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In my 31 years in this place, I have followed the tortuous path from the height of terrorism to something approaching peace from both sides and in many different roles, but I have never heard in the House such genuine anger and concern about a measure that a Government have introduced. The right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, will forgive me if I say, with some affection, that we have had plenty of bluster from him and his hon. Friends, we have had some synthetic rage and we have had thunder and lightning, fire and brimstone. He even once accused me of being a bully, which brought to mind a parable about pots and kettles, but we will pass over that. Never have I seen such genuine upset at something that a Government are doing. The palpable unease of the Secretary of State as he behaved very generously and correctly at the Dispatch Box said it all.
For most people in Northern Ireland, the measure is almost the last straw. We have gone from the high point of the Good Friday agreement to the even higher point of the referendumand that is when I believe it all started to go wrong. When there were doubts, the Prime Minister went to Northern Ireland during that campaign and, in answer to worries, said, "I am going to ensure that there is parallel progress in the implementation of this agreement by all sides." That is exactly what has not happened.
Measures have been forced on the Government by one side, with no response by the other. First, there were the prison releases. That was difficult, but instead of
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pausing and saying to the other sideto Sinn Fein-IRA"It's your move", they were all let out. I have said this before, but it bears repeatingwhen I complained to the Prime Minister at Question Time one day, I met Mo Mowlam behind the Speaker's Chair. I admired her for many things. It was about five months after the referendum and she said to me, "Don't worry, Gerry Adams has promised me that the arms will be gone by Christmas." That was seven long years ago.
The Government have not learned from those mistakes. They have gone on making concessions. They have gone on doing things behind the scenes, which the right hon. Member for North Antrim rightly pointed out, although he played no part in it. Now, the Government are doing it again. Once again, a move is being made by the Government to move things forward. Why are Sinn Fein-IRA not making moves to move things forward? Why are they not letting the exiles back? Why are they not stopping the punishment beatings? Why are they not taking a grip on the criminality? Why are they still providing a paramilitary police force? No one says, "You do that and then we will consider your on-the-run people." It has all been the reverse, and every time yet another concession has been wrung from the Government, which has decreased enormously the amount of confidence that the people of Northern Ireland have in the peace process. It has been back to front from the beginning. This is another stage down that road, and it seems to be the last straw for many of us.
I shall not go over all the arguments; I shall say just two things. First, if the Bill is to go through, it should not go through without some specific guarantee about the exiles being allowed to return. Everybody pays lip service to that. It is not coincidence that it is in all three reasoned amendments, but the Government have nothing to say about it because Sinn Fein have nothing to say about it. Maybe the Government have done a deal. Maybe, when the Bill is passed, Sinn Fein-IRA will say something. Is it not their turn to move first? Should not the Government not be rather more robust in dealing with the matter?
I hope that the House will forgive me, but I want to be brief and end by saying something about victims, and it is a personal reminiscence. When I was in Northern Ireland, a case came on to my desk of a terrorist who had been convicted of attempted murder, had served 10 years, had moved on to the next stage of his life sentence and was eligible for parole, and I was supposed to sign him off. When I considered the caseI am choosing my words carefully because I do not want the case to be identifiable as I do not know what has happened to the victim or to the terroristI realised that the terrorist lived three or four doors away from the member of the security forces whom he had tried to blow up in his car. For the past 12 years, that person had been in a wheelchair, living with the pain but knowing that justice had been done. The proposition was that 12 years later the terrorist would be released to go back home to the same street.
Had the attempted murder been successful, it would have been a rather easy decision to make, because everything would have moved on in those 12 years. But there the victim was, still living with the consequences of what this man had done, and when he was released the victim would have to come face to face with him daily.
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I did not believe that that was acceptable. I was advised that I had no choice, but I said that a way had to be found, and a way was eventually found.
If the Bill goes through unamended, there will be dozens of cases like the one of which I happen to have personal experience. A lot of people have been convicted and served their sentence, and one can at least say to the poor victim that he had some justice, but now there will be no justice at all. There will be confrontation between victims, their families, descendants of victims and the terrorists, who have paid no price for what they did. That is a fundamental denial of justice, and this therefore is a thoroughly bad Bill.
Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): When we last debated security in Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) spoke movingly about his hand being placed on the head of a curly-haired child who was weeping at his father's coffin, and this afternoon we heard the passion of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea). I cannot speak with such passion and direct knowledge. I am not a victim of the terror in Northern Ireland, but I grew up knowing the troubles. I was born in 1969, and the terror we have seen in Northern Ireland, the peace process over the past eight years and the subsequent developments have been the backdrop to my entire life.
When I was thinking about today's debate, it occurred to me that when I was a teenager in the 1980s I was studying the history of the current situation in Northern Ireland while still living through it. I am now a mother myself, and despite the fact that my eldest child was born after the Good Friday agreement, we still today, as we debate these measures, have uncertainty and no directly elected Northern Ireland Government. I am sure that all mothers in the United Kingdom want their children to grow up in a world where the violence is at an end for ever, with Northern Ireland living in peace and harmony. Although there are real problems in Northern Irelandas a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I see and hear about some of them, although I bow to the expertise of hon. Members who represent seats in Northern Irelandwe have gone a long way. I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to Secretaries of State past and present for their work in trying to bring that difficult situation to an end.
The Good Friday agreement marked an historic breakthrough. The subsequent referendum and meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly showed what enormous progress was made between 10 April and 1 July 1998. Seven years later, however, the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended and direct rule from Westminster is again in place. We have seen some major milestones and some major slip-ups on the road to lasting peace, which we all want to see. I welcome the fact that the IRA has recently decommissioned its arms and formally announced the end of its armed campaign.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) criticised the Bill because it was not agreed by the people of Northern Ireland, which goes to the heart of today's debate. All hon. Members share that concern, whether or not they are present in the House. Surely the point of the whole process is that we should return to devolved decision-making, whereby the people of Northern Ireland are ruled by their directly elected representatives and not from Westminster.
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