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Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): Is the hon. Gentleman not arguing from the specific to the general? Is it not the case that people have been convicted through the courts, at times--rarely, thankfully--on the basis of false information? Is it any more likely that those who are leading terrorist organisations would be wrongly interned if internment were introduced? Where is the difference between the protection of society through internment and through the courts when it comes to that odd case of wrong information?

Mr. Shepherd: My fear about the processes of detention used under provisions such as the new clause and the new schedule is that the powers granted are general. A court specifically identifies through due process the case for the prosecution and the case for the defence; by and large, society has trusted that process for a long time. The history of detention is unsatisfactory, unhappy and, in some cases, tragic.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the potential for internment opens up the possibility of a presumption of guilt being made? Does he also agree that those who are interned might be regarded by some as either guilty or very guilty, and that that would have more to do with the weight of evidence rather than the quality of evidence involved? Does not justice stand on the quality of evidence?

Mr. Shepherd: I notice that, in the new schedule, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell allows for the intermediation of an adviser. If I understand it correctly, the adviser is to play an almost judicial role. If so, my argument is that the due processes of court should be used.

Mr. McNamara: Is not the whole point of the adviser to ensure that the person interned does not see the evidence against him, and so is not in a position to refute it? Even though representations may be made to the adviser, he sees only one side of the case, and the burden of evidence is not seen by the person who is interned. On the question of errors made in court, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if such errors are made--many have been--society recognises that and, to the extent that it can, compensates those who have been wrongly accused and later had their conviction quashed?

Mr. Shepherd: Yes, but internment is generally used against a whole class of people--it does not result from individual assessment and weighing of evidence. From that usage emerge great tensions and hatreds--one need only look at the example of the Boer war to realise that. Across the world, we have seen the containment of sections of populations and witnessed how the hatred and revulsion already present in the community so detained is clarified by the act of general internment.

I do not imagine that the powers in the new clause and new schedule will be used, but it is important that we understand that the history of internment can give us no

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confidence in its utility--nor can the need to rely on informers, sometimes paid informers, or the appreciation that the information given is often provided for reasons other than to serve justice. The truth in life and democracy is that, even if a man or woman has been convicted in the past of an act that we loathe, that does not mean that that individual is guilty of that with which he or she is subsequently charged, independent of the original act.

Mr. Robathan: My hon. Friend makes a powerful and typically high-principled argument, but it is important that we understand the circumstances in which internment might be used. I have said before that I do not like internment, but I understand from newspaper reports-- I do not necessarily believe them--that the head of the Garda in the Republic has said that he knows perfectly well who the Omagh bombers are, but that he cannot convict them. Yes, the process uses informers, which is unpleasant, and of course some people will be wrongly interned, as they have been in the past; but when one sees the reasons why witnesses will not stand up and testify against murderers such as the Omagh bombers--those reasons being intimidation and threats of murder and maiming--one has to face up to the fact that internment, preferably not used, might be a weapon worth having.

Mr. Shepherd: I do not doubt that the head of the Garda is a sincere and honourable man, but I have heard of many people who have asserted that they know all manner of things--they know the guilt of others. However, our process is not about individuals knowing the guilt; we require a higher standard than that.

That is the crisis the House always faces when it deals with terrorism. We fear terrorism because it strikes at the very existence of Parliament, and in our fear we reach for instruments. However, we do so in advance of events. The powers in the new clause and new schedule are meant to be reserve powers, to be used if necessary. My point is that that is not necessarily appropriate or helpful. The notion that we can take the power to confine people based on the assertion, "I know it's them", is an extraordinarily draconian response. In a democracy such as ours, such a power should be invoked only in time of war, when the very survival of the nation is at stake.

I defer to those hon. Members who represent the people of Northern Ireland. Mine must appear a highly abstract argument to those who are confident that they know who the bad ones are and who face them every day. Perhaps they are right, but the House should require a higher standard than that. That is why I am extremely cautious about the new clause and the new schedule.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I start by saying that if my voice gives up in the middle of my speech it is because I have been suffering from flu for the past few days; I may have to pause now and then to take a sip of water.

Because of its history, internment is an extremely sensitive issue on both sides of the Irish border, as our short debate has shown. I have listened carefully to the debate, which touched on some profound issues.

I shall deal first with the points raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who repeatedly makes the charge that the Government are involved in a

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form of appeasement of terrorism. I can rebut that by pointing out that there are 15,000 British soldiers and more than 12,000 RUC officers in Northern Ireland. They are not involved in appeasement. They are acting according to the wishes of the Government and to protect human rights and human life.

When the hon. Gentleman makes such allegations against the Government, he never offers anything positive. A genuine democrat would set out the way forward, but the hon. Gentleman never does that. All he does is spray around allegations, label people as criminals without evidence, and charge the Government with appeasement. There is no foundation for his allegations and I ask him to reflect on those brave men and women who serve in Northern Ireland in the armed forces and the RUC. They do not see themselves as appeasers--[Interruption.] As usual, the hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position: I shall give way if he wishes to intervene.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Is the Minister referring to the "chinless wonders" mentioned by the Secretary of State?

Mr. Ingram: We are trying to have a serious debate, but the hon. Gentleman is dragging it down. I do not know whether he was present at today's Question Time when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expressed his regret about having made that comment. I believe he described it as a gaffe; well, everyone makes gaffes. The hon. Member for Belfast, East makes gaffes whenever he makes his allegations against the Government and against the brave men and women who serve in Northern Ireland.

6 pm

Mr. Robathan: This is a serious point. I do not necessarily accuse the Government of appeasement, although I am pretty worried about it from time to time. The Minister prays in aid the brave men and women serving in the RUC and the Army. I can tell him that in the autumn, when the present Secretary of State took over, three battalions of Foot Guards out of five were serving in Northern Ireland under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I can tell him categorically that they are fed up with what he said at the weekend. It may have been a flippant gaffe, but it reveals a lot about the Secretary of State's thinking.

Similarly, enforcing all the Patten commission's recommendations is undermining the morale of the brave men and women of the RUC--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying a little too far from the new clause.

Mr. Ingram: I am prepared to defend the Secretary of State in all that he is trying to do to achieve peace. All his energy is directed at trying to bring about a new future for Northern Ireland. He has apologised for that comment, and we should let the matter rest. To return to it constantly serves no useful purpose.

If it were in order, I would also be prepared to debate the Patten report and the way in which that was envisaged in the Good Friday agreement, which I thought the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) supported. As usual, he wants to cherry pick. He supports the bits with which he agrees, and rejects the rest. We cannot move forward on that basis.

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The Government acknowledge that different views on internment are held by people inside and outside the House who have Northern Ireland's best interests at heart. However, the Government stand firmly by their position, because we have yet to be convinced that internment represents an effective policy in Northern Ireland at the beginning of the 21st century.

Right hon. and hon. Members are aware that executive detention powers were removed from the statute book during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1998. The issue was further debated that same year in the context of the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, which was passed in the wake of the Omagh bomb.

It may be helpful if I refer to the Prime Minister's words on that occasion. He said:

The case presented by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) for the Opposition was predicated on the possibility or even the probability of failure. He argued, as he has done previously, that the peace process, which he genuinely wants to reach a successful conclusion, could none the less have certain ramifications, such as the fragmentation of the paramilitary groups.

If we send out a message that fragmentation is inevitable and that it will be on such a scale that we will have to take such punitive action in the future, the right hon. Gentleman is implying the failure, not the success, of the peace process. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that he is being realistic, but we must deal with the implications.

Under the Good Friday agreement, the Government are committed to moving towards normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible, consistent with the level of threat. That includes the removal of Northern Ireland specific temporary legislative powers as soon as it is safe to do so. Obviously, the reintroduction of internment, even if its immediate use were not advocated, would be a negative step in the context of that objective.

I believe that those who advocate the return of the powers proposed in the new clause have a responsibility to be frank and tell the House when they would propose using them and against whom. There are a number of profound questions which it is right to pose at this point. How would those who argue for the return of internment guarantee that those powers would be used against the right people? On what basis would people be rounded up?

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) spoke about malicious information. People could be rounded up wrongly and interned as a consequence. Intelligence is not necessarily perfect. We cannot always guarantee that the information available to us would stand up in a court of law. We may have well-founded suspicions and a good knowledge base, but they may not stand examination in court.

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The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) pointed out that the law courts could get it wrong. If the courts get it wrong, it is more likely that, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills commented, executive detention provisions would get it wrong as well.

Let us consider that possibility. What would be the consequences for civil order in Northern Ireland? Everyone admits that the last time internment was used, it failed. Now some argue that it would be more likely to succeed because of better intelligence. However, they forget about the reaction within the community from which people would be swept up.

Those who argue for the reintroduction of internment must tell us what would be the consequences for civil order and the implications for the peace process, which would be in the process of evolution. In advocating that approach, the right hon. Member for Bracknell must deal with those questions.

There is a further fundamental question. Do those who advocate internment genuinely believe that its introduction at this stage will help the peace process? Will it assist the republican and loyalist communities if those who advocate a peaceful progress towards democracy and away from violence now acknowledge the possibility of failure somewhere down the line? The right hon. Gentleman must answer that. Does he believe that the new clause would help the peace process or deflect us from it? He did not deal with that in his contribution.

It is important that we legislate on the basis of a reasoned assessment of the security situation. We are not in the business, and Government should never be in the business, of legislating for hypothetical situations. Unless there is a clear-cut case for taking the powers suggested, to do so would be a backward step now or in the foreseeable future.

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