Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he acknowledges that it is not the most serious amendment that we will consider, and I hope that that means that he will not press it. The effect of the amendment and its implications would be regarded with the utmost seriousness by the people at whom it is aimed—the members of the judiciary.

The judiciary in Northern Ireland has discharged its responsibilities with the utmost heroism during the past 33 years. A number of its members have been murdered. They have required permanent protection from the threats of murderers, and they have had to move home. They have not only had to suffer the constant physical presence of people to protect them, but have had substantial changes made to their whole way of life in order to sustain a judicial function in Northern Ireland.

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No one examining the judicial record in Northern Ireland during the past 33 years, whichever side of the argument they come from, could regard the judiciary as having been ''on their side''. The fate of the evidence from the supergrasses is a case in point. In that instance, the judiciary acted in a way that caused massive inconvenience for the forces of law and order who were fighting terrorists and murderers in Northern Ireland.

I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on what his amendment would actually mean for those who are its targets, and will withdraw it. I see it as a gratuitous insult to the record of the judiciary. The way in which they have carried out their function in terrible circumstances is beyond reproach.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Conway. I am delighted to see you here this morning.

I take exception to the implication of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). I, too, would like to see it withdrawn for various reasons. First, I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, and he did not produce a shred of evidence to show that the independence of the judiciary has been called into question.

Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman had examined some of the research papers behind the review, he would have come across an interesting document on judicial appointments and training. It is significant, because it pays tribute to the courage, integrity and independence of the judiciary during the past 30 years, which we cast aside at our peril. It states:

    ''Over the past 30 years the role of the judiciary in Northern Ireland has been influenced by the political situation. Judges have been considered a 'legitimate target' and they have been surrounded by constant security. There have been five members of the judiciary murdered (one Supreme Court Judge, two County Court judges, two Resident Magistrates) as well as the wife of a judge and the daughter of a Resident Magistrate. Five members of the judiciary have been injured, including a Lord Chief Justice; two Resident Magistrates; one County Court Judge (seriously injured); and one Resident Magistrate (seriously wounded in a gun attack which killed his daughter). There have been a total of 18 terrorist attacks made against members of the judiciary and virtually all have been intimidated or received threats. There have been 114 attacks on court buildings and most have suffered damage...These security considerations provide a frightening disincentive for potential judicial appointees in Northern Ireland.''

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh is contemptible because of what it implies, and I urge him to withdraw it.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): May I, along with those who have already spoken, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Conway. I remember you as a fair Whip, and I trust that I shall enjoy your fairness in the Committee. I also congratulate the Minister—without undue flattery—on his appointment. This is the first time that I have had the chance to fence with him in Committee since he became a Minister. As a Back Bencher, he performed extremely well in debates in the Committee considering the International Criminal

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Court Bill, and it was clear that he would not be long in moving from the Back Benches to the Front Bench. I did not appreciate then that I would be moving from the Front Bench to the Back Benches, but life is full of surprises.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) that we should try to persuade the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh to withdraw the amendment. It begins our deliberations on an unnecessarily contentious note. We have had our little dance about the programme motion, and that is probably enough. It is important to remember what we are about, which is to introduce a judicial and justice system for Northern Ireland that suits the circumstances of the Province, which I hope will remain firmly within the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom judiciary—I include the judiciary of Northern Ireland—is famous worldwide for its independence of politics, and its freedom from political persuasion and cajolement by Government. As the hon. Member for North Down showed with her catalogue of victims, it has remained independent despite the terrorist onslaught that has been visited upon it. When I was working for Sir Nicholas Lyall, the Conservative Attorney-General, who was also Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, I came to a distinct understanding of the quality of the judiciary in Northern Ireland, of its fierce independence and of its appreciation of its duties, which it had to carry out under difficult circumstances in very troubled times.

I know that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh means no ill will towards the current and previous holders of judicial office in Northern Ireland. He may be engaging in a debating point, but I wish that he would not because the implication of the amendment is unfortunate, to say the least. He has run his flag halfway up the mast. I urge him to pull it down again so that we can get on to the meat of the Bill.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to all hon. Members for their acceptance of the principle that underlies the clause—including my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh. He has been reminded at least twice that it is not the most important amendment, but it is one of those amendments that resulted from the extensive consultation exercise, and it comes as no surprise.

I thank the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) for his kind words. I remember with pleasure our debates in Committee on the International Criminal Court Bill. If our debates in this Committee are of the same quality, we shall be satisfied. I do not share the hon. and learned Gentleman's view that the amendment would necessarily generate the contention or distaste that has been attributed to it. My hon. Friend went to great lengths to make it clear that he was not expressly criticising the independence of any of the current judiciary in Northern Ireland, nor did I hear him utter a word of criticism of any previous members. My experience of him is not as extensive as that of some other members of the Committee, but I know that he is no shrinking violet, and if he had something to say

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on the subject he would have said it. Therefore, I suspect that he was not criticising the judiciary and did not intend to do so, but he can speak for himself.

It is helpful to have this opportunity to address constructively some areas of contention in the Bill. Some divisions of opinion may be strongly expressed, but I hope that we do so without descending to the level of criticism that has dogged some of the politics of Northern Ireland in the past.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the amendment, although he will not be surprised if I try to persuade him to withdraw it. If he does not do so, I shall urge the Committee to resist it.

The Bill requires those with responsibility for the administration of justice to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary. On a plain reading of the review, that is its recommendation, which it made simply because of the paramount importance of an independent judiciary. Clearly, the reference to the

    ''continued independence of the judiciary''

implies that the judiciary is currently independent.

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about making a new start and the dangers of dragging in some of the history of the administration of justice in Northern Ireland. I do not reject his basic sentiment that this is an opportunity for a fresh start, but removing the reference to ''continuing'' independence would imply that the serving judiciary and those who have served in those posts in the past are or were not independent. I do not know whether that is his intention, but the implication is completely untrue and should be resisted. For those reasons, the word ''continued'' should be retained.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be persuaded to withdraw the amendment. We have debated the issues and he has had an opportunity to air his views, to which all members of the Committee listened with care.

Mrs. Calton: I come to the issue as a complete newcomer to the ways of Northern Ireland. In the past few weeks and months, I have learnt that the nuances of meaning that are attributed to words, and the insertion and removal of words, have massive implications. I do not believe that there is any intention to insult the judiciary or to forget the past and the risks that they took. I ask the Committee to consider what ''continued'' will mean in 10, 20 or 50 years. In 50 years, it will be superfluous.

I am not a lawyer, and I realise that I am among lawyers, but in my view the law is made up of words that must have a meaning for more than just the present. They must have a meaning for the future, as well. Therefore, in my view, the elimination of the word ''continued'' is sensible, and the Liberal Democrats will support the amendment.

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Prepared 29 January 2002