Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way in his excellent summing up of the Bill's progress. The organisations involved in racketeering, protection rackets and intimidation include not only off-limits paramilitary groups such as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, but some of the mainstream terrorist groups. Does he agree that it is particularly depressing when the Government make massive concessions to such groups, as they are under the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill?

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is right that the situation involves violence of all kinds and criminality on all sides. A week or two ago, the UVF was specified by statutory instrument, which is not the sort of progress that we want. My hon. Friend is also right to mention the involvement of the mainstream—if that is the right word—paramilitary groups.

Conservative Members accept that in some ways the situation in Northern Ireland is greatly improved. We welcomed the first IRA statement and the statement suggesting that all IRA arms have been put beyond use. As I said last week, however, we are worried about a number of aspects of the process. We are worried because we are yet to hear whether the proceeds of the Northern bank raid have been put beyond use. What has happened to that money? It is my understanding, which I think that the Secretary of State confirmed from a sedentary position last week, that the Government continue to hold the IRA responsible for the Northern bank raid. I think that the Minister is nodding—it is very gentle, but I think that he is nodding. I understand that the Irish Government and the police in Northern Ireland still hold the IRA responsible for that bank raid. Although the IRA's present arms may have been put beyond use—I have been assured that a substantial
30 Nov 2005 : Column 328
quantity of arms has been put beyond use—where has the money gone from the Northern bank robbery? Is it not possible that further arms will be bought?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now relate his comments to the Third Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Robertson: I thought that I was doing so, but I accept your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I agree with the Government on the case for the Bill, because the situation in Northern Ireland is not normal or even close to normal. I would have liked the Bill to be extended to 2012, as has been proposed. I have already mentioned the fact that some Conservative Members have a theory about the 2007 or 2008 deadline—in my notes, "deadline" is in inverted commas, because it is not an official term—because a number of things could culminate in 2007 or 2008. If the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill were to get through Parliament—in its present state, I am not convinced that it will and hope that it does not—people who were previously involved in terrorism and who may not be within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom would return to the streets of Belfast and wider areas of Northern Ireland. The emergency measures that we are discussing could end in 2007 or 2008. Although it is not for me to speculate, the Prime Minister could be planning to retire then, having wrapped up the whole issue of Northern Ireland in terms of special measures.

If this proves to be appropriate because it reflects the improved situation in Northern Ireland by that time, I will be as pleased as anybody, but that may not be the case. I hope that it will, but I am not persuaded. I would have preferred the Government to accept the facility to extend the legislation proposed in amendment No. 1. The amendment that I tabled in Committee would have extended the legislation on an annual basis, but the Government were not prepared to accept that either. I wish that they had, because we would have felt more secure that the special provisions would remain in place.

The Minister said that if the Government judge in 2007 or 2008 that the situation in Northern Ireland is not normal, they will take action. Given the other things that will be happening in 2007 and 2008, including new Assembly elections, I am not sure whether they would introduce the necessary legislation at that point, but I do not want to drive the nails out of sight on that matter.

Conservative Members deeply regret that the situation in Northern Ireland is not such that this Bill can be done away with, but we accept that it is necessary. That is why we have supported the Government on Second Reading, in Committee and here today.

4.31 pm

Lembit Öpik: First, I want to thank right hon. and hon. Members for their continuing kindness and support, and their empathic approach, following the death of my brother. I recognise that while this is a personal tragedy for me, what we are really debating today is a whole raft of personal tragedies that have taken place in Northern Ireland as a result not of destiny or nature, but of the deeds of men and women who resorted to terrorism. I should like us to remember that despite the formal and objective way in which we must
30 Nov 2005 : Column 329
debate these matters, we are really dealing with matters of the heart and trying to ensure security and closure for individuals who have suffered through no fault of their own. That is why the legislation is so important and why I am grateful to the Minister for having taken a serious and responsible approach in responding to the points that we have made, even if he may have sometimes disagreed.

I congratulate the Minister on his erudite and entertaining approach, even though we have sometimes had to endure the slings and arrows of bitter words. Only this afternoon, he accused the Liberal Democrats of being a pick-and-mix party in terms of our policies. Were I a vicious man, I would point out that at least I am not pick-and-mix in my party affiliations. Nevertheless, I salute the hon. Gentleman for his prudent judgment through the years, which has propelled him to a position of power. As I look forward to the Liberal Democrats sweeping to power in 2009, I assure him that his experience will be valued and that we can talk about that in confidence.

The main issues were debated again on Report. Those that vexed us most were hearsay evidence and Diplock courts. My colleagues and I remain unpersuaded of the Under-Secretary's case in defence of maintaining the power. His strongest argument related to the Omagh victims and the potential for five cases in the pipeline to require the use of hearsay evidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) pointed out, that is not strong enough.

Lord Carlile, who has no interest in compromising the progress towards prosecution of those responsible for the Omagh bombing or any other terrorist activity in Northern Ireland, could not have been clearer about hearsay evidence. His comments have been quoted already, but the words are so clear that it is worth repeating them. Lord Carlile stated:

That is as clear as any independent arbiter could be that the requirement is not effective.

In response to the Under-Secretary's reasonable question about who would take responsibility if hearsay evidence were not allowed and the progress of justice were thus thwarted, I would say that it is the wrong question. We will not get a prosecution on the basis of hearsay evidence—that is Lord Carlile's point. The question is counter-productive—in other words, it is not neutral. The inclusion of hearsay evidence risks the far greater danger of creating martyrs, resentment and false prosecutions. I do not want to put words into Lord Carlile's mouth, but I would present those explanations to people who challenge me about why I resist the use of hearsay evidence.

The evidence of history supports my point. If hearsay evidence were so important, it would have been used at least once in the past seven years. Furthermore, the Under-Secretary argued against new clause 1, which proposed three judges instead of one in Diplock courts, on the basis that existing procedures were effective. He cannot use that argument in that instance while simultaneously rejecting it when I say that the existing
30 Nov 2005 : Column 330
procedures have been effective without hearsay evidence. There is a contradiction in the Government's case for hearsay evidence.

In essence, I believe that including the provisions for hearsay evidence may protect the general public against individuals by banging them up, but they do not protect the general public against injustice. That is at the heart of our concerns about the provision.

The Under-Secretary asked us to identify with the plight of the Omagh victims. I met Michael Gallagher and his colleagues yesterday at four hours' notice. It took the Prime Minister five years—half a decade—to meet the representatives of the Omagh victims. He therefore needs to be careful when he accuses Opposition politicians of not taking the plight of the Omagh victims seriously.

We had an extensive debate on the case for three-judge courts. The Liberal Democrats did not get what we wanted but we got something significant, for which I am grateful to the Under-Secretary. We now have a specific commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny and, I assume, true bipartisan debate about what should replace Diplock courts. The problem with the word "bipartisan" is that it implies two parties. Recent history suggests that, when two parties are involved, they are the Labour Government and Sinn Fein. I hope that, when the Under-Secretary talks about bipartisanship with regard to replacing the Diplock courts, he will ensure genuine cross-party debate, involving the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionists, the Alliance party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and, of course, Sinn Fein.

The Government often make the mistake of believing that some consultation with one party means that they do not have to engage in full consultation with all parties. I will bank what the Minister has said, but we really want to see the evidence of cross-party consultation taking place before we will be comfortable.

The Minister has also given us an explicit commitment that the measures on pre-legislative scrutiny will not share the expiry date of the existing Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. I obviously hope that the Ministers will not move on—the Minister before us today is a very likeable chap if you meet him socially, and he does a pretty good job in the House as well. It is a long and painful process to educate successive Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. Each time that process comes to a conclusion, the Minister is up to speed on the intricacies of what has gone on over the past eight years, only to be moved on. So we have to start again, the same mistakes are made by the new Ministers, and we all have to go back into a mentoring role to ensure that the Ministers have the basis of information that they need for such a specific technically and historically loaded subject.

The Minister before us today has given us something very important. He has given us an assurance that the pre-legislative scrutiny with regard to Diplock courts will not be dependent on those in ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Office at the moment, but that the responsibility for that pre-legislative scrutiny will be carried ex officio by the Ministers there. I am grateful for that; it is an important assurance. There is no loss, cost or defeat for the Government in having made that
30 Nov 2005 : Column 331
commitment, and I look forward to the inclusion of a process of scrutiny that was lamentably absent from the on-the-runs legislation.

Next Section IndexHome Page