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Mr. McNamara: First, may I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that I am legislating not for the Republic of Ireland but for the United Kingdom, and that I have a status here that I do not have there? Secondly, may I draw to his attention the fact that I have, of course, always supported the Irish Council for Civil Liberties in its objection to those provisions in the Offences Against the State Act?

Mr. Trimble: None the less, as I said, I would have given much more weight to the hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the Bill had I heard him express criticism of the Irish legislation in anything approaching the terms that he has used this evening.

I want to carry the story onwards with regard to the experience in the Republic of Ireland, where the legislation was effective from 1972 until about 1975 or 1976. During that period, several hundred people were imprisoned on membership charges. Then the republican movement adopted a different approach.

During the earlier period, the republican movement followed its traditional approach of refusing to recognise the court, so the special criminal court had only the opinion of the police officer. Nothing else was said--or at least, the only other thing that was said was the prisoner refusing to recognise the court. The court could then proceed to convict on that basis.

The republican movement then switched from a policy of refusing to recognise the court to one of contesting the actions. People would go into the witness box and say on oath, "No, I am not a member of that proscribed organisation." Nothing further was said.

Here we come to a crucial point that hon. Members on both sides of the House have missed in the context of the Bill before us. The Bill, like its counterpart in the Irish Republic, says that the opinion of a senior police officer is admissible as evidence. It says nothing about the weight of that evidence; it merely makes it admissible. It does nothing to change the basic rules that apply in criminal trials with regard to the presumption of innocence and the requirement to prove beyond reasonable doubt.

Those rules still obtain both in the Irish Republic and here. So a bit of evidence is being introduced--the opinion of a senior police officer. Under the Bill, a little bit of corroboration may be introduced as well. Again, however, admissibility says nothing about weight. The police evidence will be matched by an assertion under oath by the accused, and other information may be introduced by the accused, too.

The court has to consider whether in those circumstances there is proof beyond reasonable doubt, or whether the presumption of innocence should be upheld. The actions of the Irish special criminal court in the 1970s were clear; once the statement of the senior police officer

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was matched by the denial of membership by the accused, it could not be said that the accused was guilty of the offence beyond reasonable doubt, so the number of convictions rapidly dropped off.

That has remained the position in the Irish Republic until now. The Irish Government now recognise that their 1972 legislation has become ineffective, and, in the aftermath of Omagh, they made a decision. Indeed, they anticipated the problem and did some homework on it beforehand. They decided to see whether they could revive the legislation by introducing an element of corroboration.

I have grave doubts about whether that will be effective, because the problem that vitiated the original 1972 Act provisions will still be there. An element of corroboration will be introduced, but will that have sufficient force to outweigh the denial of membership by the accused? I have very grave doubts about that.

I have spoken to the Irish Government about the matter. They believe that the legislation will be effective. They have taken soundings. Although I do not know the nature of those soundings, they believe that it will be effective and that they will be able to secure convictions. I do not know the Irish judiciary and I have not spoken to anyone who practises in the Irish courts, so I am not in a position to gainsay the Irish Government's belief that they will be able to secure convictions on the basis of the legislation.

I very much doubt whether we shall secure any convictions in Northern Ireland on the basis of the Bill. I say that on the basis of what little knowledge I have of the judiciary in Northern Ireland and of the practising legal profession in Northern Ireland. I believe that it will be very difficult to obtain convictions. The mere fact that one is introducing these things or saying that they are admissible as evidence does not mean that there will be convictions.

Mr. Robert McCartney: I think that I may claim to have considerable experience of the judicial process and the behaviour of the judiciary in Northern Ireland, and that experience would confirm entirely the conclusions that the right hon. Gentleman has drawn.

Mr. Trimble: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for that element of corroboration, which in this case may have a little more weight than the elements of corroboration that I was referring to in terms of the Bill. I have grave doubts, reinforced by the comment--

Rev. Martin Smyth: My right hon. Friend may not have been in the Chamber this afternoon when I raised this matter on a point of information. Is it not a fact that the pattern that was adopted by the IRA when Daithe O'Connell denied that he was chief of staff has consistently been followed through by leaders of the IRA in Northern Ireland during this last period? At the level of corroboration, if people who murdered Robert Dougan at Dunmurry were followed to the place where they were unloading their clothes, where the police caught them red-handed, and yet, because one witness withdrew, the prosecution did not proceed, is there any likelihood of corroboration being brought on the word of an officer in the circumstances that my right hon. Friend is referring to?

Mr. Trimble: My hon. Friend has graphically illustrated, using the example of the Dougan case,

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the difficulties that exist with these matters. I am not sure that my recollection is correct on this, but I think I should correct him as to who was responsible for the change of policy by the republican movement in the mid-70s. I do not think it was David O'Connell; I think it was Martin McGuinness who made the change. He was the first person to recognise the court, in the 1970s, and that reflected the weight that he had in the republican movement even then.

Earlier, I said that I had my doubts about whether there would be many convictions--

Dr. Lynne Jones: It is not unimportant for us to express our horror at events at Omagh, but is the right hon. Gentleman saying that we have convened today merely to pass a Bill that will be ineffective in securing convictions for membership of proscribed organisations and, perhaps more important, will have absolutely no effect on the security forces' ability--we wish them well in their efforts--to secure convictions for the atrocity at Omagh?

Mr. Trimble: I said at the outset that I believed that it was right that the House be recalled and that it was right that it consider legislation parallel to that in the Irish Republic. I also mentioned the Irish Government's belief that the legislation would be effective within their jurisdiction--and, of course, most of the people responsible for the atrocity reside within their jurisdiction, so that suggests a possibility of effectiveness.

I expressed doubts about what I consider to be the likelihood of effectiveness in Northern Ireland, but of course I cannot predict the future any better than can anyone else in the Chamber. I am merely expressing a view as to that likelihood.

I have said that, in my view, judges in Northern Ireland, in Diplock courts, with their legal background, knowing the presumption of innocence and the need to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, may not convict often in the circumstances that will pertain. One's concern about the circumstances where there might be convictions relates not to Northern Ireland, but to England.

All the criticisms that are made regarding the consequences of hasty legislation--I listened to the examples taken by critics of the Bill--relate to England. If there is a danger, English juries constitute the danger, because English juries have produced not all, but most, of the miscarriages of justice that have occurred. The example of the past 30 years shows that a person is in more danger of a miscarriage of justice from an English jury than from a Northern Ireland judge sitting alone in a Diplock court.

Mr. Corbett: With great respect, the right hon. Gentleman must bear in mind the fact that the seeds and roots of the great legion of miscarriages of justice that have arisen under the prevention of terrorism Act are the fact that police officers lied in the witness box.

Mr. Trimble: In Northern Ireland we have also had cases of police officers who have not acted with absolute probity, and we have had what I believe to be miscarriages of justice, from similar roots, but I must say

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to the hon. Gentleman that I believe that the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland have a much better record of detecting that than juries, which tend, especially in circumstances like this, to react emotionally to the circumstances. That is the problem here. It is paradoxical, but if we are dealing with a terrorist situation there is a very strong argument for limiting the involvement of juries in those cases. That is a more general point, which I mention but shall not develop.

I have some reservations about the Bill's effectiveness, but I have expressed, and I emphasise, my belief that it was necessary to introduce it. I have no doubts about the present Irish Government's determination to respond to the current situation; I believe that they intend to respond effectively to it. They believe that the legislation that they are introducing in their jurisdiction will be effective. I hope that they are right, but, because I believe that they are genuine in their intention, and because they believe that it will be effective, I think it becomes necessary for us to act in concert with them. If we failed to introduce similar legislation in this place, we would undermine their efforts, and it would be a terrible situation for us to be in, especially after all the criticisms that we have made of Irish Governments over the years, when I and my hon. Friends have felt that previous Irish Governments have not been as effective as they could be. It would be terrible, having made those criticisms, if our own Government were not to act effectively enough.

That brings me to the point that was raised by several people regarding internment. I believe that the Government are making a serious mistake in not restoring it to the statute book. The power of internment is still on the Irish statute book. It is not being exercised at the moment, but the power is there, so that, should the need arise, it can be used immediately, rapidly, as a surprise, in the circumstances that it should be. As was pointed out earlier to the Prime Minister, internment will not work unless it is imposed as a matter of surprise, but one cannot do that unless it is on the statute book.

Internment is on the statute book in the Irish Republic, and the Irish Government have said that they have not ruled it out. They are threatening republican splinter groups that internment might be used. That threat, however, is undermined by the fact that the legislation is not on the statute book in the United Kingdom, and so cannot be used immediately. I heard the Prime Minister assert that it could. I hope that he is right. I have grave doubts about whether it is possible to introduce it as a matter of surprise, in advance of the legislation--to arrest people and then call the House to pass the legislation to give a legal basis for the arrests that have occurred.

That is a very dubious way of proceeding, but that is what the Prime Minister implied. I hope that he is right. I hope that, somewhere in Whitehall, the homework has been done and contingency plans exist. If that is the case, it would be a good idea for the Government to make that clear because, until it is made clear, the threat that is implicit in the Irish Government's position is being undermined by the failure to act in the United Kingdom.

I would very much prefer to see Government restoring the power to the statute book. Restoring the power does not mean that one exercises it, but it means that it is available.

During the Prime Minister's statement, I referred to the measures that the Chief Constable of the RUC has put before the Government. One of those is the restoration to

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the statute book of the power to intern. The chief Constable has told the Government that the RUC would like to see the power to intern restored to the statute book. The Home Secretary said that the Home Office is considering the matters that the Chief Constable of the RUC has put before it; that is one of them. It should be acted on as soon as possible. I believe that the Chief Constable's other proposals should also be implemented.

Reference has been made to the interception of telephone conversations. There is no good reason for not putting that on the statute book. In view of the hour, I will not elaborate on the matter; but the arguments against interception are based on the belief in some quarters of Customs and Excise that English punters are so stupid that they do not realise that telephones are tapped. I do not think that belief is founded in fact. People forget that everyone must communicate. Even if people communicate in code, or in a roundabout way, they still have to communicate, and such communications could be used for the purpose of convictions. In other countries, intercept evidence is repeatedly seen to be used as the foundation for proceedings against organised criminals.

The Chief Constable mentioned other matters: changing the rules on disclosure of evidence, changing the law with regard to the admissibility of accomplice evidence--that is important in practice--and widening the scope of authorised investigators, under the emergency provisions Act, to deal with terrorist acts as well as terrorist financing. Those are all important measures, for which the RUC has been asking since at least 1993, and I think it is time that the Government responded more seriously.

I want to make some points about the groups against which the Bill is directed. Earlier, the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) referred to what he described as a two-tier system of proscribed organisations. Whatever weight that may carry generally, I think it right for the legislation to be targeted--and the real target in this instance is the group that calls itself "the Real IRA", or "the IRA", which we know to be closely associated with the Continuity IRA.

As currently drafted, the Bill also covers two other groups, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Loyalist Volunteer Force. Both those organisations, however, have recently declared a ceasefire--and there is more reason to believe that declaration than there was to believe the hurried statement made by the Real IRA when it discovered the extent of popular outrage in the Dundalk region.

Following the INLA's declaration of a ceasefire just over a week ago, it has--judging, at least, by what has appeared in the press--received assurances from the Government that, after a matter of months, it will be included in the prisoner release scheme. It would appear, then, that the Government are treating the ceasefire as substantial, and are moving towards recognition of it.

I hope that at least the same consideration will be given to the ceasefire declared by the Loyalist Volunteer Force. The declaration may have been made cynically, in the hope of securing releases, but the fact that a ceasefire has been declared, and the fact that--interestingly--the LVF has offered to decommission weapons should be explored urgently by Government. If one group--any group--started to decommission weapons, the impact on other groups would be substantial.

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The Minister of State knows--I have made the point to him, and to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland--that the caution displayed by the Northern Ireland Office is giving rise, in some quarters, to a suspicion that the Northern Ireland Office does not want the LVF to start decommissioning, because that might embarrass other groups. I have said that I hope that is not the case, and that I hope the Northern Ireland Office will act more vigorously in responding to the offers that have been made. The question of decommissioning obviously arises in this context. As was said earlier, I think that this is the important litmus test establishing whether the ceasefire is genuine. The genuineness of the ceasefire is made a condition in this legislation, as it was in the sentences Bill.

I welcome what Sinn Fein has said today in appointing a spokesman who will act as interlocutor, or go-between--call it what you will--with the decommissioning commission. I hope--as the commission hopes--that that person will embark on thetask with the intention of bringing about actual decommissioning within a short period. Certainly, my friends in the Northern Ireland Assembly and I will not consider Sinn Fein's commitment to peaceful means to be genuine in the absence of some actual decommissioning.

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