Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): The Minister named the various civilians who were tortured and murdered by the IRA and whose remains are covered by this legislation. What about the body of Captain Robert Nairac? Is that also covered, and is there any indication from the Provisionals that they will surrender those remains?

Mr. Ingram: We have no information on that. Once this legislation is in place, it will hopefully remain in place after the remains of the nine who have been listed by the Provisional IRA have been located and given a burial by their families. Thus the legislation could be used for any further information that is brought forward. Hopefully, it may encourage those who have those details to give it to us.

It is not just Captain Nairac; others are on the list of known victims who have disappeared over the years. The total number is not precise--a figure of 20 has been quoted. It is about collating information from a variety of sources, and the best estimate on which we are working is in the region of 16. Only nine victims have been identified, so there is still some way to go to deal with all the families who have lost their loved ones in this way over the years.

As I said, this measure is about alleviating suffering. It is a humanitarian gesture. That is why the two Governments have decided to proceed with legislation enabling those with information to come forward and the location of the bodies to be disclosed. Like so many issues in Northern Ireland, this is a difficult one. However, I believe that the Bill succeeds in striking the right balance between taking vital steps to alleviate some of the suffering that has afflicted many families in Northern Ireland for many years and ensuring that the scheme is workable in practice.

Before I deal with the detailed provisions of the Bill, I should like to acknowledge the difficulties that the Bill's timing has posed for a number of right hon. and hon. Members who had intended to travel to north America with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Committee on this issue. It is unfortunate that the two dates clashed because some hon. Members would have wished to participate in this debate. I am grateful to those who have taken the opportunity to be here today. Their presence is noted, and I look forward to their contributions to the debate.

10 May 1999 : Column 43

I am also grateful that the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) was able to travel to the United States, albeit with a somewhat depleted delegation, on what should prove to be a very worthwhile venture. What the delegation is investigating and examining is of importance to Northern Ireland.

The Bill provides the legislative framework for a commission, which will be an independent organisation established by the agreement signed on 27 April by the British and Irish Governments. The agreement was laid before the House on 5 May in accordance with the practice known as the Ponsonby rule. It is hoped that today's debate will give hon. Members an opportunity to express views on the agreement if they so wish.

Both Governments are doing all they can to ensure that the commission can begin its work as soon as possible. We are confident that in proposing to agree with the Government of Ireland on an early date for the agreement to enter into force--before the 21 days required by the Ponsonby rule have elapsed--we are acting with the will of the House.

The Bill makes supplementary provision for the commission and the commencement and duration of the provisions relating to the commission, and enables certain immunities and privileges to be conferred on it. The commission will facilitate the location of the remains of persons killed before 10 April 1998 as a result of an unlawful act of violence committed on behalf of, or in connection with, a proscribed organisation.

The Bill further provides three types of protection for information provided to the commission about the whereabouts of the remains of the victims. First, clause 3 provides that relevant information provided to the commission, or evidence that comes to light as a result of that information, shall not be admissible in evidence in any criminal proceedings, except if that evidence might, in some circumstances, be helpful to the defence of an accused person.

Secondly, clause 4 places prohibitions on the forensic testing of the remains or other items found, subject to limited exceptions, in particular for the purposes of determining the identity of the deceased persons and how, when and where they died.

Thirdly, clause 5 provides that information provided to the commission will not be disclosed except for the purpose of facilitating the location of the remains. However, the Bill leaves the commission with a discretion to pass certain information to the family of the victim.

Finally, the Bill makes provision for the grant of warrants authorising entry and search of private premises in the special circumstances to which the Bill relates.

I shall return to the theme with which I began: the pain and suffering of the victims' families, which we can only begin to imagine. The Bill will not lessen their loss, but in some small measure the location of their loved ones' remains and the opportunity to lay them to rest will at least enable them finally to close this chapter of their lives and to begin to move on. We must afford them that opportunity. I commend the Bill to the House.

10 May 1999 : Column 44

4.47 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I should like to begin by passing on the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), the shadow Secretary of State, who is unable to be here today to open the debate for the official Opposition as he is attending his father's funeral, as the Minister graciously acknowledged. We thank the Minister for his expression of condolence.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the main provisions of the legislation and some of the background to it, which includes some of the most gruesome events that have occurred anywhere in these islands in the past 30 years. The Bill deals with some of the most callous acts of barbarism imaginable: acts of almost unspeakable evil. They are a deep stain on the history of Ireland.

I should state at the outset that Conservative Members believe this to be an odious Bill, and we deeply deplore the fact that it is necessary to introduce it. Frankly, it sticks in the throat that we should have to bargain with terrorists to locate the bodies of people whom they have killed. The fact that we have to introduce the Bill tells us a great deal about the real nature of terrorist groups in Northern Ireland--in this instance, the Provisional IRA. The Bill shows once again the depths of depravity to which they have so often stooped in terrorising the people of Northern Ireland.

I should like to pay tribute to Seamus McKendry, whose organisation Families of "The Disappeared" has been bravely campaigning on this issue for the past five years, to Church leaders and cross-party groups such as New Dialogue, and to Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's victims' commission. They have made a huge contribution by drawing political and public attention to the plight of the victims' families. They have put pressure on terrorists to come clean and identify the burial sites of "The Disappeared", and to show, for once, an ounce of humanity.

The facts about "The Disappeared" speak for themselves. Between the early 1970s and the early 1980s, about 14 people were abducted, tortured and then murdered, mainly--although not necessarily exclusively--by the IRA. Some of the bodies were then dumped in unmarked graves on both sides of the border, and some, it is rumoured, in Scotland. It is widely believed that others suffered an even more gruesome fate.

The victims were people like Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widowed mother of 10 from the Divis flats in Belfast, who disappeared from her home on 7 December 1972, never to be seen again; people such as Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright from Andersonstown, who were abducted and murdered in October 1972; people like Brendan Megrew, who was taken from his home in Twinbrook, Belfast, in 1975 by a nine-member IRA gang, and Columba McVeigh, aged 17, from Dungannon, who in the same year was abducted and killed, again by the IRA. And let us not forget Captain Robert Nairac, who was dragged from a pub in South Armagh in 1977, tortured and killed. Like the others, his body has never been found.

Imagine the anguish, imagine the heartache, imagine the desolation of simply not knowing what happened or where those bodies are. Imagine also the anger of people who, in many cases, live in the same districts as the killers

10 May 1999 : Column 45

of their loved ones, and who in many cases see the suspected killers day after day. Imagine the anger of knowing people whose information, while not necessarily wiping away the pain, could at least have eased it.

Let us take the case of Margaret McKinney, whose son Brian was abducted in 1978. I had the privilege of meeting her in the House at lunchtime today. She describes the past 21 years as


She has suffered heart attacks, and for years would sleep in her son's bed wrapped in his coat. Frequently she would see the men who had taken Brian, but remained powerless to do anything, such is the fear and intimidation endemic in the communities that the IRA controls.

For years, relatives have pleaded with the terrorists to give them the information that would allow them to give the victims decent, dignified, Christian burials; for years the terrorists and their supporters have flatly refused. Indeed, for nearly 20 years the IRA denied that it was responsible. For its own vile ends, it has chosen to remain silent for all that time. That puts in stark perspective the IRA's hollow claims to be the defender of its community. In fact its members are the terrorisers, the intimidators and the real enemies of the communities that they claim to represent.

Nothing illustrated the sickening nature of the IRA more graphically than the announcement of the results of its so-called 18-month investigation of the whereabouts of "The Disappeared", for which we were all supposed to be grateful. On 29 March, the IRA said that it had been able to locate nine people's graves--as if they are not aware of the fate of the others--stating:


Having made its announcement and raised the hopes of the families, the IRA then prolonged the anguish by demanding that the British and Irish Governments pass legislation granting immunity from prosecution before it would reveal any further information. Helen McKendry, the daughter of Jean McConville, said:


    "I am really, really angry with the IRA. I thought when they made their statement a fortnight ago, all our suffering was over. They raised our hopes, knowing full well they had no immediate intention of delivering the bodies".


Next Section

IndexHome Page