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Mr. Deputy Speaker: May I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 15-minute limit on Back Benchers' speeches?
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3.17 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate.

Only two Members in the Chamber were present for most of the negotiations that led to the signing of the Good Friday agreement. At the time, however, many hon. Members, in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain, were aware of all the implications of the agreement. The Democratic Unionist party did not agree with the Belfast agreement, and it still does not. Its view was genuine and sincere, but I disagreed with it, because the Good Friday agreement was the only way we could make progress in Northern Ireland. When we examine, as we must, the nature of the release of paramilitary prisoners under that agreement, its implications for our debate will become clear.

The people of Northern Ireland in the referendum, and the people of Ireland generally, voted in support of the Good Friday agreement. In doing so, they voted to support the release of paramilitary prisoners, but in a context that included many other things. It was a difficult pill for everyone to swallow and, although I will support the Bill this evening, it still is.

I want to deal with one or two issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) with which I agreed and which the Government could perhaps take on board in Committee and in the other place.

Mr. Robathan : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who knows that I have great respect for him. Was he ever asked to introduce a Bill such as this while he was Secretary of State?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, I was. I was coming to that in a moment. Part of the difference between what happened in 1998, when the people of Ireland voted for the Good Friday agreement, including the release of paramilitary prisoners, and the situation later was, as I said, that the context was very different. However, there is no doubt that the issue was discussed at Weston Park in 2001. I was not part of that at the time, but two years later, in 2003, when the joint declaration was published after a long period of negotiations and discussions at Hillsborough castle, it appeared in the public domain. It did not form part of the main joint declaration because there was no agreement on it, but it was out there in public. So it is no real surprise to us all, although perhaps some of the details might be different, that the principle of the Bill was out there in the open.

Mr. Peter Robinson: One of the points that have been made is that that deal was done exclusively with Sinn Fein-IRA, both at Weston Park and at Hillsborough. Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether that was so, or whether any of the other parties were involved in discussions on the Bill?

Mr. Murphy: The other parties did not agree with the Bill.

Mr. Robinson: What was discussed?

Mr. Murphy: I cannot recall every detail of the discussions, other than that when the final joint
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declaration emerged, this part of the discussions, which were mainly with Sinn Fein and the British and Irish Governments, had to be published separately because people did not agree with it.

There are two issues that the Government ought to consider with a view to the Bill being accepted by people in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom generally. First, the Government should consider seriously some of the amendments that are likely to be proposed. A number have been mentioned this afternoon, including the hugely important one about the victims appearing in court at a time when the person concerned may not have appeared. I hope the Government will listen to the amendments proposed. The difference between now and 1998 is that there has not been a referendum and the context is clearly very different.

Secondly, it is extremely important to accompany the measure with other measures.

Sir Patrick Cormack : Can I take it from what the right hon. Gentleman has just said that he would support an amendment to ensure that the people in question had to appear in person in court to answer for their crimes?

Mr. Murphy: I would have a great deal of sympathy with such an amendment, but I would take the same view as the hon. Member for Aylesbury and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—we will examine the details of the amendments when they are tabled. What I am saying is that the amendments are worth considering seriously, and I hope the Government will be in a position to answer some of these points in Committee and in the other place.

Lady Hermon: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether the Government gave an undertaking to Sinn Fein that republicans would not appear in court? Was that a categorical assurance? May we have an amendment to make sure that they do appear in court?

Mr. Murphy: If my memory serves me right, the publication in 2003 would have included that provision.

The point that I am trying to develop is that time goes on, and the word "progress" rather than "closure" is sometimes important in this context. We made progress in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday agreement, including having to take some very unpalatable and difficult decisions. If the Bill is to have the same effect, it must be accompanied by other measures, so that the whole community in Northern Ireland feels comfortable with the progress that we are making.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury made an important point in this regard. Although I welcome the statements made by the IRA in July and the decommissioning in September—everybody welcomes that—we must recognise that the Independent Monitoring Commission has a job of work to do, and that we cannot allow continuing criminal activity among the IRA or loyalist organisations to be in any way tolerated. The policing arrangements have now to be accepted by the republican movement in Northern Ireland, just as everybody else accepts what is, after all, part of the Good Friday agreement.
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Mr. Hain: I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend did in getting us to the point where the IRA gave up its terrorist campaign on 28 July. For the record, I confirm that his memory is correct. The proposals published in 2003 after Hillsborough, where he was present, as he said, stated—this was published and the House was aware of it—that the applicant would not be required to be present at the trial.

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. I am also grateful for not being in his position today. That is another matter, but he did valiantly.

The other issues that need to be addressed include the    question of victims. That is paramount. The appointment of a victims commissioner is a huge step forward, and I know that hon. Members are grateful for that. A victims forum is very important. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has been pushing for that for some time. There should be some provision in the legislation that would prevent victims from having to go through a traumatic court appearance.

There are further issues that we should consider. Of the political parties in Northern Ireland, clearly it is only republicans who want the Bill to go through. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle will make his own speech, if he catches the Deputy Speaker's eye this afternoon. The Unionist parties have made their position clear, as has the Alliance party. It is imperative, therefore, that measures are taken to give some sort of reassurance right across the community in Northern Ireland about other issues that people need to consider. My hon. Friend will raise some of those later.

There is also the matter of the Royal Irish Regiments and the home battalions. I refer not to the decision to run those battalions down, but to what happens in the future. That, after all, is a major redundancy issue affecting whole communities in Northern Ireland. Not only people in the Royal Irish Regiments, but people who work in ancillary services will lose their jobs. In order for the legislation to be accepted, it is vital that it is accompanied by other measures to provide reassurance across the board.

Mr. Carmichael: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the other group whose interests must not be forgotten and should be proceeded with in tandem are those who have been exiled as a result of paramilitary activities in the Province?

Mr. Murphy: That will be a matter for considerable debate during the passage of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Alliance party in particular has taken up the matter over the years, but other parties are very much in favour of trying to tackle it.

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