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One of my first memories of the troubles was of an horrific incident in which three young Scottish soldiers were lured by women connected to the IRA to a flat in west Belfast, where they were abducted by the IRA, brutally murdered and their bodies left on a road in County Armagh. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the right thing to do is to grant an amnesty to the men who perpetrated that deed? Will
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he return to his constituency and say that that is the right thing to do? That is what he expects me to tell my constituents in Northern Ireland.
Mark Durkan: My hon. Friend says that the Bill is necessary for progress, but what progress necessitates the Bill? Who says that we cannot have the institutions and other provisions set out in the Good Friday agreement unless we have this Bill?
Gordon Banks: I have not been party to those discussions, but my answer is very similar to the one that I gave to the previous intervention: it is that I believe that it is necessary to move forward so that there is a reduction[Interruption.]
Gordon Banks: We must ensure that crimes such as have been described today do not occur in the future. I do not want to hear that such things are continuing to happen, and I believe that the Bill will help us to make progress in that regard.
Secondly, the Bill offers an opportunity to move to a safer and more tolerant Northern Ireland. That Northern Ireland will be able to put violence and prejudice firmly behind it and close the door on the paramilitary past.
Among other requirements, the Bill provides for the appointment of a certification commissioner to determine eligibility, an appeals commissioner to handle appeals, and a special prosecutor with at least 10 years' standing as a barrister or solicitor. The special tribunal, about which much has been said already, is perhaps the most difficult proposal. In it, eligible certificate holders will be tried for the certificated offence.
It is no accident that the tribunal system should be separate from Northern Ireland's existing judicial system. It has been designed to have all the powers of the Crown court, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, but without bottlenecking the existing system. The requirement for special tribunal representatives to have held
is evidence of the serious consideration that the Government have applied to the Bill. It would be inappropriate for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to put forward a Bill that would damage the current judicial system.
If my right hon. Friend had written the speech for me, I am sure that it would be much better
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than my version. The Bill attempts to preserve the current system while addressing a situation that could be quite demanding, legally.
In various briefings, much has been made about the absence from the Bill of provisions for trial by jury. However, it is vital to understand that it deals with terrorist trials in the same way as all such trials in Northern Ireland are handled, and in which juries do not take part.
Gordon Banks: I want to finish this point. At this stage, it is difficult to predetermine an end-date, as we are not sure of the numbers of crimes involved. At present, there appear to be between 60 and 160 but, given that there are some 2,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, it is difficult to predict the level of take-up that may emerge in future.
Gordon Banks: No, as I want to finish this point. That the Secretary of State has a power to end the programme is understandable. The Bill allows the decision to be taken at some future date, with a level of evidence and detail that we can only guess at today. However, if during consideration of the Bill we can come up with a proposal for a way to incorporate an end-date, I am sure that I and many other hon. Members would be able to support it.
Mr. Wallace: The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that, since July this year, in west Belfast there have been 21 armed robberies and 37 kneecappings, which have been attributed to paramilitary groups. Does he not agree that, before we reward the terrorist groups with a Bill like this, the paramilitaries should face up to their responsibilities under the Good Friday agreement and make sure that such incidents do not continue to happen?
The application of the Bill to members of the security forces, which was raised earlier in the debate, is a reasonable proposal. I have raised the issue with a Minister in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and I believe that it would be unacceptable to apply the legislation to former paramilitaries who match the criteria, but not to members of the security forces.
Mrs. Iris Robinson:
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. So that we may assess his credibility, can he tell us whether he has ever been to Northern Ireland? Has he ever met the victims? I suggest that he reads the book "UlsterThe Facts" by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), which shows in graphic detail the extent to which the IRA perpetrated its heinous crimes.
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Gordon Banks: The difficulty is whether the Bill is in effect an amnesty, but it sets out a proper judicial process under which individuals will be prosecuted and, if found guilty, will have a criminal record and be on licence for the normal tariff for their conviction. If they break the law, in the terms set out in the Bill, they will be liable to imprisonment both for the new offence and for the certificated one.
Mr. Hollobone: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 2,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland. What has he to say about clause 7, which will mean that the police will not be able to interview suspects brought forward under this legislation?
Like many people, I find the provisions on non-appearance in court difficult. If the individuals involved were required to make personal appearances in court, it would go some way to reducing the mistrust of the Bill, as we have already heard today. The ability of the defence to subpoena witnesses sits uneasily in the Bill if personal appearances are not required. I imagine that we will hear a lot more about that in Committee, in this House and in the other place. The lack of a requirement to plead guilty is also a challenge, but we must remember that the normal judicial process does not demand a guilty plea. Surely there should be an opportunity for people entering the process to be proven not guilty if the evidence and argument show that to be the case.
The Bill sets about attempting to move Northern Ireland forward, difficult though that will beas we have seen today. Northern Ireland has as much right as any other constituent part of these islands to enjoy the economic progress made since 1997, but to enjoy such gains, peace is a vital factor.
The last Conservative Government and, since 1997, the Labour Government, made significant strides in delivering peace in the Province. The Bill is designed further to deliver peace as well as to take a step towards closure on a very violent and disturbed past. Each society that moves from violence to a peaceful future has to face difficult and, at times, unpalatable situations in that quest. I believe that that is the case today.
The Bill provides a process to convict terrorists of their heinous crimes, butthe House will be pleased to learnI consider it to be far from perfect. However, it is not possible to produce a perfect piece of legislation to deal with the issues set out in the Bill. There is always a need for people to give ground, although in a perfect
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world that would not be necessary. The people of Northern Ireland are being asked a big question, as are we in the House. Are we big enough to recognise the past but not let our entrenchments jeopardise the future? The future should be as positive for the people of Northern Ireland as it is for the people I represent in Ochil and South Perthshire. If we can secure the passage of the Bill, we will take another significant step towards delivering that aim.
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