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Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Like other hon. Members, I want to offer my sincere condolences to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who has just spoken so movingly not just of his own bereavement, but of the sense of grief and grievance that is still carried to this day by so many victims in Northern Ireland. It is a mark of the hon. Gentleman's sense of duty to Northern Ireland as well as to this House that he is in his place today at this difficult time in a very difficult debate. It must tax his emotions as well as his concentration today. He has our full sympathy and the regard of every hon. Member in the House.

I wish I shared the faith of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire in much of what the Government have said, but unfortunately I do not. I do not because, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) reflected, a couple of us in our places today were present for most of the negotiations on the Good Friday agreement and we were in and around—if not always allowed to be part of—the various subsequent negotiations, including all the side deals, sub-deals and pseudo-deals that have littered the process ever since.
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When we negotiated the Good Friday agreement and when it was put to the public in the referendum, yes, prison releases were certainly part—albeit a very difficult part—of the process. However, in the context of the referendum campaign, people asked hard and difficult questions about outstanding cases, including those for which there had been no convictions. People asked whether there would be an amnesty or a wipe-out or whether the files would be closed. Assurances were given by Minister upon Minister, including the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, that all the outstanding cases would continue to be pursued and that those who had issues to face would be brought to court. It was said that, if convicted, they might have to spend only two years in jail, but they would appear in court, they would be convicted and they would spend time in jail. That is what the victims were told at that time. It was on the basis of that expectation that many people struggled to vote in favour of the agreement and did so. What is happening now betrays the commitments and promises that were given at that time. It is dishonest and disingenuous for the Government to claim that the Bill was always going to happen as it is simply a logical extension of prior agreements. It contradicts assurances and explanations that were specifically given at the time of the agreement and the referendum.

Mr. Robathan : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be so foolish as to trust the Government again.

Mark Durkan: The Government know that I have never been quite so foolish as always to trust them. I have not always believed them, and even if I trusted them, I certainly would not rely on them—we found that to our cost.

As the Secretary of State and others have confirmed, the whole question of the on-the-runs first arose in the context of the Weston Park negotiations. Those were peculiar negotiations in which the two Governments talked to different parties about different issues. Yes, we were in the same premises, but we were all on a different agenda. The SDLP was being talked to about policing and the question of public inquiries in respect of the Finucane, Nelson and Hamill cases. Sinn Fein was talked to about OTRs, as that was the issue that it had raised, and decommissioning. The Ulster Unionist party were talked to about decommissioning and the institutions. We were all being talked to about different things.

The Governments came forward with declarations and promises at Weston Park and I note that the Secretary of State said that the Government feel that they are duty-bound to honour commitments. We were given commitments at Weston Park. The public were given commitments post-Weston Park in respect of the process set up to establish whether inquiries should go ahead. We were told that if Judge Cory recommended public inquiries, public inquiries there would be in certain cases. That promise was not honoured, even though it was part of an international agreement between the British and Irish Governments.—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) says that we did not have guns. Weston Park was the third occasion since the Good Friday agreement on which the then SDLP leadership of John Hume and Seamus Mallon complained to the
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Government about how the process was conducted, particularly about the privileged and exclusive negotiating position given to Sinn Fein and, to a degree, to the Ulster Unionist party. It was also the third occasion on which the Prime Minister gave us what we regarded as a counsel of cynicism at the time—"You guys, your problem is you don't have guns". That is what the SDLP was told at Weston Park and it was the third time that we had been told it.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a profound criticism of this Government's handling of the peace process. Does he agree that the privileged status given to Sinn Fein-IRA during that process has been devastating for the fate of constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that the Government's management of the peace process has ensured that republicans and their advocates have a strengthened political position, while the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, who have stood honourably for constitutional nationalism, have lost out, as have their electors? Has not the process of building a democratic middle ground suffered as a direct result of the Government's tactics?

Mark Durkan: In many respects, what is devastating to the SDLP is neither here nor there. I do not want to go down that road. What is important is that different Governments have handled the process, through arrangements such as those made at Weston park, in a way that has devastated the Good Friday agreement. This Government's approach has not merely interrupted the implementation of the agreement, but corrupted it.

As the right hon. Member for Torfaen has said, that issue came up again in the Hillsborough negotiations of spring 2003.

Mr. Andrew Turner: In an earlier intervention, I asked whether the Prime Minister had made that appalling statement about the SDLP and the fact that it did not have guns. Am I right in thinking that the hon. Gentleman indicated his agreement that it was the Prime Minister who used those words?

Mark Durkan: Yes, and this is not the first time that the matter has gone on the record. Seamus Mallon has referred to it before, as have I, in describing our criticisms and frustrations with how the process has been handled since the Good Friday agreement was reached originally.

In the Hillsborough negotiations, different parties again found themselves talking to the Government about different issues. There was to be a joint declaration at the conclusion of those talks, and it was originally to have five annexes. One of those annexes was to deal with the subject of OTRs. Another dealt with the establishment of the IMC and a menu of sanctions demanded by the UUP.

The UUP was very clear that it wanted no part of the provisions relating to OTRs, and completely disagreed with them. My party made it very clear, as we did at Weston park, that those proposals did not derive from the agreement. We repeated that any anomaly that needed to be addressed could be dealt with in the proper
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way, but that nothing should have priority over implementing the agreement. Sinn Fein had issues with the menu of sanctions outlined in the other draft annexe to which I have referred, as did my party.

The Government responded by reducing the number of annexes from five to three. Instead of being an annexe to the joint declaration, the OTR paper was to be published coincidentally and in parallel with it. The same thing was to happen with the paper on the IMC and the menu of sanctions.

That was a dishonest move. It was a deal that was a non-deal, in that it allowed Sinn Fein to say that it had secured provisions on OTRs but had not accepted sanctions. It also allowed the UUP to continue to say that it had never accepted OTRs and would continue to oppose any legislation on the subject emerging from this House, while claiming that it had secured a promise on sanctions.

That was no way to run a process originally founded on inclusion and which stemmed from an agreement whose institutions could work only on that basis. That is how the Government have got themselves into the mess and debacle that they face today as far as their credibility and sense of moral authority are concerned.

I deeply regret that. I have many criticisms and frustrations about the Government's handling of the process since the Good Friday agreement was reached, but I do not believe that any agreement could have been achieved without this Government and Prime Minister. Many good measures and benefits have flowed from the Government's positive handling of some matters, but they could have listened to better counsel in respect of Hillsborough.

The Bill springs from the commitments made to Sinn Fein at the time of the Hillsborough declaration. However, other commitments were made in the Hillsborough declaration that the Government still show no urgency about honouring. I could take this from the Secretary of State if every other commitment had been honoured to the letter and in the spirit in which they were given, but they have not been. A case in point is the joint declaration, at the SDLP's behest and supported by the Alliance party and some others, that consideration would be given to establishing a forum for victims and survivors. It still has not happened. All that we are told is that the new victims commissioner will look at the issue. Surely one point of having a victims and survivors forum is to allow victims and survivors themselves to advance ideas and proposals on how to deal with the issues of truth, remembrance and recognition that are so important to them. That is an outstanding promise from the Good Friday agreement that has still not been delivered to victims.

Only when we know that a framework has been sensitively and properly agreed with victims and survivors for dealing with truth, remembrance and recognition should we deal with the so-called anomaly of on-the-runs and decide how the perpetrators of the victims' hurt should be dealt with. As other hon. Members have said, if those issues have to be dealt with, surely it would be better to do so once we have certainty about where everyone is in relation to policing and the proper administration of justice.

We have in this Bill the anomaly that police officers will be forced to take part in pseudo-court proceedings and lend the authority of their office to them, while the
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people who will benefit from the proceedings will not have to turn up and can continue to impugn the legitimacy and credentials of those same police officers. In the same way, as other hon. Members have mentioned, victims—especially those who witnessed the crime in which they lost a loved one—could be compelled to be a party to proceedings with which they fundamentally disagreed, whereas the alleged culprits do not even have to appear. They can stay in the comfort of their home—in the comfort of their holiday home in some cases—and just receive a text message to confirm what has happened. They will find it harder to download a new ring tone than to obtain the benefits of the new system. The difference between the way in which the possible perpetrators of crimes will be treated, as opposed to the victims or the police who have tried to deal with those crimes, is invidious.

After the Good Friday agreement, victims were told that cases would continue to be pursued. One of the good things that the Government have done in recent years—I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Torfaen—was to provide the resources to establish the cold cases review, or the historic inquiries team, which offered the assurance that the files would not remain closed, people would not be allowed to escape any liability and the truth would be pursued. The legislation will fundamentally undermine that commitment, because it will mean that if anyone is named by the review or has anything to hide, they can sit and wait in a calculated way. They do not have to take a chance and apply to benefit from the legislation, because there is no time limit as an incentive to disclose their involvement. That is normally what happens with tax and other amnesties. Instead, they can sit back and wait and see if a police officer ever knocks on their door about a particular crime. If the police officer knocks and the person is charged, they can play the Bill like a trump card. They can say, "Right, we're going to benefit from what Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have negotiated in the OTR concession." That will apply to everybody—not just republican paramilitaries, but loyalist paramilitaries and people in the state forces involved in a crime, whether committed by them directly or committed by paramilitaries and in which they were complicit, whether through collusion or other forms of crime solicitation. All those people will benefit from this legislation, and that is wrong. That is why more and more victims are expressing their shock, disgust and hurt at the legislation.

For victims, the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill is the Northern Ireland offensive Bill, and it is particularly offensive that the Government are presenting it in terms of closure. That shows neither sensitivity to victims, nor due regard for the intelligence of Members. The Bill is about closure for victim makers, to give them the comfort that they will never have to answer for their crime: not merely will they not have to spend a day in jail; they will not even have to spend a moment in court. It will be harder to appear on the X Factor than to benefit from the procedures that the Government are setting up. They will be open to anyone who has anything to hide about any crime.

The offence has to be

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so it would not even have to be the murders or the more overtly political crimes we have been talking about; it could be any crime committed before April 1998. As long as the person claimed that they committed the crime as a function of their membership of this or that paramilitary organisation, or as a spin-off from their membership of the security forces, they can claim indemnity.

The Government say that the Bill is not an amnesty. It may not be called an amnesty, but it has all the DNA of an amnesty and the Government should not try to pretend otherwise. The Secretary of State has moved from the Prime Minister's argument yesterday, that an anomaly needed to be resolved, to the argument that the Bill is about bringing people to justice and making them answerable to justice. However, it is such a bespoke system, with so many guarantees and so many comforts and privileges for the accused that it is an amnesty in all but name. The Government should be more honest in their language if they expect Members to be reassured about some of their commitments.

We will vote against the Bill. We shall also table amendments in Committee, some of which will test the Government's sincerity as they will propose to limit the Bill only to the on-the-runs whom the Government and Sinn Fein say the measure was originally about. The Secretary of State challenged the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the Conservative spokesman, but I challenge the Government to tell us what they will do when we table amendments to make the Bill do no more than they committed themselves to do in their agreements with the Irish Government and with Sinn Fein. We shall see how the Government rise to that challenge.

I cannot conclude without again emphasising what the process means for victims. We must all be careful as we conduct the debate that we are sensitive to the fact that we are treading on the grief, even yet, of many people.

4.17 pm

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