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Dr. Julian Lewis : I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. Does he accept that the reason we are in a more peaceful situation has very much to do with the work of the soldiers and the security forces who were in the front line throughout the years of the troubles? Will he, therefore, from his experience throw light on the circumstances under which it was decided that there would be a historic review of any and every operation in which they were previously involved, which will far from reassure them that their work is appreciated or that their future is secured?

Mr. Murphy: I can certainly say that so far as the so-called cold cases were concerned, with the police, for
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example, I thought it very important that closure was brought to the cases of hundreds of police officers who had lost their lives when there had been no conclusion in terms of getting to the bottom of those cases. That was important, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State touched on that, too. That is a question of closure.

Ultimately, if we are to achieve peace, prosperity and stability in Northern Ireland, this measure has to be part of it, but it has to be part of many other measures too.

Dr. McCrea : If this agreement was reached between the United Kingdom Government, the Government of the Irish Republic and IRA-Sinn Fein, why is there a difference in the treatment of the murderers of Garda McCabe and the murderers of Reserve Constable Finlay, or any other of the police officers in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: It is not for me to speak on behalf of the Irish Government. It is for them to tell the Government and for the Government to tell the House, but I can understand the comparisons that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I have some sympathy with them.

If we are to get all the institutions of government in Northern Ireland up and running—the Assembly, the Executive and everything else—we must make progress on a number of issues, some of which are rather unpalatable, such as this one.

When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I was always conscious of the fact that not one single person in Northern Ireland had voted for my party and that I held no mandate in Northern Ireland in terms of its governance, although, of course, one must govern wisely, as best one can. The sooner that direct rule finishes and people in Northern Ireland can govern themselves, the better. Ultimately, the stability of Northern Ireland will be proved by the fact that the people there can work together to govern themselves. Therefore, for his measure to obtain any sort of acceptance—

Mr. Ellwood : The right hon. Gentleman talks about long-term prosperity. Is he not concerned about one of the remarks that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) made to the Secretary of State, when it was implied that this measure is a condition of disarmament, and that unless it goes through, the peace process could be ruined?

Mr. Murphy: To be honest, I do not think that that was said. I do not think for one second that we will return to what we saw in the past, and I sincerely hope not. I am concerned—I touched on this in the course of my remarks—that we ensure that we tackle the continued criminality of paramilitary organisations. Unless it can be shown, through the Independent Monitoring Commission, that that has ended, this legislation will be as nought, because ultimately we will have an unwholesome society in Northern Ireland that we will not be able to cope with.

Mr. Francois : This point is not at the core of the Bill,   but the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the disbandment of the units of the Royal Irish Regiment. He will know from experience that the Territorial Army
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has been in a different category in Northern Ireland for many years. Given that the TA is so under strength, especially the infantry, would there not be some practical utility in trying to convert some of those RIR units to TA infantry battalions to serve the country as a whole?

Mr. Murphy: There may well be, but it is not for me to answer that question.

I hope that the Government will consider seriously sensible amendments that are proposed to the Bill, and always, and most importantly, ensure that it is accompanied by measures that give confidence and some assurance to people in Northern Ireland who are not from republican backgrounds.

3.33 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I thought long and hard about whether I should contribute today, but on the balance of considerations I thought that it was appropriate for me to do so, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will bear with me.

On the evening of Monday 21 November 2005, without warning and with a suddenness that one could never prepare for, my brother, Endel Öpik, died. He was born in Belfast, an Inst. boy through and through, although not a very good one, and he was 37 years old. We do not yet know the cause. We hope that tomorrow's post mortem will tell us.

More even than the death of my father in May this year, I have found his death devastating and difficult to deal with. However, I am making a contribution after much consideration because I feel that this will help me, my family and my friends to put his death into some sort of context, if a death so sudden can ever be regarded as having some message, lesson or meaning. I make it because Endel was greatly interested in parliamentary matters, and I am sure that he would want me to be here today, not least because to be mentioned in the Commons by name would appeal to his vanity.

I thank colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, for their comments. I am lucky to work with so many people who care for others in times of tragedy. All the same, such shocking personal news makes one think about all the things that one does—it alters one's sense of priorities. I am passionate about what we do here, and no one takes the business of the House and this legislation more seriously than me, which is why I have sought to fulfil my duties today. The passing away of that wonderful gentle giant from my life perhaps causes me to connect more closely with what I learned last week, when I met victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland. The connection is unexpected, and it is one that I would not have wished for, but it is important all the same.

When I met relatives of victims last week, I marvelled at their dignity and their words of sorrow, not of anger. I imagine that when they were first informed of the news, they felt that a mistake had been made. They may have felt that they would turn up at the hospital and see their loved one safe and well, or at least recovering. They will have felt angry and bewildered, because those victims of
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unexpected death were not done with their lives. They will have wished that there was a way to bring back their relatives. When I met them, I did not understand how they could be so circumspect, because their losses were so sudden and unexpected.

I hope that I find some peace from the verdict on what killed my brother, when we finally get it from the doctors, but ultimately I already know that fate took him. By contrast, the people who took the victims of terror are in part still at large. The relatives of victims have not had an opportunity to face the killer of their friend, their relative or their lover, which is what makes their loss so hard for them to bear. It is that, and my own loss, which causes me to come here not to confront the Government, but to seek to find a way to make the legislation right.

The Secretary of State has said that the Bill is about closure, and I used to use that phrase, too. I now realise that it is not really about closure, because it is hard to get closure about the sudden death of someone one loves, but it is about coming to terms with that loss. The Bill is about giving the relatives of the victims some control back, after an event in their lives that was totally out of their control. As the Bill stands, it does not provide a reasonable and balanced process to achieve that outcome. Let us examine the problems with the Bill and what we might do collectively to improve it.

At the outset, I note that the Government take wildly different approaches to terrorism and terrorists, depending on whether the terrorists come from Northern Ireland or elsewhere. On 9 November, the Prime Minister fought hard for the legislative power to detain terrorist suspects without charge for up to 90 days, but on that same day his Government introduced legislation to give Northern Ireland terrorist suspects on the run from the authorities the right to return home free from any danger of arrest or incarceration after a limited quasi-judicial hearing. In my view, that is a contradiction. Why do Ministers think it consistent to seek to allow those suspected of terrorism in Northern Ireland to return without sentence while detaining for 90 days those who have not even been charged with anything?

In general, I favour the approach adopted by the Government in Northern Ireland. I support their serious efforts to address the motivations behind terrorists, even if that directly contradicts their so-called war against international terrorism. I even agreed, as the Liberal Democrats collectively did, with the early release of politically motivated prisoners, which was one of the most difficult aspects of the Good Friday agreement. It was a bitter pill for many law-abiding people to swallow, not least the victims and the relatives of those victims. However, it was accepted, because it was part of the wider package agreed by the participants at the talks process in Northern Ireland.

The Bill has sparked an even greater storm, because across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland it was not recognised as part of the Good Friday agreement, and it was not part of a cross-party agreement.

Let us remember who the on-the-runs are. They are people suspected of terrorist acts who have never faced the courts, or they have escaped from prison. They include those suspected of involvement in all kinds of atrocities; the hon. Member for Aylesbury apprised us
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of a number of those. It is obvious that this should be addressed in a manner that is sensitive to the needs of all the people of Northern Ireland, not only the on-the-runs, nor the organisations from which they derive.

Unfortunately, however, that was not the case. The first proposals for dealing with the on-the-runs came from the British and Irish Governments at Weston Park in July 2001. It was not part of a package that all the participants had negotiated and agreed to. We heard confirmation of that from the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). It was asked for by Sinn Fein and, as far as I can tell, agreed to by the British Government. It was bipartisanship but of an unusual sort, because the two parties were Sinn Fein and the Government. Those original proposals amounted to an amnesty. At the time, Liberal Democrat Members stated very clearly that we would not accept such an amnesty.

Matters developed until the joint declaration in April 2003. The Secretary of State said that there was no written agreement with regard to the content of the Bill. In a sense, he is right, but then there is the dubious status of the attachment to the joint declaration. As he noted, it says:

I fully understand why a member of Sinn Fein or the IRA would interpret that as some kind of commitment, because it was proposed by the Government. However, very importantly, the Secretary of State confirmed today that no written agreement was made with Sinn Fein. That is important because, unless he is implying that a verbal agreement was made with Sinn Fein, it means that the Government have the latitude to improve the legislation here and in Committee without compromising any secret deal with Sinn Fein or the IRA. I do not need to speculate about whether there was a secret deal. If the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister stand by that statement that there is no secret deal, the Government are not constrained to reject proposals of the sort that are being made by us.

I recognise that the Government have to some extent moved on the issue since the original statements at Weston Park. The Bill proposes that an offender who wishes to return to Northern Ireland will have to apply to a certification commissioner. The case is then heard by a special tribunal presided over by a retired judge. There will be a special prosecutor to put the case for the state. There are various complicated appeals processes. As it stands, however, it is so far outside the normal judicial process that one has to ask why the Government do not simply use the procedures that are already there. If the crucial element in all this is licensing, I do not see why we are not discussing a simpler Bill which, although unpalatable to many, would unquestionably have much more support than the Bill that we are considering.

Let me look at the specifics. Qualifying offenders will not have to appear before the special tribunal in order to avail themselves of the scheme; instead, they will be able to be represented by proxies. As the special tribunal will have all the powers of the Crown court, the Bill creates a very distressing situation whereby victims and witnesses of the offences could be subpoenaed to appear in court to give evidence against an accused person who
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is not even there. How can anyone regard that as full judicial process? How can anyone regard it even as a process that can work?

Various explanations have been given for this but I find none of them plausible. First, it is simply not victim-focused. That is completely wrong. An appearance in court would give a limited sense of relief to some victims and relatives—small consolation, but it would be a start. It would clearly show that what the offender did was criminal and continues to be wrong, even if they were released on licence.

The second, related point is about the status of the court. We believe that the qualifying offender should be tried before the Crown court since one of the justifications for the Bill is that it generates full judicial process. If the Government want full judicial process, they should use it rather than creating a parallel quasi-judicial system.

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