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The Government believe that, if Northern Ireland is finally to move out of the conflict that has scarred the past four decades, we have to deal with this outstanding issue left unresolved by the 1998 agreement. That is what the Bill does.
Even before this Bill was introduced, there was much talk of "amnesty". This is no such thing. Under this Bill, individuals could be tried, sentenced and subject to recall to prison for their crimes if they broke the conditions imposed on them. That is not an amnesty.
The House should be under no illusion. The choice is stark: either many of these people continue to run free, never having to account for their crimes, or we put them through these special procedures to face the possibility of conviction.
The choice in many cases is between failing to bring the people involved to justice at alleffectively doing nothing about themand these special procedures. That is the choice, and the Bill makes it clear that what is proposed is not an amnesty.
The Bill sets out a two-stage process. The first stage is an eligibility process, and the second a judicial process. Clause 1 sets out the offences to which the legislation will apply. They are offences committed before the Belfast agreement in connection with Northern Ireland, including offences committed in any part of the UK, escapes and offences committed by members of the security forces.
Mr. Hain: I shall finish this point, and then take an intervention from the hon. Member for Belfast, North. The Government were mindful of the need to ensure that members of the security forces and the police who may have committed acts of unlawful violence before the Good Friday agreement are not disadvantaged. It is not a question of treating them as equivalent to terrorists, but of making sure that they suffer no discrimination. It would be totally unjust and offensive if they were to face imprisonment while former terrorists did not.
Provided that they meet the criteria set out in the Bill, members and former members of the security forces and the police will be covered by this legislation. I do not expect more than a handful, if that, of such people to be affected, and remind the House that only a handful have been affected by prosecutions in the past.
The Secretary of State will have noted the deep anger caused by putting members of the security
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forces and the police on an equivalent basis with terrorists. That is absolutely outrageous. On a number of occasions, he has said that the choice is between allowing people to go free and putting them through the process that he has outlined. However, is not the reality that there is no question of putting them through any process? The matter is entirely voluntary. If people are approached by the police with evidence, they are not required to confess their crime, or to do so within any particular time limit. The provision amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card that they can keep in their back pockets until such time as the police come looking for them. No choice is involved at all. Will the Secretary of State deal with that?
The problem of time limits was considered when we drafted the Bill. The practical difficulty is determining how long such a limit should be. What is the sensible period? We want the process to be carried forward, but at the same time we must make sure that it does not go on for ever. As the hon. Member for Belfast, North knows, the Bill gives me powers to end the process at any time.
I want to make one other point in response to the hon. Gentleman. It is a stark choice in the sense that at present the people on the run, outside UK jurisdiction, have no incentive to come back and face justice, and get a criminal record, which many of them would do.
Mrs. Iris Robinson: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way to me a third time. Does he understand that the people of Northern Ireland cannot trust the word of this Government? Our Prime Minister came to Northern Ireland in 1998 and promised that there would be no terrorists in government and no prisoners released unless and until decommissioning was resolved. In the last election, the Democratic Unionist party received more than 231,000 votes, which indicates that the Protestant community in Northern Ireland oppose the Belfast agreement. It is about time that the Government realised that they do not have the Belfast agreement to follow.
The Secretary of State referred to the ongoing historic inquiries, and I presume that he includes the Saville inquiry. He will recall that the greatest loss of life suffered in Northern Ireland was experienced by the Parachute Regiment at Narrowater Castle, near Warrenpoint. No one has ever been brought to justice for the murders of those soldiers.
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Indeed, the perpetrators of that atrocity can avail themselves of the facility that the Secretary of State proposes. However, the absurd position is that if members of the Parachute Regiment are charged as a result of the Saville inquiry, they can clear their names only by going through the full judicial process, because one has to plead guilty to benefit from this system. They will face the full rigour of the law if they want to clear their names, but those who murdered the paratroopers at Narrowater will walk away scot-free.
Mr. Hain: I am sorry, but that is factually incorrect. First, if the individuals responsible for Warrenpoint are identified, arrested and prosecuted as a result of the Chief Constable's historic inquiries investigation, it is only the first stage. They cannot opt to enter this process until they have been arrested and charged and, in that sense, brought to justice[Interruption.] I have dealt with that point. It is true that they can then elect to go through this special procedure, following which they may be convicted and get a criminal record. That is one set of circumstances.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has sought clarification because he is not correct about the possible position for former paratroopers. I do not know whether any will be affected by the Bill. At the moment, before the Bill is enacted, if an individual were identified by the Saville inquiry, he would face a normal criminal trial, if the police arrested and prosecuted him, and a sentence would follow conviction. When the Bill is in place, the person could choosethe Government would not force him and, indeed, the Bill will not force anyone to do anythingto go through the special court process and could end up, yes, with a conviction, but able to take advantage of the licence system and walk away. In that sense, the person would be advantaged by the legislation or, at least, not disadvantaged compared with former terrorists.
Mr. Donaldson: Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the tribunal system would give the former members of the Parachute Regiment who may face charges under the Saville inquiry the opportunity to clear their names? Will they receive proper justice under this system?
Mr. Hain: Indeed it will. They could plead not guilty. As a result of the Saville inquiry, if any soldiers are charged with a serious offenceeven murderthey could plead not guilty and choose to go through the special process
I am sorry, but the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) has raised an important point and I am glad that he seeks clarification of it from me. The soldiers could choose to take advantage of what for them could be a beneficial process[Interruption.] It could be beneficial for them, because otherwise they would go through the normal court process and possibly be convicted and serve a sentence. It would be a beneficial process. They could still plead not guilty and the evidence would have to stack up before they could be convicted. It is the same Crown court-type procedure in the special courts as the alternative route.
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