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House of Commons

Wednesday 11 January 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

On-the-run Terrorists

1. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): If he will make a statement on his plans to deal with on-the-run terrorists returning to Northern Ireland. [40302]

3. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): If he will make a statement on his plans to deal with on-the-run terrorists returning to Northern Ireland. [40304]

7. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. [40308]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): It is the Government's goal to close the door on Northern Ireland's paramilitary past; otherwise, the future will constantly be dogged, disrupted and dragged back to the past. Following the early release of paramilitary prisoners, it became clear that there was a group of suspects in an anomalous position. The status of those on the run could not be effectively resolved in the same way. For that reason, the Government agreed to deal with the outstanding issue of those suspected of terrorism-related offences committed before the Belfast agreement. It is an issue that still remains to be resolved, as is the position of those who may in the future be prosecuted for terrorism-related offences committed before the Belfast agreement. That is the background to the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill.

Since the Bill was introduced, I have received written and face-to-face representations from a number of organisations and individuals, including victims, police staff associations, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and political parties.

Mr. Benyon: We are looking forward to hearing what the Secretary of State has to say on this subject in his statement later today, but does he understand that the depth of opposition to the Bill is evident not only in all the sectarian parties and political parties in this House? A poll today in the Belfast Telegraph shows that there is widespread opposition to the proposals across the community in Northern Ireland. To cap it all, we now hear that Sinn Fein-IRA have withdrawn their support for the Bill. Is it not time that what the spokesman for
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the Police Federation for Northern Ireland called this "odious piece of legislation" was put to rest and forgotten completely?

Mr. Hain: I agree that the Bill has received widespread opposition. There is no question about that: the Belfast Telegraph poll shows what many of us already know is in the minds of the people of Northern Ireland—an overwhelming rejection of the Bill. It is also true that all the political parties now oppose it, but the problem will still need to be resolved through legislation.

Mr. Benyon: Why?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman asks why, but he will recall that more than 400 paramilitary prisoners were released after the Belfast agreement. That process was endorsed in a referendum by the people of Northern Ireland. Of that total number, fewer than one eighth are now in the anomalous position of having been outside UK jurisdiction for similar offences and of being unable to emerge without facing prosecution, undergoing the criminal process and serving criminal sentences. That is the problem and it will not go away, whatever he says and whatever the opposition to the Bill.However, I agree that the opposition is widespread, and I do not doubt its sincerity.

Mr. Ellwood: Last year, the Government proposed to detain suspected terrorists without charge for 90 days, but now they are proposing to let on-the-run terrorists get off scot free, without having even one day in court. Will the Secretary of State say who is in favour of the Bill? The Opposition are not in favour of it, and neither are the Army or the police. The victims are certainly not in favour of it and not one political party—including Sinn Fein, as we have just heard—supports it. Surely the Bill should now be thrown out?

Mr. Hain: As I have said, I shall make a statement at 12.30 pm, when I shall answer some of the detailed questions about the Bill. I shall also deal with other issues in connection with Northern Ireland. I do not doubt that there is widespread opposition to the Bill, but I put to the hon. Gentleman the same question that I put to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). This matter needs to be dealt with, but it goes further than the on-the-runs. There is also the question of those who might be uncovered and prosecuted, as a result of inquiries or of investigations that are currently being undertaken. They could face lengthy prison sentences, and it is conceivable that they could include members of the security forces. Either we want to move forward in Northern Ireland, or we want constantly to look back to the past—in some cases for offences committed 30, or even nearly 40, years ago.

Andrew Selous: The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission says that the Bill is incompatible with international human rights standards. What comment would the Secretary of State make about that, and will he ensure that any new provisions brought before the House are compatible with international human rights standards?

Mr. Hain: The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn
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(Mr.   Hanson), will respond to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I said on introducing the Bill that it was compatible with the Human Rights Act, and I therefore do not think that that issue arises, but we are studying the letter very carefully.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the game is up on every argument that the Government have used on the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill? The House was persuaded to give that Bill a Second Reading solely on the premise that the Government were honour bound to produce legislation because of deals with Sinn Fein in 2001 and 2003. Sinn Fein has since said that it wants the Bill withdrawn for its own reasons. All other parties have long called for it to be withdrawn for all sorts of reasons. Every class of victims' group in Northern Ireland finds the Bill deeply offensive. Opposition is not just widespread; it is deeply felt. Now that the Government are into the culture of respect, will they respect the wishes, sensitivities, rights and needs of the people of Northern Ireland—victims, in particular—withdraw the Bill and recover some credibility for themselves and for the House?

Mr. Hain: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, which he has made with great eloquence and conviction for many months now. We have listened carefully to the arguments that he and others have made, and I shall be making a statement at 12.30 pm. I repeat, however, that the issue will not go away. The House needs to recognise that, and that is the point that the Government have been making and the issue that I shall describe in some detail, among other things, at 12.30.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State indicate what is the morality of the Government's position? They entered into a dishonourable deal with a dishonourable organisation, which no longer wants them to honour that arrangement. Yet the Secretary of State still appears to be ready to proceed with the legislation. If he wants the matter dealt with, let it be dealt with as it should be—in the courts.

Mr. Hain: As I have already said, but will repeat for the hon. Gentleman, I understand the point that he is making, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State spent some 27 hours in Committee and listened to many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and others. We have listened carefully, which is why I shall make a detailed statement at 12.30 pm.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that whatever his objections to the legislation, two things are clear: legislation is needed to resolve the issue, and the issue needs to be resolved—

Mr. Robinson: No, it is not.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman says not, but let me put a question to him. Let us take a constituent of his from one of the communities from which members of the security forces are drawn; there are many of those from his constituency and from the constituencies of other Members of his party, and I respect that, as those
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people have had a tough job to do over many years. Let us suppose that as a result of one of the inquiries, such as the Chief Constable's inquiry, or some other event, that person was prosecuted.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP) indicated dissent.

Mr. Hain: No. I understand the point. Does the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) think that it would be right for such a member of the security forces—a servant of the Crown—to be treated differently from the paramilitary prisoners who did not serve their full sentences and were released after the Belfast agreement?

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I hope that the Secretary of State's statement will introduce a period of reflection. While we all understand that, as he has repeatedly said, the issue will not go away, many of us feel that the instrument being used—the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill—is probably not the way forward, bearing in mind that he persuaded his hon. Friends to support him in the Division Lobby on Second Reading very much on the basis that we all had to swallow some bitter pills and this was the way to gain progress particularly, if not exclusively, with the republicans. We now know that not a single party in Northern Ireland supports the Bill; may I hope that my right hon. Friend will therefore consider going back to the drawing board after a period of reflection?

Mr. Hain: I assure my hon. Friend, whose views on this issue and in general I respect enormously, that when I make my statement he will have the answer to his questions and will find that I have listened to opinion in the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): That is rather a tantalising statement, and we shall have to wait.

The Secretary of State has a deserved reputation as a champion of democratic values—

Mr. Peter Robinson: What?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Oh, all his life, and he has made many mistakes.

Does the Secretary of State accept that now that there is total opposition to the Bill, it should be consigned to the wastepaper basket?

Mr. Hain: As I say, I will make a statement at 12.30 and the hon. Gentleman may even catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. Given the importance of this issue and of what I have to say about the future political process in Northern Ireland, it is right that all hon. Members have a chance to question me, rather than the few who have the chance now.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State has said on several occasions that he will make a statement later, so we will now move on to question No. 2.
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