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Mr. Swayne: Will the suffering and anger to which my hon. Friend has referred be expiated by the Bill, the effect of which is to make it more difficult to secure a conviction against the perpetrators of those awful deeds?

Mr. Moss: I hear what my hon. Friend says. It was a question that he put to the Minister of State. I will come to it a little later, if he will be patient.

In reality, the announcement had precious little to do with the victims' families. It was a propaganda stunt that was aimed at boosting Sinn Fein during the Hillsborough talks in the week before Easter, taking the pressure off the organisation over its refusal to decommission its illegally held arms and explosives. As Mr. Seamus McKendry of Families of "The Disappeared" said:

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Then there was the staggering hypocrisy of Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, who stated that he hoped that an end was in sight to the "misery" being suffered and that

    "we are hopeful that the plight of these families can now be alleviated".

Does he expect anyone in Northern Ireland, or elsewhere for that matter, to believe that the organisation responsible for that misery is any other than the one to which his party is inextricably linked: the Provisional IRA? What organisation could seek to gain credit and gratitude for finally disclosing the whereabouts of people whom it has murdered other than the Provisional IRA? That is a disgraceful state of affairs, but one, sadly, with which we are going to have to live.

That rather sums up our attitude to the Bill: it is a necessary evil. There should be no need for such a Bill. If we were dealing with reasonable people who were truly committed to peaceful and democratic means, there would not be such a need--but then, that is not the IRA's way.

As the Minister of State has explained, the Bill covers three main areas: to make provision concerning the commission established by the agreement between the British and Irish Governments on 27 April; to provide various protections for information provided to the commission and any evidence that might come to light as a result about the whereabouts of the remains of the victims of violence; and to make provision in relation to the entry and search of premises where remains are likely to be found.

The most controversial parts of the Bill are clause 3, dealing with admissibility of evidence in criminal proceedings, and clause 4, which deals with restrictions on forensic testing. I hope to come soon to the section of my speech that answers the important question put by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne).

On admissibility, having studied the Bill, we are satisfied legally that it does not amount to a general amnesty, or immunity from prosecution in connection with the original offence of murder. If any other evidence comes to light other than that covered in the Bill, it could be used in a criminal proceeding. I note, however, a distinction between the Bill as drafted and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. That legislation contains a much more explicit reference. As section 11 states:

That makes it clear, as Lord Mayhew said at the time, that

    "apart from the Bill's provisions, the institution or conduct of criminal proceedings is unaffected."--[Official Report, 9 December 1996; Vol. 287, c. 27.]

We would have liked an equally clear statement in the Bill. We ask the Minister, between now and Committee and Report stages on Wednesday, to ask his people to look at that section.

Whatever the legal position, in practice it is difficult to see how any prosecution in such cases could be successful without the ability to carry out a forensic test on a body. In such circumstances, the reality is that the Bill does, in effect, amount to an amnesty for people who have committed the most appalling and savage acts of murder.

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If a prosecution for any of those crimes were successful, the individuals concerned would be eligible for the accelerated release scheme and would, under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, therefore serve only a few months. Most right-thinking people would find that totally unacceptable.

We have carefully examined the restrictions on forensic testing, which are very wide in their application. We believe that clause 4(2) just about satisfies the legitimate concerns about post mortems, and enables the relatives to establish not only an individual's identity but how, when and where he or she died.

The Bill seeks to bring some belated comfort to grieving families and relatives of "The Disappeared", and to encourage the IRA--having announced that it has located nine graves--finally, and after many years of waiting, to tell the families. Whatever our misgivings about the Bill, the families' wishes guide our approach to it--their wishes must be paramount. They want no more delay. As one family member recently put it:

On that basis, despite our deep reservations about the Bill, we shall do nothing today to impede its passage.

5.1 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I promise that I shall be brief.

Last week, I was told by a man in Northern Ireland whom I regard highly that one consequence of the Bill, intended or unintended, would be to give some protection to a senior IRA member who was involved in some of the killings and who is still active.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) said. He was absolutely right to say that the victims suffered the most horrendous torture and callous murder by brutal murderers claiming to be freedom fighters or defenders of the Union. Those freedom fighters and defenders were and are terrorists, because they conduct their so-called military campaigns in a mature and parliamentary democracy.

This afternoon, together with the hon. Gentleman, I met Mrs. Margaret McKinney and another lady, whose father was brutally abducted and murdered and whose remains may well be located somewhere south of the border. If I had any doubts about the Bill--here is where I part company with the hon. Gentleman--they were dispelled when I met those two ladies. The Bill's objective, as the hon. Gentleman said, is to help families to give their loved ones a Christian burial.

I told Mrs. McKinney that, as I come from a fishing family that has lost at sea family members whose bodies were never recovered, I have a glimmer--but only a glimmer--of their heartfelt wish to recover the bodies of their loved ones, so that they may provide them with a Christian burial. They want to place their loved ones in a family plot, so that they may visit the graves. I have some understanding of that supreme wish.

I said that I would speak only briefly, and I shall honour that promise. However, I want to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State a couple of questions. On the Bill's financial effects, the explanatory notes state that the commission will be allowed an upper limit of

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£100,000 for its members to pursue their laudable objectives. I tell the Minister--my hon. and old Friend from the other side of the Clyde--that I should not want any type of financial restriction to be placed on the commission's activities.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire repeated an allegation, which I have heard back home, that more than one victim is buried in Scotland. Can any credence be given to that? If so, I hope that the commission will receive every co-operation and assistance from the Scottish Office and others who may be able to help.

In some ways, I find it difficult to support the Bill, but I remember what I heard at the meeting this afternoon about the needs and wishes of the people directly concerned. We have an obligation to those poor distressed people. We honour that obligation by passing the Bill.

5.6 pm

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): I wonder whom the Bill is meant to benefit. I have the greatest sympathy for those who have lost loved ones and who, for two or three decades, have failed to discover the whereabouts of the bodies. I should very much like them to have their minds put at rest.

To echo what the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said, people in my family have been killed in time of war and the bodies have never found their way back to the local churchyard, but they are not forgotten. "The Disappeared" will not be forgotten either, but I have deep reservations that we are compromising the fundamental law, which is meant to protect society as a whole, to deal with a specific and tragic problem. I am even more concerned that those who will benefit most are those who have held society to ransom for the past 30 years.

This is a moment to take stock. We are not considering the IRA exclusively, but it has the people with the information on the location of the bodies of "The Disappeared". We should look at their performance and response to all that society has tried to do over the past four years in particular. First, we had the Mitchell commission, which lasted for a year and produced a report. That was followed by two years of negotiations. Since the Stormont agreement was signed on 10 April 1998, another year has elapsed. Do Ministers believe that the measures that we are being asked to endorse will bring us one step closer to stability in Northern Ireland?

I am not the only one to have grave reservations. Monsignor Denis Faul--a member of the Catholic community for whom I have the highest regard and to whom I refer not infrequently in the House--suggested at the time that he was not convinced of the sincerity of the announcement that nine bodies had been located. The activities of Sinn Fein-IRA since then make me suspect that he was probably wise to have had those deep reservations. With virtually everything that Sinn Fein-IRA have promised, or intimated, that they might deliver over the past four years, little has come to fruition. That deeply concerns me, and society as a whole in Northern Ireland.

It is no secret that I am a wholehearted supporter of the Stormont agreement. If it is implemented in the spirit in which it was derived, Northern Ireland ultimately will be

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a better place. However, I must acknowledge that many of my friends do not believe that, as I do. Many of us who believe and support the agreement have sacrificed the support and sometimes even the friendship of those who have been colleagues in the past. That is why I view what is happening here today with such gravity. If we are to pass a Bill which, in political terms, benefits exclusively Sinn Fein-IRA, we should examine the performance of that organisation--both the terrorist, active side and the paramilitary-linked political party, Sinn Fein.

When George Mitchell examined the likelihood of peace being brought to Northern Ireland, he looked at the question of disarmament and posed a question that reflected his concern about republican and loyalist paramilitaries. He asked whether there was

--he did not use the word "address"--

    "full and verifiable decommissioning."

He answered his own question by saying that he was convinced that that was the case, and that it was conditional only upon it being

    "part of the process of all-party negotiations."

That report was available for everybody to see and there was no misunderstanding of the meaning. Sinn Fein-IRA knew exactly what Senator Mitchell meant. However, nobody could have given him that assurance about the paramilitaries except the paramilitary-linked political parties, Sinn Fein, and the various loyalist parties such as the Progressive Unionist party and the Ulster Democratic party. It was on that basis that those people sat within the negotiating process and were tolerated by those of us who found their presence disturbing, to put it mildly. However, we got an agreement.

I do not believe that Senator Mitchell would have indulged in the nonsense of proposing that any party should commit itself to achieving disarmament or any other matter that was beyond the competence of that party. Yet from the time the agreement was signed a year ago, we have been through the mill again and again, trying to convince people nationally and internationally that disarmament was an integral part of the agreement.

Members of Sinn Fein, who expect to put the godfather of godfathers--Martin McGuinness--in an Executive position, do not agree; they have argued that there was no obligation to disarm. In fact, a year ago they implied that they would disarm by 22 May 2000--two years after the referendum. We are halfway there now, but they are careful not to mention that date at present. Instead, they tell us that they were led to believe that all they had to do was to call a ceasefire and they would be admitted to Executive authority in the Government of Northern Ireland. They certainly were not led to believe that by any Member whom I have heard speaking in this House. That is not the case; it has never been the case--it was made clear, not only by Members of this House, but by people in the Irish Government and elsewhere, that guns could not be on the table, under the table or outside the door of the chamber of democracy.

Through this Bill, we are pandering to Sinn Fein. Let me tell the House what the attitude of Sinn Fein was yesterday at its conference in Dublin. Francie Molloy, a

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district councillor and senior Sinn Fein negotiator, gave a warning that republicans would not accept exclusion and would not hand over their weapons. He said:

    "If the SDLP, Dublin government and the Unionists think they can go about this"--

that is the government of Northern Ireland--

    "without us, then we will make the six-county statelet ungovernable."

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