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6.31 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): The divisions of opinion in the House, which are widespread, have already been made fairly clear.

The Minister said that the Bill's purpose was to facilitate location of the remains of people who have been tortured and murdered by the IRA and buried in secret, and to restore them to their relatives so that their concern might be alleviated. My hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said that that was the responsibility of IRA-Sinn Fein in any event. He also said that the IRA was simply twisting the knife. I note that the IRA is twisting the knife and being well paid for it--rather better paid than the soldiers and members of the RUC who were active in Londonderry on 30 January 1972, to whom no prospect of immunity will be available should they give evidence against allegations that are now widespread.

Bereavement is, of course, always a painful experience, and those who are closest to the deceased always experience a sense of emptiness and desolation. That is what happens when a loved one passes away. The misery is multiplied when the death is unexpected, and there is no time to prepare for the loss of a family member or close friend. Most of us must come to terms with such an event at some time in our lives, but, when the unexpected tragedy is the consequence of an accident--and, above all, when murder has been the means of removing a family member--bitter anger is added to the grief. Such horrors have been visited on literally thousands of families in Northern Ireland and, indeed, Great Britain during the past 30 years by terrorist organisations which, in the pursuit of political and constitutional change with the aim of dismembering the kingdom, have used murder as the principal means of intimidation.

Those of us who have the honour of representing Northern Ireland constituencies have visited many homes that have been torn apart by this wickedness, and have observed--indeed, on occasion have partaken in--the suffering of the families concerned. We are, therefore, not unaware of the feelings of men, women and children in such circumstances. The misery that has confronted us in such homes will live with us for the rest of our lives. Following our visits, bereaved relatives have come to us for help with compensation and other payments, and with numerous problems that have flowed directly from the murders that have torn their families apart.

When I came to consider the Bill, I had those experiences--gained over 25 years as a Member of Parliament--to guide me to my conclusions. Furthermore, I have always lived in an area that is predominantly Roman Catholic, and, over the years, I have visited the homes of adherents of that religion as well as my own when friends and neighbours have died. The House will know--and, given your background, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will know better than most--that Irish wakes, in Great Britain and further afield, have acquired the music-hall image of alcohol-imbibing parties; but that is far from the truth. Such events provide an opportunity for neighbours and friends to express sympathy and regret to the family, and, in the homes of deceased Roman

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Catholics, to offer prayers. It is the religious element that pervades those dwellings between the death and the funeral, no matter what caused the death.

I am also well aware of the importance that the Roman Catholic population attaches to the attendance of a priest at the time of death. When I read that the family of one of the unfortunates who have been tortured and murdered by the IRA are desperate for the remains to be returned so that they can give them a decent burial, I feel sure that the lack of the rites of the Church at the time of death is one of the factors that weigh most heavily with those relatives. To members of the Roman Catholic Church, that is an important aspect of their religion. As a member of the reformed tradition, I would attach much less importance to the attendance of a churchman at the death bed.

It is against that background that I come to the Bill: a background of knowledge of members of the faith, many of whom have been employers and employees of my family in the past with whom I have grieved over the death of a loved one. I must say immediately that I consider this to be, in many respects, the most offensive Bill that I have ever seen.

I ask the House to consider the circumstances in which the people now known as "The Disappeared" died. The term "Disappeared" is, I believe, of South American origin, and refers to the victims of regimes there. The root of the term is that those who died were killed by the Government and their agents, and that those killed and buried secretly in unknown graves were democrats seeking relief from the excesses of South American regimes.

That does not apply to the victims of the IRA. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth in their case. With the exception of Captain Robert Nairac, they have all been civilians who angered the IRA for one reason or another. The IRA, of course, is a terrorist organisation committed to the destruction of the United Kingdom, and to using violence to achieve that. According to the IRA, all those victims were arrested, questioned, tried and executed for crimes allegedly committed against the IRA and its objectives. The first three terms, however, are simply euphemisms for being kidnapped, being tortured in the most foul and brutal fashion--in some cases, until death--and being brought before a kangaroo group of vile thugs, and at best being informed that they were guilty of crimes against the Irish nation. There was no defence lawyer and no independent jury, and there were no independent witnesses. Fourthly, the victims were sentenced to death without appeal, then taken out and murdered, or possibly simply shot on the spot. When that was over, their mutilated bodies were taken away and buried.

Those are the vilest of crimes, which deserve the condemnation of every citizen--and, indeed, have been condemned by every citizen except members of the IRA and their apologists. Moreover, I believe that those who committed such crimes should be pursued to the end of their days in an effort to bring them to trial and impose just punishment. That is the normal standard in this country, and in every civilised state. If such crimes were committed in the United States, it would not be a question of Congress passing legislation to get the perpetrators off; they would be on death row, and would stay there until they were executed. Not only is that the normal standard in this country but the House of Commons, with the

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enthusiastic support of the Labour party, created a law which allows us, 50 years after the event, to bring before the courts those who butchered the unfortunates who dared to oppose Hitler.

The present Government are co-operating with Spain over the detention and extradition of General Pinochet. We have listened to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister on the subjects of Kosovo and Brick lane. The Prime Minister drew a parallel between the fight to defeat "injustice and intolerance" at home and NATO's battle against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo:

He said:

    "When defenceless people are butchered by Milosevic in Kosovo, young men murdered, women violated, it is an outrage against the very values of humanity which are the world's only salvation. We must act to stop it."

He went on to say:

    "This is not a battle for NATO, this is not a battle for territory, this is a battle for humanity. It is a just cause".

He said later:

    "As far as the eye could see, a queue of humanity stretches through no man's land to Kosovo. I felt an anger, a loathing, of what Milosevic's policy stands for, so powerful, that I pledged to them as I pledge to you now: Milosevic and his hideous racial genocide will be defeated."

With regard to the nail bombing in Brick lane and elsewhere in London, the Home Secretary told us:

    "This is a terrible outrage committed by people with no humanity. I know that the police are devoting huge efforts to find the perpetrators."

The Prime Minister delivered a powerful condemnation of the same bombing, declaring that an attack on a single community was an attack on Britain as a whole:

    "when the gay community is attacked and innocent people are murdered, all the good people of Britain, whatever their race, their lifestyle, their class, unite in revulsion and determination to bring evil people to justice."

He called for

    "the decent majority in society to take a stand against prejudice and bigotry."

He said:

    "On the face of it, it is a long way from Soho, Brick Lane and Brixton to Kosovo. But they are linked by the battle against bigotry and hatred--a battle of values."

That is what the Bill comes down to.

In all those instances, the nation claims, through our top Ministers, to believe in the rule of law, and expresses its determination to see it applied despite the costs in trade, the blood of our fighting men and the treasure involved, yet the Bill continues down the path of undermining the rule of law, which was so well begun by the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

The latter Act is costing £90,000 per month--the total cost so far is, I think, £2 million--for no weapons. It introduced the abhorrent principle--and it is abhorrent--that evidence as to the identity of murderers and other criminals that is uncovered in the operation of the Act could not be used in evidence in court. Clause 3 builds

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on that hideous principle. It prohibits the admissibility of evidence that is found during the recovery of a body where such evidence would be useful to the prosecution.

It does not stop there. Any evidence that would help the defence of such people could be used in court. In other words, half truths--a fancy name for lies--are now legal tender to protect the most vile and brutal of thugs, who have tortured and murdered citizens whom the Government, the police and courts have a duty to defend. It is, of course, a sickening fact that, even if detailed and assiduous police work managed to secure a conviction for any of those murders, the persons convicted would be out of prison in a maximum of two years.

The Bill is the product of a Government who, in opposition, accused others of a lack of morality. This is a question of morality--of simple right and wrong and nothing else. The Bill should never have seen the light of day. It should be opposed for the idea that easing the pain of victims' families is a good reason to forget the sobs, screams and pleas for mercy that were uttered to the merciless.

The Bill is a foul, odious besmirching not only of the House, but of the nation. In passing it, we become defenders of those same torturers and murderers, and accessories to the crimes that they commit. The Under-Secretary may smile at what I say, but at least I believe what I say. I wonder: does he believe what he is putting before the House?

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