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How can this Bill take us towards that objective, when all the democratic parties in Northern Ireland oppose it? Indeed, as the hon. Member for Foyle
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(Mark Durkan) pointed out, the Bill is being pushed through only because the one party that wanted it still had guns.
Meg Hillier: I am trying to address that point. We must deal with the remaining issues in Northern Ireland, whether that involves the Bill as drafted or whether that involves amending the legislation. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a directly elected Government, and they should decide not only matters of security, but all issues. Matters such as water rates or school reform should be dealt with not from Westminster, but from a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. The issues that the Bill addresses must be tackled one way or another.
The perpetrators of heinous crimes on both sides of the terrorist divide must be brought to justice. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) is right to remind the House that we are discussing not only IRA terrorists but loyalist terrorists. I know that all hon. Members condemn all terrorism, and we must make it clear that the Bill applies to all terrorists, regardless of their background.
I am only a new Member of this Parliament and was not a Member during the negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement. We all know that negotiations in Northern Ireland are often tortuous, and they are difficult for relative newcomers to this House fully to understand from a distance. However, I understand that we must make unpalatable decisions, and the GovernmentConservative or Labourmust take that responsibility.
I have some concerns about the Bill, and for me there are two benchmarks. First, we have seen the pain and pressures that the prisoner release programme created in Northern Ireland, but the prisoners who were releasedrepublican or loyalistall served time, even if many of them had their sentences cut very short for the crimes that they had committed. Internationally, the most comparable situation occurred in South Africa, where the truth and reconciliation commission meant that the perpetrators of crime had to face their victims.
Mr. Wallace : Does the hon. Lady agree that there are two key differences between the South African truth and reconciliation commission and the prisoner release programme in Northern Ireland: first, in South Africa people had to come forward within a time limit to avoid the risk of getting no amnesty; and, secondly, the people who attended the tribunals had to admit all their crimes, and if they were subsequently found not to have done so they lost the protection of their amnesty? Perhaps such conditions should apply to this Bill.
Meg Hillier: I was just coming to that. I was trying to judge whether the Bill measures up to two important benchmarks. The hon. Member for Aylesbury pointed out that those who did not attend the truth and reconciliation commissions faced a sanction.
Does the Bill measure up to the two criteria that I highlighted? Yes, it does, in the sense that the perpetrators will at least face some justice, but, no, it does not in the important sense that it does not even require them to attend the tribunals in person.
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I have some serious questions for the Secretary of State. First, will he consider a requirement that those who are on the run and covered by the provisions of the Bill are required to appear at the tribunal in person?
Secondly, what consideration has been given to requiring that those charged and convicted of murder serve some time, at least equivalent to the time served by those who were released under the prisoner release programme?
Finally, how will the Secretary of State be sure that those who come back no longer have connections with paramilitary groups? Sir Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable, gave us some reassurance on that in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but perhaps the Minister will clarify it when he responds.
I will vote for the Second Reading of the Bill with a heavy heart. I am to serve on the Committee that considers the Bill, and I trust that my Front-Bench colleagues will take seriously the points made in the House this afternoon, particularly as regards people appearing in person before the tribunal.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), although I have to say that her conclusions did not exactly arise from the argument that she presented. I hope that she might reconsider her position even before the Division, and that, if that does happen, her expectation of being on the Committee will still be met.
For 40 years, murder and brutality have overshadowed life in Northern Ireland. During the worst of those days, as part of what seemed a numbing ritual, Ministers would emerge after each outrage and passionately pledge that the murderers would be tracked down and punished. Over all that time, Northern Ireland Members of this House have followed the coffins, buried the dead, wept with the families and come to this Chamber calling out in righteous anger for action to be taken. We would hear condemnation, receive understanding and be given sympathy. We would listen to the endless obligatory assurances that, no matter how long it took, the people of our war-torn Province could be sure of one thing: justice would be done.
What value should the victims place on the words of those assurances today? In my time in this House, I have witnessed the passage of some grotesque legislation, but nothing that this House has done before compares to the offence that some Members are about to commit against heaven and earth tonight. Let no Member go into the Lobby unaware of the import of his or her decision. What this House is being asked to do today is against every natural, ethical, moral, spiritual, political and legal principle on which civilisation has been founded.
At the heart of every ordered society lies the rubric that wrong-doing must be punished. At about this time last year, in my constituency of East Belfast, a young Roman Catholic man was murdered following an incident outside a public house. His name was
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Robert McCartney. Among those involved in his murder were known members of the Provisional IRA. The IRA had not sanctioned his killing, nor had it planned it. It was clearly not in the interests of that organisation to do that. Indeed, I am even prepared to say that, had the IRA known, it would have done everything it could to stop it.
Yet, after it took place, the IRA swung into action. It tried to assist those responsible to get away with murder. Its members meticulously cleaned the scene and removed all the forensic evidence. In effect, they adopted the murder ex post facto. Condemnation was swift and widespread, but the police, the Independent Monitoring Commission and the British and Irish Governments were agreed on one issue. By assisting the murderers to escape punishment, the IRA had become partakers in their crime.
The Government may scantily dress up the provisions of the Bill in whatever legalese they like and attribute to themselves a pretence of worthy motivation in an attempt to cover their moral nakedness. However, in assisting murderers to escape punishment for their heinous crimes, they become partakers in their evil and they will be judged for it.
Through the Bill, the Government may gain legal authority for their shameful proposals, but the provisions will never gain moral authority. They tell us that they are introducing the Bill to keep the peace process alive. I tell them that they will not build peace on injustice. The blood of the innocent cries out against the measure.
Hon. Members will have held their own views about the prisoner provisions of the Belfast agreement, which were enacted in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. I considered them to be morally wrong because they treated terrorists as a favoured class of criminal and accorded them special rights. I considered them to be politically wrong because they were not linked to paramilitary decommissioning and disbandment. I therefore voted against the legislation. However, whatever hon. Members thought of that Bill, it was an early release measure. Prisoners got immediate release only if they had served a third of their sentence, and those who had not were required to serve up to another two years.
Today's Bill is not an early release measure but a terrorist amnesty Bill. Those who benefit from it will not spend one day in prison either on remand or on conviction. The two situations are not alike. I must tell the Prime Minister that there is no symmetry.
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The Prime Minister's second explanation is that we have to move forward. If he is moving towards a world that ditches justice and embraces murderers, I shall not go with him. If he regards forward movement as building a society in which victims are shamefully and callously treated and vile terrorists rewarded, he can move forward without the people whom I represent. The loathsome Bill is corrupt not only because its intended outcome is to assist murderers to escape punishment but because of the process used to achieve that goal. It defies reason that, under the Bill, accused terrorists will not even be asked to waste their precious time attending court for the farce of a trial. Moreover, some of them will even be able to maintain their anonymity under the provisions.
Another outrageous provision has been touched on today, but it requires further highlighting. It is the Government's attempt to assist the terrorists to achieve not-guilty verdicts in the poor imitation of a court that the Bill sets up. Clause 7 will exempt a person who holds a certificate issued under the Bill from arrest or detention, from having his or her property searched, and from being fingerprinted. In short, the police will not be allowed to question the accused about the crime that will be brought before the special tribunal. Yet, under clause 3, the certificate will be issued when the police have only
A case would never be brought before a court at that stage in normal circumstances. It is the stage at which the police would bring a suspect in for questioning, and at which they would build up the final aspects of their case. It is the stage at which they would follow up the leads that flow from questioning, and at which they would tie up and tidy their evidence. But not under this Bill. Under these provisions, the police will be required to produce their evidence even though it is incomplete, without even having an opportunity to question the suspect. Moreover, if they are denied the right to fingerprint the accused, they will not be able to check whether the person might be connected to any other crimes.
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