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7.1 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): This has been a sombre debate. It has reminded all of us who have been listening of the horror that has been visited on the people of Northern Ireland over the past 30 years. It has allowed us to focus on the activities of the Provisional IRA and the way in which it has treated sections of its own population, whom it said it would protect. IRA members have murdered people, concealed their bodies and refused to give any information about their fate or their whereabouts.

We are all united in believing that it offends every tenet of human decency for the IRA to act in that way after murdering someone. For many years, one of the most characteristic views of Northern Ireland on our television screens has been of funerals. Often, they have been the funerals of terrorists--members of the Provisional IRA--who have been lawfully killed in the course of carrying out their murderous enterprise. At no time in the past 30 years has it been suggested that, as happens in certain countries, the state should deny burial to those who have perpetrated such crimes or the opportunity to mourn them, because we stand by human rights and human decency. Even if we try to see some rightness in the cause of the Provisional IRA and to apply its selective morality, it is impossible to find a shred of justification for what has happened. The IRA has offended every tenet of human decency. The debate has provided an opportunity for hon. Members to express their contempt for that behaviour.

Two mutually irreconcilable views have been expressed during the debate. We have heard powerful and eloquent speeches from the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). They all pointed to the need for constructive measures to give those who mourn the opportunity to bury their loved ones. That is a powerful argument, which the House should not lightly disregard.

Equally, it has been impossible not to have considerable respect for the views of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), my hon. Friend the

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Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). We cannot minimise the step that we are taking with legislation that invites immunity from prosecution--or at least disallows any forensic evidence that might accompany the discovery of the remains of those who have been murdered from being brought in any prosecution.

Comparisons have been made during the debate between this Bill and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. I accept that the same tests were applied. Any forensic evidence that is gleaned from weapons that are handed in will not be used against anyone. There is a powerful argument that the mere removal of weapons from circulation is an important step in preventing their further use. It is highly unusual for a prosecution for murder to take place without direct forensic evidence relating to the remains of the deceased. It has happened, but it is very unusual and very difficult. I fully accept that the Bill does not provide an amnesty to those who perpetrated the offences, but it is right to acknowledge that its practical effect must be to make it most improbable that anyone will ever stand trial for the murders, unless someone confesses or provides evidence so powerful that it would convict those responsible without forensic evidence.

There are two matters on which I should like assurances from the Minister. We very much hope that if the Bill is passed, remains will be disclosed and discovered. If that happens, it is essential that in the forensic examinations that take place with a view to the inquest, the full facts and circumstances, in so far as they can be found, should come to light. The Bill should not result in those facts being brushed under the carpet for the convenience of those who perpetrated the offences. It has been pointed out during the debate that there are powerful grounds for suspecting that those who were murdered were also tortured and treated in the most abominable fashion. It is right that those facts should not be concealed from the public if they come to light when remains are found. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that, although the evidence will not be admissible in a prosecution, it will be available through the inquest procedure so that people will know what happened.

Mr. McDonnell: I should like clarification on that from the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Minister. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the further dissemination of information should be at the behest of the family, or should it be determined by the commission? Members of the family may wish to be aware of some of the information, but they may not want it to be disseminated more widely.

Mr. Grieve: Some clarification from the Minister on that would be helpful. Clause 4 clearly

I infer from that that there will be inquests if remains are found and that the usual consequence will flow from an inquest: the public will be made aware of how the people died. However unpalatable some of the facts that emerge

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as a result may be, those matters should be made public. I see no reason why they cannot be made public, even if the main thrust of the Bill were to go through.

Mr. Swayne : I agree entirely with the thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying, but does he not believe that he is raising the idea of increasing the public demand for justice while the Bill removes the possibility?

Mr. Grieve: I take my hon. Friend's point, and that was a matter to which I was going to refer in a moment. When the full facts emerge, it is likely that they will cast considerable doubt on some of the comments made by the IRA in its mealy-mouthed responses to the events of the past 30 years, and they may well excite a great deal of public comment. However, we should bear in mind the fact that there is powerful evidence that the relatives of the deceased support the Bill. That is an important consideration; although, as has been said in the debate, it is clearly not the overwhelming consideration.

In the same way, from time to time, people may ask in a court of law that malefactors should not be punished, even though they themselves have been affected personally. However, the law is there to be upheld, and generally the views of victims--although they will be listened to politely--are not necessarily given priority over what is regarded as the public interest. The public interest aspect of the Bill is of paramount importance.

Another matter on which I seek clarification is this; the point has been made that we are dealing with the possible location of the remains of nine murdered people, as alluded to by the Provisional IRA. Yet there is a general public suspicion that there are a number of others who were victims of the Provisional IRA, although it is possible that some may have been the victims of other paramilitary organisations. It is clearly desirable that, in so far as it is possible, an explanation should be forthcoming as to why the locations cannot be divulged. There may be a number of unpalatable reasons. One may be that the locations are wholly inaccessible. Another may be that, as a result of the ruthlessness of the killers, the remains of the murdered have been effectively destroyed.

I ask the Minister to clarify why, under the Bill, there would not be immunity for a person who cared to give the commission details of how someone met his end as a victim of the Provisional IRA and an explanation of why there was no possibility of recovering the remains. If such a provision is not in the Bill, we might wish to reconsider the matter. It is clearly desirable that, in so far as it is an informant's information, he should be protected if we are to get an explanation of what happened. That goes hand in hand with the question of finding remains. I hope that the Minister will address that point. When I read the Bill, I felt that it was inherent--or at least implicit--that such information would be covered by it. I would be grateful for the Minister's comments.

We must consider also some ironies in the situation. It has been said that the measure should be proposed as part of a general pattern of reconciliation; something that may be desirable. However, I am sorry that if we are coming to this point, it should not be at a time where there is clear evidence that reconciliation has taken place. If we were confronted with the Bill at a time when the Executive had been set up, when decommissioning was under way, when Sinn Fein was participating and when there were clear

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signs that democracy was beginning to thrive, it would be easier for hon. Members--particularly those who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland--to accept the need for the Bill, notwithstanding the problems that it poses.

I can well understand the fears expressed that the Bill is seen merely as another ratchet by which concessions are made to terrorists who have no intention of giving anything in return. It may be that terrorists, or those who wish to give the information, should beware. If some of the victims were tortured, it seems to me that the immunity that we may provide them with in terms of evidence in relation to the findings of the bodies may be limited, if recent court decisions in this country in respect of international conventions are accepted.

One can foresee a situation where, in 10 years' time, someone might find that their best remedy, if they wished to see prosecuted a terrorist of whose guilt there was clear evidence, but for whom evidence in relation to the remains was also required, was to go abroad and seek extradition from a third country, in exactly the same way as this country has faced problems in terms of General Pinochet. It is important that we remind ourselves of that. We are going down a similar road of making concessions, as was done in Chile, for the sake of achieving limited amnesties and some degree of reconciliation.

It seems to me that there are a number of clear and possible benefits from what the Government are seeking and--notwithstanding our reservations--it is for that reason that we will abstain tonight. First, I wish to refer to the families. Clearly, their views are not paramount, but they are entitled to great consideration. That must be weighed against the likelihood of remains ever being found so that they could be used in evidence in criminal proceedings in any event.

In many cases, we are talking about episodes--dark and horrible episodes--that are now many years old. Others are far more recent. However, the inability to detect the remains of those murdered up to now does not suggest a great likelihood of that happening in future. If it were to happen in future, it is more likely than not that it would happen in circumstances either of denunciation or of confession, which would, in all probability, get round some of the problems in terms of the amnesty element of the Bill. The question of the families' wishes merits great consideration.

Another matter has not been addressed fully in the debate. It has been suggested that, in this case, a concession is being made to terrorists. It is true that--strictly speaking, and in purely legal terms--such a concession is being made. However, the fact that we have debated this matter for some three and a half hours--and the fact that if the remains of those murdered are discovered, there will be massive attendant publicity about what the IRA did over this period--seems to me scarcely a victory for the IRA's cause.

If anything was likely to expose the hollow rhetoric of that organisation and the underlying nastiness that has characterised its operations, it must be the public exposure of what they did to those victims. There was never any justification for that, and the best weapon that the IRA ever had in the matter was the silence that it brought to the matter. The IRA was silent about what it had done. The IRA denied it year after year, and it has been forced in the peace process--however imperfect it may be--to

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accept and admit its actions. If it honours its commitments as a result of the Bill, the IRA will be forced down a road which, over time, will be shaming to it; and it will deserve every ounce of shame that it receives.

I do not see the Bill as a victory for terrorism. If the Bill works--I very much hope that it does work in the way in which the Government desire--the cause of democracy, freedom and those who believe in human rights can be enhanced.

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