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9.57 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): This has been a remarkable debate, and I would like to identify some of the issues that it raises. First, I believe that most people will welcome the recall of Parliament. As you will remember, Madam Speaker, I wrote to you asking for the House to be recalled long before the Government suggested it, because the problem of terrorism relating to the bombing in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and the American response, seemed to me to raise important matters.

Secondly, on the legislation, a fairly substantial body of Members are not happy about the way in which the Bill has been presented to us on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Indeed, I am not happy about that myself. As an old parliamentarian, I was pleased to hear Members on both

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sides of the House claim that the legislature still has some sort of role in a world dominated by Ministers, spin doctors, media commentators and so on.

The third thing on my mind as I listened to the debate was the fact that it provided me with an opportunity to say what I deeply believe--that the Belfast agreement is by far the most important and significant achievement by the present Government in the 16 months that they have been in power.

I have long thought that the war in Northern Ireland--the war in the United Kingdom--was our biggest single domestic problem, and I think that the Government's handling of it has been absolutely brilliant. In a minute I shall discuss the implications of that, but it is because it has been such a successful policy that I am totally opposed to the Bill that they have introduced. If I may be allowed briefly to explain the various elements in that argument, perhaps the House will listen to me.

I have sat in the House for nearly 48 years now. We all bring our personal experience to bear when we look at problems, but I have been thinking of the policies that have been advocated during my time in the House of Commons. It was said that Stormont would solve the problem of violence in Northern Ireland--it failed; that direct rule would put it right--it failed; that the prevention of terrorism Act would eliminate terrorism--it failed; that the Diplock courts would be the only way to deal with terrorists--they failed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and I went to the Crumlin road court one day, and we heard two Diplock trials being conducted. I had never seen such a thing before; it was a remarkable experience: a judge; a supergrass--an informer; the families behind armour-plated glass; the courtroom full of guys with submachine-guns. In one court, a Catholic judge was trying a Protestant terrorist; in the other, a Protestant judge was trying a Catholic terrorist. Afterwards, I went to the welfare, and there were the families from both communities, denouncing British justice because it was nothing whatever to do with the justice of which we boast.

I was in the Cabinet in August 1969, when sending in the troops was the great answer. In fairness, Jim Callaghan, Roy Hattersley and so on genuinely believed that it would solve the problem. Then there was the broadcasting ban; we would not allow Gerry Adams, as he was then, to broadcast--oh, no. That applied in the Republic as well as in the north. Then, when the ceasefire agreement was announced in 1994 by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and Gerry Adams and Albert Reynolds, what did the then Home Secretary do? He prevented Gerry Adams from coming to London to address a meeting in the House. All the policies failed--every one.

The tribute that I pay to Ministers is that, by engineering the discussions, by bringing about the Belfast agreement and by bringing about the victory in the referendum and the election, they have made greater progress in dealing with terrorism than has been made by any other measure that I have mentioned. Of course, after a war--and it has been a war--there will always be examples of violence, but to try now, in the face of Omagh, to revert to one of the failed measures is very foolish: a matter of bad judgment. The right hon. Member

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for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), speaking as a Back Bencher, honoured us with his experience. I thought that what he said about that was absolutely right.

The Bill is not necessary. It will not be effective. It does infringe civil liberties. It is no good saying that civil liberties do not help you if you are in a grave. Not only are civil liberties morally right, but they protect societies from violence because people are not tempted to violence by their denial. In addition, as many hon. Members have said, some of these measures, when used in the past, have recruited for violence, and there is a danger of abuse.

In my opinion, therefore, this is a thoroughly bad Bill. The fact that it is being pushed through on a single day will not help. No doubt, in five years' time, there will be many television programmes describing how Parliament got it wrong on the Bill, because the media are very, very clever at discovering the mistakes that they contributed to.

The second half of the Bill relates to conspiracy to commit offences outside the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) drew an interesting aspect of clause 5 to my attention. It reads:

I had asked whether the limitation on terrorism abroad would affect MI5 and the security services. I did not get an answer, but it is in the Bill.

On the issue of international terrorism, the House must surely know that, just as the right of self-defence is accepted in international law, if a nation loses its liberty people have the right to win that liberty--by force, if necessary.

Clinton is coming to Northern Ireland tomorrow. George Washington was a terrorist against George III. In the old days, no one could get into America without swearing that they did not believe in the overthrow of the Head of State by force. I used to say, "I agree with you: George Washington was wrong." They did not like that very much. [Interruption.] Of course they did not like it, because George Washington was a terrorist.

I dare say that Edmund Burke, my predecessor as a Bristol Member, could have been caught under the Act for supporting the Americans at the time of the revolutionary war. But are we really going to say that anyone who supports groups who are trying to get rid of Saddam Hussein is guilty of terrorism?

I spoke in Trafalgar square in 1964, in the week of the Rivonia trial. As anyone who reads the transcript of that trial will see, Nelson Mandela admitted that he was a terrorist. The next time I met him, he had won the Nobel peace prize and was President of South Africa. The number of people whom I have met who spent time in British prisons and ended up having tea with the Queen--for what that is worth--is a reminder that all the anti-colonial movements involved an element of force.

Mr. Robert McCartney: Surely the point is that those who opposed the people cited by the right hon. Gentleman--whether we are talking about George Washington, Saddam Hussein or Nelson Mandela--had

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no democratic rights, and no means of exercising such rights. That is not the position in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Benn: The hon. and learned Gentleman has repeated exactly what I said--that those whose democratic rights are removed have a basic entitlement to use force. I take his point, but there are countries in which that situation exists. Is it the case that, if we in Britain support people who are trying to secure democratic rights that dictatorships have denied them, we will be liable to be charged with promoting terrorism?

What I am saying could not be clearer. Of course I am basically a believer in non-violence--a supporter of Mr. Gandhi. When he came to London and the press asked him what he thought of civilisation in Britain, he said, "I think it would be a very good idea." Gandhi was in a British prison, and Gandhi was a believer in non-violence. But we must be absolutely clear about this: if we want to deal with violence--as the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) pointed out--we must have a politically democratic system. When there is such a system, there is no justification for violence.

I hope that nothing that I have said implies that I have any sympathy for the Omagh bombers, or any of the other bombers in Northern Ireland. When we consider the second part of the Bill, we are considering a different situation.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): Surely no one is describing terrorism as violence of any kind for political means. There are political situations in which violence can be justified by almost anyone who does not have a pacifist temperament. The point about modern terrorism is that it is indiscriminate, and is aimed at innocent people. It is not directed against Heads of Government, soldiers or policemen; it kills men and women from all backgrounds and of all nationalities who just happen to be there.

We oppose the blowing up of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the blowing up of aeroplanes over Scotland or the blowing up of people in Omagh not because we disagree with the political aims of those responsible--although we do--but because hundreds of people were killed who were not party to that. The obvious intention was to create terror and instability at the expense of innocent people, and that justifies fairly draconian legislation and international co-operation.

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