Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill
Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)
I am happy to follow 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 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.
Looking decidedly uncomfortable, the Prime Minister attempted to justify the Bill. In a transparently implausible defence, he said:
"Under the Good Friday agreement in 1998, people who were convicted and in prison for terrorist offences pre-1998 got released. How can you possibly say they"—
"should be put in prison if the people already convicted have been let out? That is why there is a symmetry if you like about dealing with prisoners and on-the-runs."
Either the Prime Minister does not have a sound recollection of what happened to prisoners under the Belfast agreement or he does not know the meaning of the word "symmetry."
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.
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
"reasonable grounds for suspecting the applicant to be guilty of an offence".
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.