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6.45 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for arriving so late and then wishing to contribute to the debate. My excuse is that the issue that we are dealing with is a matter that I have raised on numerous occasions in the House and elsewhere.

In fact, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was usually aware of what I was going to say. Time and again, I had pushed forward the issues of intimidation, terror, people being placed in exile and the bodies of "The Disappeared" so much that she knew where the question was coming from. She would then produce the answer, and we would see what the latest stage of that particular game was.

My reason for being late is that, suddenly, a constituency issue of some considerable importance emerged, a matter that may form part of the Adjournment debate that I have on Thursday night.

I support the Bill, but I realise that it has many of the problems that hon. Members have stressed. Moral and legal dilemmas are involved in a such measure, which have been strongly stressed by certain Members.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said that it was a simple matter of right and wrong. The problem is that matters of right and wrong are seldom simple. This is a complex matter of right and wrong. Arguments on one side outweigh legalistic and constitutional considerations about how we should handle matters of law and order--they are overruled by other considerations.

It seems that the overwhelming argument why we have this unfortunate legislation is that it is for the benefit of the families of "The Disappeared". They have been through horrendous experiences, which have gone on for

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years and years. Not only have they not been able to lay to rest their loved ones and to grieve. Often, they have been unable to express in the communities in which they have lived their concerns and their condemnation of those who have not allowed the bodies of their loved ones to be returned to them.

Initially, after their loved ones were murdered, those people may have sought justice. As time has gone on, what they have wanted is some concern, some compassion, and the ability to bury their loved ones and to complete the grief that they have had for years and years. That must be a strong consideration. The issue of right and wrong must be weighed against that consideration. It has tremendous weight.

We are talking about potentially, we believe, 14 bodies. It might seem that, in the weight of things, and with all the terrors that have occurred in Northern Ireland, it is a minor and small problem, but it is not for the people who have been consumed by the experience of losing loved ones in such circumstances. It is right that we should be concerned with such a matter in the House, and consider legislation to help them to overcome the considerable problems that they have faced.

The second reason why the Bill deserves support is that it will help in furthering the peace process. I have always argued that we have to address the issues of recovering the bodies of "The Disappeared"--so that they may receive a Christian burial--and of stopping intimidation and violence. Recent debate has helped to address the latter issue. Although violence and intimidation have not stopped, they--especially IRA intimidation and violence--have been reduced. I am sure that the attention paid by legislators to the issues has helped.

We have yet to address the issue of those who have been sent into exile and are not allowed to return to Northern Ireland. We should never forget those people, or allow the IRA to forget them.

I believe that if progress is made on the three issues--recovering the bodies of "The Disappeared"; stopping violence and intimidation; and enabling the exiles' return to Northern Ireland--the IRA will have demonstrated a shift in its horizons, attitudes and approach.

I condemn the IRA as much as any other hon. Member speaking in the debate, but we have to seek a shift in the IRA's position. We need to encourage the creation of shifting sands--the ultimate aim of which will be an arrangement on decommissioning. If the IRA takes a step in the resolution of one problem, it should be able to take another step, until we reach the big prize--thereby firmly establishing the peace agreement and the Assembly. Addressing the three issues will not solve all Northern Ireland's problems--that will take a considerable time--but the most intractable problem of all will almost have been cracked.

The Bill will assist us in starting that process. I grant that it would have been better if the IRA, in response to all the arguments and pleas that have been made, had readily announced the locations of the bodies and allowed access to them, so that "The Disappeared" could be returned to their loved ones. It would have been better if there were no need for the Bill. But no one was able to find the bodies. Given the IRA's position on the issue, we have been pushed into passing this legislation.

I accept that the IRA has helped to shape the legislation; but circumstances often shape our legislation. We have to respond to circumstances, and do so in a way

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in which our moral case is advanced, and in which the least possible damage is done to legal and constitutional principles. The Bill is not without problems, but I believe that it advances our moral case.

Mr. Maginnis: The hon. Gentleman has always been positive, and most tangibly so when addressing Northern Ireland issues. However, does he agree that his very honourable objective will be frustrated if the obligation does not fall fairly and squarely on the shoulders of IRA-Sinn Fein, and if not remorse, but reward motivates the actions of IRA-Sinn Fein? That is the point that I have tried to make in the debate. We are not seeing any sign of remorse from IRA-Sinn Fein, but we are offering reward.

Mr. Barnes: I agree that the IRA's position on the issue is disgraceful and that it has shown no remorse. However, I do not believe that the IRA will be rewarded by the legislation. I also believe that, at long last, the families of "The Disappeared" will not be given a reward, but be shown the decency that they should have been shown years ago. Although their relatives should never have been the victims of any organisation, once they had been, their bodies should have been returned. As the IRA--for various reasons--did not want to accept responsibility, that was not done.

I should say what I believe is wrong about the IRA's position on the issue, so that there is no doubt about it. Although we may disagree on this particular legislation, our attitude and approach to the issue may be the same.

Mr. Hunter: The hon. Gentleman mentioned "reward" in relation to the families. Does he accept that--using his own terminology--if a "reward" is the Bill's desirable end product, it extends to absolving murder?

Mr. Barnes: "Absolving murder" is a rather grand description of the Bill's provisions, as it suggests that we shall be able to catch the criminals involved and properly to pass sentence on them. We know that that will not happen. Without such legislation, there will be no possibility that the bodies will be returned.

The Bill may allow people to get off the hook, but I do not think that that hook will catch anyone anyway. Moreover, we do not have any other means of achieving our objective. Although the Bill deals with a complicated issue and is not entirely good, concern and compassion for the victims and their families should lead us to support it.

It took the IRA far too long to move on the issue. When it did make a move--at a delicate stage in the negotiations on establishing the Assembly--it was more like a ploy, as if the IRA was not genuinely moved and concerned by the issue. The IRA's action seemed to be only a cynical concession, for which it expected something in return. However, its concession must have gained it no advantage among any "audience" in Northern Ireland or Great Britain.

Subsequently, the IRA said that it knew the location of only nine of the 14 victims. It has yet to make any provision for the other five victims. We also have no guarantee--but only the possibility--that, when the legislation is passed, the bodies will be returned.

Worst of all, the IRA listed the "crimes" of those whom it had so ruthlessly murdered. Even then, the IRA had it wrong. The family members tell us of the obnoxious claims made about the "crimes" of their loved ones.

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The Bill is not really about the IRA; it is about the families of "The Disappeared" and how we may assist them. If the Bill also encourages the IRA in making what it considers--in its own terminology and chopped logic, not ours--to be "a concession", it may be easier to make subsequent progress, getting us a little further down the road. However, it has taken us ages to get this far. The IRA should have taken its limited action--and we should have been considering this type of legislation--ages ago. The IRA should at least have made that limited move to allow us to produce such a Bill before.

I hope that the Bill is supported. We understand the problems, but it is justified by the circumstances and the opportunity that it will give to the families to bury their loved ones and overcome some of the massive traumas that they have suffered year after year. For some, being able to visit the graves of their loved ones in their last few years of retirement would be more important than it is to anyone else who has buried a relative. For most people, visiting the grave of a loved one is a ritual because they have a regular opportunity to do so. For the families of "The Disappeared", it will never be a ritual.

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