precisely where it could be improved, but both he and I know the areas in which improvements canbe made and consolidated--made permanent, not temporary--to ensure that there is no hiding place for those who are prepared to murder both in the north of Ireland and in the south, if it is convenient for them to do so.

The Prime Minister has often articulated the views of the overwhelming majority of the population on the problem that has been faced by Northern Ireland for so long. He said at Hillsborough that this is not a time for soundbites. He certainly articulated my view in that, and it is perhaps unfortunate that the hand of history fell on his shoulder that very afternoon. He is right, however, and the fact that he is pursuing discussions both with the political parties and with the Irish Republic is a reflection of that. Let no one be in any doubt: the problem cannot and will not be solved without the two Governments working together.

The Prime Minister was right to express his determination to track down the murderers of Omagh, and I hope that we will soon hear of progress in that respect.

As we enact a Bill to toughen measures against terrorism, it is worth taking just a moment--literally, Mr. Deputy Speaker--to say something about prisoner releases and decommissioning. In the Good Friday

2 Sept 1998 : Column 773

agreement, the Prime Minister conceded the release of prisoners without immediate decommissioning, but on an individual prisoner basis and with the promise of parallel decommissioning over two years.

The Prime Minister was right to make clear the crucial point that every prisoner release was to be considered on its own individual merits and that there would be no blanket release. I have supported that approach before, both in public and in private, but it is inconceivable that every prisoner convicted and currently in prison for past terrorist offences is a born-again democrat, now safe for release. Some will not be safe for release, and that iswhy the Prime Minister conceded only individual consideration, leading to individual release.

I understand that the releases will soon accelerate. I hope that, as they do, the Government will state publicly--the people of Northern Ireland, in particular, would welcome the reassurance--the number of prisoners considered for release, how many are to be released and how many have been found unsafe for release. That would provide a reassurance that there is indeed individual consideration and, emphatically, not blanket release. I hope and believe, also, that the Government will continue the pressure for the decommissioning foreseen in parallel with the releases in the Good Friday agreement.

Yesterday, Sinn Fein said that the war was over, repeating the IRA message that I received in the early 1990s. That could be a cynical manoeuvre by Sinn Fein to distance itself from any further violence, or a genuine and worthwhile development and a preparation for the decommissioning that is still necessary in the process. I believe that it must come and, increasingly, as the weight of opinion in Ireland and elsewhere develops--against the weight of history, it may be said--I believe that it will begin to happen in practice.

Despite the horror of Omagh, there is still reason for hope in the process, albeit scarred by the death and misery that were inflicted. Inch by inch, we move forward and the impossible dream of a few years ago moves closer to becoming a practical reality. I am uncertain how much the Bill will contribute, but I think that it will contribute something. It is an advance--although less of one than is claimed--and, in its amended form, it is worthy of the support of the House.

I offer the Bill my support as part of the continuing process, so that the House can show--let there be no doubt or division--that it still believes that it is possible to defeat terrorism and that the democratic determination of politicians north and south of the border and here on the mainland, and the courage of the people of Northern Ireland, can and will have their own reward in a future for Northern Ireland that so many of us take for granted for our own part of the United Kingdom.

7.27 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): I well understand the concern that has been expressed about the Bill. I appreciate the fears that it could be counter- productive and do more harm than good. No one disputes--I certainly do not--that many mistakes were made in putting into effect previous legislation on Northern Ireland. The Government are clearly no less aware of those mistakes than the rest of the House. I recognise the concerns, and certainly do not dismiss them, but I take the view that, following the tragedy of Omagh and the measures that the Irish Government intend to take, it is right to support the Bill.

2 Sept 1998 : Column 774

Much has been said about civil liberties. It will be a poor day for the House if the time ever comes when we are not concerned about civil liberties, the safeguarding of which is one of the most essential reasons for having a House of Commons. However, we must also be concerned about preserving life. Twenty-eight people were slaughtered in Omagh and one wonders how such an act could be committed by fellow human beings. One of those killed was a baby of 18 months; when I heard the news, I thought it likely that, in other circumstances, that child could have lived for another 85 years. Her life and the lives of her mother and grandmother were taken away by terrorism on that terrible day of 15 August. Civil liberties are crucial, but such liberties and democratic rights are not much use in the graveyard or the crematorium. If we are united on nothing else, we are united in our condemnation of that slaughter.

We are debating whether we should act along the lines of the Bill and whether such legislation would reduce the possibility of other terrorist outrages. I was interested to read the comments of Mr. Colin Parry, whose son Tim was killed in the bomb explosion at Warrington five years ago. Mr. Parry is reported to have said that he welcomes the Bill and that it is long overdue. He speaks with much sad and tragic experience of terrorism.

I have four reasons for being in favour of the Bill, although I have some reservations, particularly on clauses 5 to 7. I shall relate my remarks to Northern Ireland. First, after the Omagh atrocity, it would be difficult for most people in Northern Ireland to understand why, if the Irish Government and Parliament could bring in such measures, the British Government could not do so. The two Governments worked hard to bring about the Good Friday agreement. Why should they not co-operate closely on further action to deal with terrorism? Imagine the feelings in Omagh and in other parts of Northern Ireland if the British Government seemed to be dragging their feet while the Irish Government took the action that they said they would take almost immediately after the crime.

I presume that one of the proposed north-south bodies that will arise from the Belfast agreement will deal with terrorism and that there will be close co-operation between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The Bill illustrates the continued close co-operation between security and intelligence sources and police in the United Kingdom and the Republic.

Secondly, it is obvious that the Irish will go ahead with their legislation. I do not know whether there will be opposition to it today in the Dail, but it seems that the Irish Government's proposals will be passed almost unanimously. If those proposals become law in the Republic, people who could be apprehended there would be able, if we do not pass the Bill, to go to Northern Ireland. If that happened, how credible would be our stand against terrorism?

Thirdly, it is said that the most effective weapon against breakaway IRA and terrorist groups on the other side is the sheer revulsion among Northern Ireland people about what happened on 15 August. The same argument, of course, that further terrorist outrages are unlikely because of revulsion over the Omagh atrocity, could be used in the Republic. However, we know from experience that, irrespective of revulsion over terrorist outrages, there have been further crimes against humanity. We may recall the outrage over what happened in Enniskillen in November 1987 when 11 people were killed at a

2 Sept 1998 : Column 775

Remembrance day parade. That did not prevent eight soldiers from being put to death in Northern Ireland in August 1988. In September 1989, 11 people were killed in an attack on Royal Marines in Deal in Kent. In January 1992, eight Protestants were killed in Cookstown and, a month later, five Catholics were murdered in a betting shop. There is genuine revulsion now, but it does not mean that, in time, terrorists will not consider it appropriate to commit further outrages. We must bear that in mind.

Fourthly, without the proposed Government action the Good Friday agreement could be endangered. Some Northern Ireland politicians who are in no way involved in terrorism want to use every excuse--they have every right to do so--to destroy that agreement. If the Government do not take the action that the Irish Government are taking, it will become difficult, and perhaps very difficult within the main Unionist party, to continue to be a party to the agreement. For those reasons, and even with my reservations, I think that the Government's action is right and justified.

As the Prime Minister said, the terrorists struck in Omagh for a political reason. They were not senseless terrorists and no one would say that they were killing for the sake of killing and had no political motive. To say that would be to underestimate them. Their clear political purpose was to create such fear, insecurity and despair in Northern Ireland that the Good Friday agreement would be in jeopardy because people would conclude that it was no use and would not bring the peace, security and progress for which both Governments had hoped. The more the terrorists want to destroy an agreement that will allow Northern Ireland to be governed in the fairest possible way, the more the House should be determined that what the electorate voted for with such a large majority in Northern Ireland and the Republic should not be destroyed by terror or by other undemocratic means.

The question is one of judgment and balance. I respect the strong views of my colleagues who say that, despite Omagh and our total condemnation of what happened there, the Bill--bearing in mind what happened in the early 1970s--would be counter-productive and would provide political ammunition for the terrorists. They have reached a conclusion, but, for the reasons that I advanced, I have reached a different one. In my judgment, it is important to approve the measure, but that is the judgment of just one Back Bencher, although perhaps I have some experience of Northern Ireland matters.

Next Section

IndexHome Page