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Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill

3.10 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Dubs.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

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Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [The Commission]:

Viscount Cranborne moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 2, line 30, after ("effect") insert ("either--
(a) at the end of 30th June 1999 unless, before that day, relevant information has been provided to the Commission which has led to the location of remains to which the information relates, or
(b) if the information mentioned in paragraph (a) has been provided,")

The noble Viscount said: At Second Reading I made clear how much I disliked what the Bill does and the reasons for it. Therefore, I shall not repeat those arguments. As the noble Baroness the Leader of the House is wont to remind us on such occasions, we are in Committee and should therefore make Committee stage speeches.

Suffice it to say that I feel strongly that the Bill before us is one in which the Government are enabling the Provisional IRA to take advantage of the compassion we all feel for the families of the disappeared. As we know, those families have suffered the tragedy of knowing that their loved ones have been murdered under the most distressing circumstances possible. The failure of the murderers even to tell the families where the bodies are buried has ensured that an open wound has remained open--in some cases, for many years. No one, on either side of the debate today, would yield to the Government for a second in the compassion and feeling that all of us have for those families.

My amendment puts a deadline on the effect of the Bill--I have suggested 30th June this year. I am sure that Members of the Committee will be aware that it is no coincidence that I have chosen that date. It is one which the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister suggested is the deadline by which the Good Friday agreement should become operative. At Second Reading, the Minister made it clear, in his as ever courteous speech, that as far as the Government are concerned, this is very much a confidence-building measure. If the Bill is to become law, now is a good time for confidence to be built on both sides. If we have that deadline of 30th June, it seems appropriate that it should also be a deadline for other matters.

We should remind ourselves that it is the Provisional IRA which asks for the immunities the Bill grants. In exchange for the immunities which the Government of the Republic of Ireland and now our Government are in the process of granting, the Provisional IRA has given no guarantees that it will provide information which will close the open wounds in the hearts of the families concerned. If it fails to do that, I suggest that it is doing no more than acting in character.

In another context, the peace process raised hopes and aspirations among all of us. I refer not only to those in the Province where people have suffered far more than we on this side of the water as a result of the activities of terrorists from both traditions, but to those over here. Such hopes were based on the unequivocal--a word much used in the context of the negotiations--cessation

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of violence. Those of us who have taken an interest in Northern Irish matters for many years have been looking for such an unequivocal cessation, above all from the terrorist organisations on both sides which have been responsible for the tragedy of the past 30 years. What do we get? Weasel words which try to imply that the terrorist organisations, notably Sinn Fein/IRA but also terrorist organisations on the other side, are in favour of peace. They want to deliver peace. Nevertheless, they never go quite as far as saying that they have given up the armalite wholly in favour of the ballot box.

That is the cruellest deception of all. Many of us believe that the real pre-requisite for a return to parliamentary government in the Province is that people should give up the weapons which they hold like a sword of Damocles over the rest of us. That has been proven in other contexts and conflicts to be the pre-requisite for a return to parliamentary government. Nevertheless, the organisations concerned still refuse to give the unequivocal undertaking for which we have asked and which seems to be the minimum they should give before being able to take part in what seems to us to be everyday political activity.

In the context of the surrender of weapons, we are treated to phrases by terrorists given to their own supporters such as, "We haven't gone away, you know". That is just to remind us that unless the governments do what they are asked, they will go back to bombing. Exactly the same case applies in the Bill. I fear, beyond anything else, that the families of the disappeared, who have suffered so much in the past few decades, will find, just like the rest of us in a broader context, that their hopes have been raised and nothing has been done to provide the information under the immunities granted by the Bill. The terrorist organisations will be stringing us along and stringing governments along, asking yet again for more concessions; for us to take yet another step for peace in a way with which we have all become so tragically familiar. We have become hooked on making concessions so that we should not be accused by the very perpetrators of violence of being against peace. That is the ultimate obscenity. I fear that the Government are laying themselves open in this most sensitive and difficult of areas--particularly so for the families concerned--to finding themselves in a similar position.

It has been made plain during the past few weeks that the information to which the Bill refers is available. The Provisional IRA, in particular, has made plain that it has spent a large part of the past few years gathering information so that it is in a position to deliver it. Whether or not that is true, I do not know. I cannot help feeling that if it is as compassionate as it says it is, it would not have waited for immunity before giving the information.

However, let us just go along with it for a moment and allow that terrorist organisations need that protection. In that case, if they have the information and the Bill gives the protection that they say they need, they will need very little in the way of time to submit it and for the families to be able to know that they can bury their disappeared in graves they can visit and honour.

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This amendment in no way contains an extreme request. In fact, it is a request which astonishes me in its moderation. The very least that we can ask is that we have some kind of assurance that if once again we are let down by the Provisional IRA for sticking our necks out when they have refused yet again to stick out theirs, we will know that they will not have the ability to string us along beyond 30th June, asking for more and more concessions in exchange for keeping alive the hope of the victims' families that they will be able to bury their loved ones.

I am sorry that the Government did not feel, during the course of their negotiations, that they should impose a time limit; I am sorry that another place did not feel during the course of its consideration of this Bill that it ought to impose a time limit, for the reasons that I have attempted to give the Committee this afternoon. It is fortunate that at least Members of this Committee will have the opportunity to consider the question of a time limit. I hope that, if the Minister is not able to meet me on this modest request, the Committee will at least allow me to take the opinion of the Chamber on a matter which, above anything else, is one of common decency. I beg to move.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: As the noble Viscount so ably explained to the Committee, his amendment specifies a period of approximately one month before the Bill ceases to have effect. My amendment proposes a slightly longer period of three months. However, in the light of representations that I received over the weekend, and in view of the case made by the noble Viscount, I have come to the decision not to press my amendment.

Emerging information indicates that, as a result of secret, detailed negotiations between the IRA on the one hand and the MI6 successor to the agent formerly known as "the mountain climber" on the other, agreed arrangements are already in place. They were in place before this Chamber and the other place began deliberations on this Bill. Just as in the case of earlier legislation--for example, the prisoners' release Bill--the bargains have been struck with the terrorists in great detail. That explains why your Lordships were not permitted to carry even modest amendments to any of the long chain of Northern Ireland Bills which have come before this House over the past 18 months. Each and every Bill was set in stone.

We were told by the Minister--I never envied him his role--that it was not possible to substitute, for example, the word "may" for "shall" because it would do violence to the much-heralded Belfast agreement and the confidence-building measures in Northern Ireland. As the noble Viscount said, they are confidence- building measures designed to assist terrorists and disadvantage the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland, whatever their political views or their outlooks.

Given that the bargain has been struck with the terrorists, the sole function of your Lordships is now to seal the deal. There is therefore no need to delay the conclusion of the deal. It can begin immediately Royal Assent is given and in the unfortunate event of this Committee approving the situation as it stands in the

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Bill, accepting the time limit of four weeks will be more than sufficient. It will have the all-important effect of shortening the period of agonising being suffered by the unfortunate families.

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