Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman is expressing his strong opposition to the Bill. If not through the Bill, how

10 May 1999 : Column 57

would he bring about the return of the victims' bodies to their families? What measures would he prefer to be put in place, if not this measure?

Mr. Hunter: I gave way to the Minister because of his Front-Bench position, and I note what he says. If I had a say in the matter, we would not be where we now are. My answer is that the process of law must operate independently of political interference, and in no case should politicians create circumstances that diminish the likelihood of prosecution. That is what the Bill, as I see it, achieves.

Mr. Ingram: Can the hon. Gentleman then tell the House why he did not oppose the Bill on the decommissioning of illegally held weapons? That was a similar measure containing similar precepts. He did not oppose that Bill, but he is arguing strongly against this one. If I remember correctly, he supported the then Government--his Government--on that measure.

Mr. Hunter: The Minister's observation is factually correct, but he may not be aware of the internal debate that accompanied that Bill--the attempts to dissuade that I and a number of my colleagues made. However, that Bill passed, and as the right hon. Gentleman correctly says, I did not vote against it. He will also acknowledge that on other measures, I did. Perhaps he is aware of the complexities of trying to influence Government.

Let me make a comparative and illustrative point. Some of us have consistently argued that there is no justification whatever for the early release of terrorist prisoners. We maintain that it is morally wrong for others to argue that acts of violence are less serious if they are committed with political motives, and their perpetrators therefore can be treated more leniently. Early release, we maintain, has undermined and continues to undermine the rule of law, the bedrock of civilised society.

Terrorism triumphed when the two Governments advocated early release and the political parties signed up to it. With this Bill, as the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone said, the Government are trying to go a stage further. Until now, they have asked us to accept only that terrorists who have been convicted of murder and other hideous crimes should be released early. Now the Government ask us to accept that in specified circumstances use will not be made of certain evidence that might help to secure the conviction of terrorist murderers.

With this Bill, the Executive seek to acquire further powers to tamper with the judicial process. The Executive--in addition to the powers that they already have to disregard, for political reasons, sentences passed by the courts--now, also for political reasons, want powers to ensure that, in specified circumstances, incriminating evidence, which might secure the conviction of terrorist murderers, cannot be used. That is an intolerable intrusion by the Government and one that the House should resist. Parliament should not grant the Executive such powers.

I see the Bill as merely the latest obscene landmark that the Government have placed in the way of a process that was publicly launched with the Downing street declaration in December 1993--a process that I supported under the Conservative Government. After the then Prime

10 May 1999 : Column 58

Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), had made his statement on the Downing street declaration to the House, I asked him, with precisely such developments as the Bill in mind, for an assurance that there would be

    "no let-up in the hunt for those that perpetrated terrorism".--[Official Report, 15 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 1080.]

He gave such an assurance. The Bill is yet another example of how the present Government's policies towards Northern Ireland have departed from those of the previous Government and why some of us have little, if any, confidence in their handling of Northern Ireland affairs.

I, too, have the deepest sympathy for the families, relations and close friends of "The Disappeared". I understand their grief. I certainly understand the wish of many of those people that the remains of "The Disappeared" should be transferred to consecrated ground and reburied with religious rites, but that desirable end does not justify these means.

In Northern Ireland, democracy, decency and justice have been sacrificed for an agreement that does not remotely excise from society the belief in violence or the practice of violence. This measure corrodes and corrupts further; it further undermines the rule of law; it further extends political intervention in the judicial process; and it goes some way towards absolving murder and thereby diminishes the value of human life. That is not the route to follow if we want to establish stability and lasting peace in the Province.

6.2 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) referred to the Downing street declaration. My views on it are on the record of the proceedings of this House, but I have often contended publicly that one aspect of that agreement made common sense: if terrorists want to be part of the democratic process, it is up to them to leave violence behind, to enter the democratic process on the same basis as everyone else, to be exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means and to end their violence permanently.

That is what paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration said, but, in the months and years that have passed, the terrorist has not come to play by the rules of democracy. The democrats have had to lower their standards to the level of the terrorists. Today, the House once again finds itself introducing unprincipled, dangerous and--as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) said--odious legislation.

May I enter part of the discussion that has been taking place? I do not think that the Minister is taking a giant leap from the release of prisoners and decommissioning legislation with this Bill. Its underlying principles are very much the same and, if one only looks at the short-term outcomes, one could even argue that it might be less problematic than the others, to the extent that there could be an upside--the long agony of those who have been waiting to hear something about the discovery of the remains of their loved ones might be lifted.

Each of us would find it difficult to understand the anguish of people in such a situation, but I ask the Minister to think again about the long-term danger of this kind of appeasing legislation. The Bill clearly sets a

10 May 1999 : Column 59

precedent, though I know that people will say, "Only for Northern Ireland." There will be a precedent none the less within Northern Ireland. Effectively, we are saying that there will be an amnesty--albeit in this limited area--for those who have carried out offences that have resulted in the death of individuals in the Province.

I remember the signing of the Belfast agreement in April 1998. When pressed about the long list of concessions that were being made to Sinn Fein-IRA, the Prime Minister told us that the concession process was at an end, but, ever since, the concession process has been prominent in this so-called peace process. We are told by the Government that they are creating the necessary conditions for peace, and the Minister has told us that again today. Much of the apologia in the documentation handed out by the Government--the notes on clauses and so on--says that all the concessions may be hard for us to stomach, but they are necessary if we are to build a credible peace process.

Can anybody show me where is the reciprocity within this process? What has Provisional IRA--and its fellow traveller, Provisional Sinn Fein--given to this process? Are we to thank them because, in name, they have called a ceasefire? As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said earlier, the dying words of a man last night identified the Provisional IRA as his killer.

The Provisional IRA clearly has not lived up to what was expected by its fellow signatories to the Belfast agreement. The Government are creating evidence of the success of the terrorist organisations within Northern Ireland--effectively, they have been rewarded for their violence and can get away with murder. We have a terrible situation in which all we need to hear is a threat from the leader of a terror gang or one of his political spokespersons and the Government are running to appease them.

Churchill was right when he said that an appeaser is a person who feeds a crocodile in the vain hope that it will eat him last. Over the past number of days, the Prime Minister has seen the teeth of that crocodile as it begins to move towards his hind quarters. His concessions to the IRA are appeasement of the worst possible kind--short-term payments to the ransom demands of the IRA. They will not build real and lasting peace, they cannot buy peace and they are destroying the genuine hopes of Ulster people for a peaceful future.

Look at what has happened in Northern Ireland over the past 12 months: the Government have sought to create the conditions for peace by letting terrorist killers and bombers out of jail, by reducing the number of British troops in Northern Ireland and by turning a blind eye to the callous and multiple punishment beatings in Northern Ireland carried out by the terrorist organisations--and turn a blind eye they have. The Secretary of State has a power to stop prisoner releases if she considers that any of the organisations that the Chief Constable has publicly said are carrying out those punishment beatings are guilty of such crimes.

The Government have also been establishing an international policing commission, which has effectively demoralised RUC members and will undoubtedly undermine the RUC when it eventually gives the results of its findings. They have established a human rights

10 May 1999 : Column 60

commission, which consists of nationalists, their political representatives and those sympathetic to the republican and nationalist cause. None of its members represent the Unionist community.

The Government have never insisted that the IRA decommission in order to be part of a Northern Ireland Government. I understand that today, a German magazine quotes the Prime Minister as reassuring republicans that words alone will be enough to satisfy him of their commitment to peace. Last year, the Prime Minister pledged that he would not let armed gunmen into the Northern Ireland Government. At the weekend, we were told that it is expected that the leader of the Provisional IRA, its supremo, who sat around a table while many of the odious deeds referred to in the Bill were carried out--everybody knows that he was the commander of the IRA--will be a Minister if Sinn Fein find entry into the Northern Ireland Government. He will be a Minister without ever having apologised for the Provisional IRA's deeds under his leadership, and without the least apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the decades of mayhem that they have had to endure.

Today, we have before us another act of appeasement to the IRA. It is being bandied about as another confidence-building measure, a necessity on the road to peace. However, the Bill is nothing less than an up-front payment of another instalment in the IRA's ransom demand.

The Belfast agreement promised us a "new beginning" and told us that peace was on the way. We were told that concessions to the IRA had all been worth it because the promised peace was here at last, yet just a year later, the British Government are engaged in another round of concessions to the IRA. The Belfast agreement is no doubt the master, but like all masters, it has slaves. The Prime Minister is undoubtedly one of those, slavishly devoted to a master plan that is not bringing about peace, but is capable only of bringing about IRA demands for a united Ireland.

The Government must stop the pretence that they have a peace deal and face the reality that they must cease the endless conveyor belt of concessions to terrorism. Whether the Minister wants to face up to it or not, the Bill is an amnesty for those terrorists who were never caught, whose files remain open and who want accreditation from the Government that they will never face prosecution for their terrible crimes against humanity. Indeed, I note from paragraph 9 of the notes on clauses that the Government talk about the Bill providing protection for those people. Thus, this is a Bill to provide protection to terrorists, murderers and those guilty of the heinous crimes that we have seen throughout the decades of troubles.

The irony of the Bill is that it comes at a time when this nation is engaged in a war in the Balkans. The Government tell us that we are there for "humanitarian purposes". The Prime Minister says that those who have breached the human rights of the Kosovo refugees face prosecution, yet in his own back yard, he asks us to agree to legislation that will expunge the guilt of those who murdered men, women and children in Northern Ireland, who kidnapped and who destroyed life, and who unceremoniously dumped bodies in unmarked graves, perpetrating an anguish untold on the families of so many in Northern Ireland.

10 May 1999 : Column 61

How often have we been told over the years from the Dispatch Box that the Government will make every possible effort to ensure that people are brought to justice? They have said that terrorists will be hunted down. It is now abundantly clear that they have changed their minds.

Next Section

IndexHome Page