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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1130—continued

6.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) on securing the debate. She has done us all a service by enabling the House to remember the tragic events of 25 years ago on Monday, when the La Mon House hotel was bombed. I congratulate her on ensuring that the anniversary did not pass unmarked by Parliament.

As the hon. Lady reminded us, the details of the attack on the La Mon House hotel are horrific. We recall that outrage not only with sorrow but with revulsion. For those to whom the subject is only a faint memory, it was opportune for the hon. Lady to recall the details of the event. It was clear from the manifest emotion that that engendered in her that she feels for the victims and survivors in a very personal way. The bravery that she showed in articulating the story as she did has done us a great service. It was a privilege to be present.

I intended to refer to the details, but it would be an inappropriate use of the short time that I have left. I do, however, want those present to understand that I know the details of that particularly horrific attack. Reminding myself of them in anticipation of the debate brought home to me the nature of the horror. As Minister for victims, I have had the privilege of hearing many moving stories and meeting many brave people. I would not seek to pick out any individual from among those who have survived or been hurt by this terrible tragedy, but one of the most moving stories of all was from Rita Crawford, who lost her daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Ian McCracken in this incident. As the hon. Lady reminded us, they were just 25. They were newly married. I met Mrs. Crawford last May during the

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golden jubilee garden party at Loughry, and I was particularly struck by her dignity and spirit in the face of such overwhelming tragedy. She is a true heroine.

I have not yet had the privilege of meeting many more of those who were affected by the La Mon House atrocity. I am sure that they will be consistent with my experience throughout Northern Ireland: all victims and survivors of violence over the past 30 years are, in their own way, heroes. They are the people who have paid the price of the violence that has scarred Northern Ireland for the past three decades.

Mrs. Robinson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I will just finish this point.

At this time, when there is talk of acts of completion, it is imperative that those who are involved in discussions give the victims of violence their rightful place. I will ensure that that is done. It is a pity that the hon. Lady's party is not represented in some of those discussions, especially in the implementation group for the Belfast agreement, where I intend to hold discussions with politicians in Northern Ireland about victims.

Mrs. Robinson: Is the Minister aware that, on Sunday at 2.30 pm, Castlereagh borough council will hold a service at St. Finian's church? I am sure that the families would be delighted to have the Minister in attendance, if that were at all possible.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the invitation. I am sure that she will understand that, because of my present responsibilities, my diary is very full. I will have to check what I intend to do this Sunday, but she can rest assured that, if it is at all possible, I will try to be there. However, I have to spend some time with my own family; I know that the hon. Lady will appreciate that, as she has a family herself. If I am unable to be there, it will be for pressing reasons, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will pass on my regards to the people who will be present. My thoughts will be with them on Sunday afternoon.

On the principal call that the hon. Lady made, I will have to disappoint her. I was not the author of the letter to which she referred. However, my fellow Minister who penned that letter gave the appropriate response at this time to the request for a public inquiry. Having listened carefully to the hon. Lady, I say to her with the greatest respect that the Government have no plans to establish a public inquiry into the tragedy at La Mon House. However, I understand the arguments that she made. In particular, I understand the reference that she made to the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

In the two minutes remaining, I want to set out in greater detail what was said in that letter. I know that the hon. Lady is a great supporter of our police force, the public prosecution system and the legal system. She

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holds them up, as I do, as examples of how crime should be pursued. It is because we take such pride in the police and the court system throughout the United Kingdom that we must make every effort to ensure that nothing detracts from the highest standards of behaviour in our police forces and in the administration of justice. There must be nothing questionable in their actions, nothing indefensible in their behaviour, nothing iniquitous and nothing base. That pride in the police and security forces has caused the Government to agree to investigate cases where allegations have been made against them—those very few cases where there has been cause for concern about their actions. We want to trust them; we have to trust them. We must therefore ensure that we are able to trust them. Our police and security forces must be whiter than white. That is why we have these inquiries. They are not designed to punish the police or to make comparisons between the police, the security forces and the other victims of crime. We have a different structure for dealing with such cases. The police investigate, and as the hon. Lady said, the police file is still open.

If there is additional information and evidence at this remove from the incident, it should be examined by the police. We should not set up inquiries which compete with the police investigations and which somehow suggest that there is something that the police could have done at the time. We know full well that that was not the case. Indeed, at the time, about 100 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary were devoted and deployed to the investigation. As the hon. Lady has pointed out, 25 people were arrested, including Gerry Adams. One man was successfully prosecuted and he was given 12 life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. As the hon. Lady will know, he served more than 15 years in jail.

It is because we rely on that structure to investigate and to prosecute that the Government do not draw the comparisons that the hon. Lady asks us to do. We do not say the same things about the police force as we say about terrorists. We rightly treat terrorists as criminals and look to the police to investigate them and the courts to punish them. Therefore, we entrust the investigation of the bombing at the Le Mon House hotel to the police.

The hon. Lady made an implication that, in my respectful submission, is not fair. I do not believe that it would be fair to the men and women of the RUC or the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who have served and who have continued to serve the people of Northern Ireland so bravely, to have them treated in the same way as we treat the other investigations that we carry out. Conversely, it would not be fair to grant to the terrorists the concern that we give to the security forces and to their standards.

I deeply regret that that is my response to the hon. Lady. We should not forget the frightful deaths at Le Mon. The House is grateful to her for giving us the opportunity to consider the issue today.

Question put and agreed to.

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