§ The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the bomb in Omagh.
At 3.10 pm on 15 August, a car bomb consisting of 200 to 300 lb of home-made explosive blew up in Market street in the centre of Omagh as a community festival was in progress. The explosion brought devastation and tragedy to the heart of the town. Twenty-eight people were killed—the highest death toll in any single incident in Northern Ireland. Seventeen were Roman Catholic, 11 were Protestant, 11 were under the age of 18. The dead included three from the Republic, and two from Spain. Over 200 people were injured, many very seriously. More than 50 continue to receive medical treatment in hospitals around the country.
The whole House will want to join me in expressing our disgust, outrage and total condemnation of those who were responsible. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]
There was a telephone warning at 2.30 pm to Ulster Television. It spoke of a bomb close to the courthouse in Main street. The Royal Ulster Constabulary responded accordingly and moved people away from the courthouse down Market street. The bomb went off 400 yd from the courthouse in Market street, in the very area to which people had been directed. The bomb was in a car in the street outside busy shops at a busy time of a busy day. The resulting carnage was inevitable. We reject with contempt the excuses of those who have tried to explain it away.
The atrocity was later admitted by the so-called Real IRA, a renegade republican group. All the political parties in Northern Ireland condemned the attack unequivocally. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland and those of us who have been to Omagh, including myself, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, have seen the terrible pain and grief that were inflicted, and the trauma that has resulted for many. No one can fail to have been moved by the sight of the procession of coffins that we saw on our television screens as those who were killed in the explosion were buried. Again, the whole House extends its deepest sympathies to the victims of this wicked attack, and to all their families and their friends.
We should also take this opportunity to appreciate once again the magnificent work that was carried out by the emergency and health services. In dreadfully difficult and distressing circumstances, they did their utmost to rescue the victims of this outrage, to tend to the injured and to 694 comfort the shocked. They went through experiences that no one should have to face. Their courage and dedication were remarkable. They are remarkable people, and we in the House salute them.
When I visited the Royal Victoria hospital the following day, I saw for myself not only the professional skill of the medical staff but the hugely important comforting and counselling role that they played. They have my and our whole-hearted admiration and respect.
I also believe that the RUC deserve the highest praise. On many occasions in the past, their skill and courage have prevented similar scenes of carnage, but, perhaps as a result, the warning times have been shortening. On this occasion, they were helpless in the face of the misleading warning that was given by those cowards who carried out this attack, but the RUC's subsequent actions attracted deserved gratitude from all sides of the community.
We have known tragedy in Northern Ireland many times before; but this was an indiscriminate attack on a whole community, bringing nothing but further grief to the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland. It was a deliberate attempt, by a small group of extremists with no moral or political support anywhere, to wreck the Good Friday agreement and the foundation for a lasting and peaceful Northern Ireland which the agreement offers. It was a cynical attempt to provoke a violent reaction from others.
Those aims, however, have not succeeded, and they will not be allowed to succeed. That has been the response not only of the two Governments and the political parties but also, overwhelmingly, of the people of Omagh and elsewhere in Northern Ireland and the Republic. It was on the lips of virtually all those to whom I spoke, even those who had suffered most, when I visited Omagh just over a week ago.
The aim of those bombers was, as I say, not just to kill innocent people but to strike at the very heart of the peace process. The best response that we can give, therefore, is not to abandon the Good Friday agreement but, on the contrary, to carry it forward vigorously, to deny these people the very objective they seek, and to continue to work for a better future for Northern Ireland that puts the past behind us.
The agreement reached on Good Friday was emphatically endorsed in referendums north and south. The election in June underlined the wish of the majority of people in Northern Ireland to reach for a new and peaceful future. Those who continue with terror have no support, no votes, no mandate from any part of any community in the whole of the island of Ireland.
Both we and the Irish Government are fully committed to implementing the will of the people of Ireland, north and south. Further political progress is by far the best answer to violence, and, as I have said, it is what the people of Northern Ireland demand and deserve.
I therefore welcome the efforts to achieve this of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)—the First Minister and First Deputy Minister designate of the new Northern Ireland Assembly—and of other politicians in Northern Ireland. I welcome yesterday's statement by Sinn Fein, making clearer than ever its rejection of violence and commitment to peaceful means, and the initiative of the First Minister and the First Deputy Minister designate in calling a meeting of the leaders of all the political parties next week.
695 I welcome, too, the latest announcement today of the appointment of Martin McGuinness to work with the Independent Commission on Decommissioning to facilitate the process of decommissioning. This is a practical, important step forward in the implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Under that agreement, the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons within two years is a vital part of a lasting settlement.
This is a difficult process, and there will be many more difficulties along the way; but I have no doubt that things are on the move, and moving in the right direction. In the wake of Omagh, people of both communities are determined as never before to overcome past divisions and to build new confidence and trust, and we shall do all we can to help this process.
But we must also take strong and decisive steps to deal with this unrepresentative minority who want to use violence to undermine this peaceful future. Amid what I believe to be unprecedented co-operation between Governments and police forces, we continue to provide maximum support to the RUC and the Garda as they hunt for those responsible for the Omagh bomb and other outrages. I can assure the House that the investigation to bring to justice those responsible is being pursued with the utmost intensity and with complete unity of purpose between the British and the Irish authorities.
To complement and reinforce those security operations, both we and the Government of the Republic propose to strengthen our anti-terrorist laws to help bring to justice those who are still dedicated to violence. I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for agreeing to this recall of Parliament to enable early action to be taken. The Irish Parliament is also meeting today to discuss a wide range of new proposals designed to strengthen its own terrorist legislation and, in many respects, bring it into line with our own.
The House will shortly be debating our own proposals. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will explain the full details, but I believe that they are a proportionate, targeted response to deal with small, evil groups of violent men who seek to wreck the hopes for peace for which the great majority yearn and have voted. Our basic aim is to make it easier to achieve convictions for membership of the organisations concerned, in particular by changing the rules of evidence in a way that is tough but is fully thought through, and fully in line with the rule of law and our commitments under the European convention on human rights.
The House is also well aware that terrorism is an increasing threat world-wide. The horrific bomb attacks on the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in early August brought that home yet again, as did the more recent bomb in a restaurant in South Africa. As I know from my own discussions with other leaders, not least in Europe, the international community is and should be determined to respond uncompromisingly. Britain must play an active part in the international battle against terrorism, and avoid becoming any kind of haven for international terrorists and their supporters. We are therefore taking the opportunity of Parliament's recall to put into law long-held plans to make it a criminal offence of conspiracy to commit offences outside the UK.
696 We will not forget the horror of Omagh, but I say this to those who perpetrated that outrage: "You sought to wreck the agreement, and you failed. You sought to divide the community, and you failed. You sought to win new support, and you failed. You failed because violence and terror represent the past in Northern Ireland, and democracy and peace represent the future in Northern Ireland." [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]
There are few more important challenges to democracy, and therefore to this House, than terrorism in all its forms. We must fight it vigorously wherever it appears, while holding fast to our democratic principles and the rule of law. We must also redouble our efforts to carry through the political settlement in Northern Ireland, which alone can bring lasting peace. That is the approach that I commend to the House.
§ Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)
When the Prime Minister speaks of the outrage and horror of the Omagh bomb, he speaks for both sides of the House. Each one of us has been appalled by the scenes of destruction in Market street and the tragedy wrought by the violence. Each one of us has been moved by the courage and professionalism of the emergency services and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as the Prime Minister described. Each one of us has been given hope by the determination shown by the people of Omagh not to let the men of violence win.
Like the Prime Minister, we utterly reject the excuses of those who carried out that atrocity. Like him, we extend our deepest sympathy to the devastated families involved. Like him, we wish to see no effort spared to bring to justice the evil murderers responsible for that.
The answer to one question above all must be clear in our minds. Why did those murderers commit their terrible crime? Why did they do it? The answer is cold and simple: they are prepared to do anything to prevent the people of Northern Ireland from living in peace, in the hope that they can achieve through violence what they know they cannot achieve through democratic persuasion.
Does the Prime Minister agree that anyone who thinks that has misjudged the people of Omagh, the House and the people of the entire United Kingdom? Is he aware that the Government will have the support of the Opposition if they do everything that they can to ensure that the terrorists do not succeed? He will also continue to have our support in implementing the Good Friday agreement and in carrying through the efforts of this Government and the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) to bring lasting peace.
Does the Prime Minister agree that, although we should welcome the words of the Sinn Fein president yesterday, tough words must now be matched by clear deeds, as the Good Friday agreement effectively links progress on decommissioning with the early release of convicted terrorists and membership of the Northern Ireland Executive? We welcome the first move by Sinn Fein to co-operate with the decommissioning commission by appointing a representative to work with it. I welcome what the Prime Minister said in his statement about the importance of the decommissioning of all paramilitary explosives and guns over the next two years, as agreed under the Good Friday agreement, supported by Sinn Fein and the loyalist paramilitaries.
If Sinn Fein's words are to ring true, we must now look for the actual dismantling of the apparatus of terror that paramilitaries on both sides have held over the people of 697 Northern Ireland for so long. Can the Prime Minister assure us that terrorist prisoners will not be released early until the process of giving up guns and bombs has actually begun?
The Opposition will support the Government's legislation today, but can I put to the Prime Minister two specific concerns? The first is that, although today's proceedings and those in the Irish Republic will bring the law north and south of the border more closely in line, there will be one glaring difference. As such store is now being set by having the same laws in the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it was a mistake last autumn, as we argued then, to remove from our statute book the reserve power of internment, a power that is retained in the Irish Republic?
The second concern is that, although we support the legislation because everything possible needs to be done to combat terrorism, we inevitably worry about the effectiveness and the operation of any legislation that is so hastily conceived and executed. Will the Prime Minister agree to a full review of the effectiveness of this legislation, to be published before the Government come back to the House to seek its renewal in 12 months' time?
I welcome the release announced today of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. The Prime Minister will know that my colleagues and I have raised their case many times, and we are delighted that their cases have been reviewed and that they are now free.
§ The Prime Minister
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response, particularly for the words that he said about the emergency services and the RUC. It is also right that we should not forget the role of the Army in this. The Army and RAF helicopters also played a vital part in moving people from the scene of the incident, and the death toll would have been considerably higher had they not done so. Anyone who has travelled in and visited regularly Northern Ireland knows the debt of gratitude that we owe our armed forces for the work they do there.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that those who think that violence is the way forward have misjudged the mood of people. I was struck in Omagh by the fact that people from all parts of the community and those who supported all different political parties within Northern Ireland were unanimous in their view that the Good Friday agreement was the way forward. I pay tribute to the work that was done before this Government came to office by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) to try to bring about a process of peace.
I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the Good Friday agreement itself, and the words that are in it. All the parts of the agreement have to be read as a whole, whether on prisoner release, decommissioning or any of the rest of it. It is worth pointing out that, contrary to what some people sometimes say, decommissioning is part of the agreement. It contains an obligation for all weapons to be decommissioned within a two-year period. I hope that the process begins as soon as possible. We welcome what has happened today as a practical step on the way to that.
The right hon. Gentleman raised two specific concerns about the legislation. We had to make a judgment about internment. We have made it clear that we do not rule anything out for ever, but my judgment is that the history of internment as it operates here and in the Irish Republic is different.
698 All the way through, we are trying to take carefully targeted measures that allow us to deal with these terrorist groups, but do not provoke such a backlash in other parts of the community that they undermine the fight that we are trying to secure. I agree that that is a matter of judgment, but that is our judgment; although, as I say, we rule nothing out for the future, should things be necessary. Although the Irish Government have the power of internment on their statute book, they do not intend to implement it at this stage.
As for the points about measures being hastily conceived, I believe that again, as a result of having targeted the measure carefully, we have steered the right course between a knee-jerk reaction that introduces measures that are not well thought through and measures that will give us practical help and assistance in trying to deal with those people who are members of the relevant proscribed organisations.
But, of course, this has to be seen against the background of the review of the terrorist legislation which is going on at present and will be published in due course by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I think that the publication date will be within the next six months. I cannot promise to have it done before the House reconvenes, but it will allow us to examine the ambit of terrorist legislation, how it works and how this particular legislation is operating. It will also give us the chance to consider some of the proposals being made by the RUC and the Garda for further tightening measures.
The process is already under way that allows us to analyse what we need to do for the future, but I believe that people expect us to do two things in the wake of Omagh. One is to take what security measures we responsibly can to try to deal with the small remaining groups engaged in terror. The second is to continue with the political process. I believe that the events of the past two weeks have shown that the will exists right across the community in Northern Ireland, and certainly in the House, to do both those things.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
I echo the comments already made, without necessarily having to repeat them, about the atrocity of Omagh, and especially the welcome given to Sinn Fein's helpful statement yesterday. Perhaps out of the horrors of Omagh we are at last going to see a real and historic opportunity for the people of Ireland to come together to build a peace for the future. In so far as this legislation is aimed at that purpose, we support it.
We are, however, glad that the Government appear to have amended the original draft legislation that we saw, because there were and remain some concerns. We are especially glad that the Government have agreed that there needs to be more than the statement of a single police officer to deal with the issue of proscribed organisations. We are also glad that there will be an opportunity annually to review and renew the legislation.
Many of the concerns will have been answered, but is the Prime Minister aware that one, it seems, has not? It is the Government's decision to add into the legislation matters that are nothing to do with Northern Ireland. I deeply regret that. I regret that, by adding complicating extra measures, which are, in my view, unnecessary, the Government will not have given the House a full and ample opportunity to debate the matter properly.
Nevertheless, the Government can count on our support, because we believe that these are exceptional times, which require exceptional actions—for three 699 reasons. First, having maintained the cross-party unity on Northern Ireland matters that has subsisted in the House for 25 years, it would be wrong to allow it to be destroyed by the blood and atrocities of Omagh. The second reason is that precisely parallel legislation is now going through the Irish Parliament. We have long been in favour of that, and it would be a tragedy if the first attempt ended in failure when it ought to be a model for the future. I hope that the Prime Minister will confirm that that is what he would like.
Finally, the atrocity committed on that terrible day in Omagh was not against the actions of a single Government whom one group of people may or may not support, but was designed to undermine and destroy the sovereign will of the Irish people, who, in a referendum, overwhelmingly expressed the desire for peace. We cannot allow that to succeed.
§ The Prime Minister
On the right hon. Gentleman's points about the legislation, it was always our intention that the statement of a police officer could not of itself alone secure a conviction. I think that an annual review is simply sensible in legislation of this sort.
There are two reasons for the international measures. First, they have long been on the stocks, as it were. Under the last Government and under this Government, we have been waiting for the right opportunity. People expect us to be taking action not merely in respect of acts of terrorism within the United Kingdom but in respect of people here conspiring to commit such acts abroad. I think that, after the events of the past few weeks, that feeling is stronger rather than weaker.
In respect of the legislation in the Irish Republic, of the many differences between the situation now and that which has existed over a considerable period in Northern Ireland, one stands out above all others—the co-operation between ourselves and the Government in the Republic. We are working together. One of the reasons that we thought it right to seek the recall of Parliament is not just that it would, I think, be unwise for us to proceed without legislation, but that it is right to proceed step by step with the Irish Government, showing that there is a determination, in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, to hunt down those responsible and to bring them to justice, recognising that this is a different situation and that those people have no support and no votes anywhere.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
Does the Prime Minister recognise that every sensible person will share his desire to see the perpetrators of the terrible atrocity at Omagh and their supporters behind bars, but that there is no substitute for patient detective work, resulting in credible evidence and the conviction of the right people? If we get this wrong, we shall end up creating a political base for a tiny, isolated sect, which has no political base at the moment. That is what has happened in the past, and we must avoid it in the future.
If we are to avoid that happening again, we must have credible evidence, capable of belief in court. Therefore, will the Prime Minister consider accepting two of the amendments that I have tabled, one of which would require the RUC to take audio recordings of interviews with suspects—which, incredibly, it has resisted for 700 years? The second would require the presence of a solicitor, as is required in most of the rest of the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend make the Bill conditional on that happening? He will find that all the mainly bogus objections raised to such matters will melt away like snow on a volcano if those provisions are a condition of being allowed to arrest people in the way that the Bill proposes.
§ The Prime Minister
First of all, my hon. Friend's concerns are perfectly reasonable—I accept that. I accept, too, that we have to beware of repeating any mistakes made in the past. As I said, we do not want to provoke a backlash which will give those people a political base. However, we must also recognise that we are dealing with a different situation—with a very small group of people who have no base and no support, but who have the capacity to engage in the most appalling acts of tenor, as we have seen. Measures have to be focused, targeted and responsibly done.
I take it that my hon. Friend accepts the need for some form of legislation. On his first point, on audio recording, that is now the law, and it is being introduced as quickly as possible. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will say some more about that.
On the presence of a solicitor, it is precisely to deal with the European convention on human rights that we made it a condition that people have to see a solicitor. My right hon. Friend will also draw attention to the other safeguards that exist in respect of the presence of a solicitor. We do not believe that it is right to amend the legislation in that way for reasons that my right hon. Friend will give, but we are acutely conscious of the need to steer a path between carefully targeted action and action that could result in the miscarriage of justice. Obviously, we do not want the latter, and that is why we have been so careful to frame the legislation in that way.
§ Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)
First, I welcome the Prime Minister's statement. All hon. Members who have spoken reflected the view of the whole House this afternoon when they offered their sympathy and condolence to the people of Omagh, especially all those who have lost loved ones and those who are still recovering from serious injuries—many are still in a serious condition.
Omagh is in my constituency—indeed, it is my home town. I was born close by, and have spent all my life there. I went to school in Omagh and was employed by the local council for nine years, after which I had a business which has served the people of Omagh for the past 30 years. It is a town where people have always got on well together, and, despite several bomb attacks and a number of murders of security personnel and others during the years of our troubles, in the main those good relationships have remained.
Saturday 15 August was a busy day in the town. The weather was good, and many mothers and children were together, no doubt buying school uniforms and getting ready to go back to school. Indeed, as the Prime Minister said, a festival was taking place too, and a number of floats were expected to parade through the town at 3.30 pm.
Just after 2.30 pm, a male caller made a call to the Ulster Television newsroom saying that a bomb had been placed outside the courthouse at the top of Main street, 701 and it was due to go off in about half an hour. Three minutes later, a second call was made stating that the bomb would go off in 15 minutes. A further call was made to the Samaritans.
The police immediately went into action and expeditiously cleared the area round the courthouse, routeing many people to the bottom of the town into Market street, where they believed they would be safe. Later, a policeman standing in the centre of the town was expecting the bomb to go off to his right, at the courthouse—but it went off to his left, and he realised that the blast had taken place not at the courthouse but in Market street where the people had assembled.
That policeman quickly made his way down to Market street, but he was not prepared for what he met; it was utter carnage. He and his police colleagues were met with horrific sights, screams for help and mangled bodies, terrible injuries and blood everywhere. A water main had burst, and the water was washing parts of bodies down the side of the street. No doubt those sights will remain with them and with fellow officers who were quickly on the scene to help; those memories come back in their sleep at night as they relive the events they saw.
Like the Prime Minister, I wish to put on the record the excellent work done by the emergency services—the police, the Army, the RAF, the fire brigade and the ambulance men, and especially the members of the public who rushed to the scene and did everything asked of them.
The scenes at the local hospital were equally harrowing, as the numbers of the injured increased and relatives thronged the corridors searching for their loved ones whom they knew had been in the town and were unaccounted for. Again, I place on the record the valiant work done by the surgeons, the other doctors and nurses, the paramedics, and everyone else at the hospital. They did excellent work in stabilising many of the injured, in performing emergency life-saving surgery, and in making people ready for transfer to other acute hospitals.
There were also the ministers of religion and the people from the social services and the district council, who were called upon at short notice to deal with traumatised people, and who quickly made counselling services available. An incident centre was soon set up at the local leisure centre, and the work of collating information and identifying the dead and injured went on right through the night and the next day.
No one who was there will forget the scenes at the centre, as lists of the identified victims from the various hospitals were put on notice boards. Above all, there was the anguish of those whose relatives were unaccounted for, and who waited with decaying hope for news of their loved ones.
I pay tribute to the various hospitals that took the injured: Altnagelvin hospital, Erne hospital, South Tyrone hospital, the Royal Victoria hospital, Musgrave Park hospital, the City hospital and the Ulster hospital all readily received victims, and did magnificent work in treating them.
In all, as the Prime Minister said, 28 people lost their lives. Bombs are indiscriminate: they kill Protestants, Roman Catholics and Mormons; they kill all types of people; they kill children, mothers, grandmothers, sons and daughters. There are many people in Omagh today who mourn the loss of their loved ones.
702 I should like to. thank the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for coming and visiting us in Omagh. I should also like to thank the Prince of Wales for coming. He has known something of sorrow and distress, and when he came to Omagh, he readily identified with us there, and we felt that he empathised with us in our tragedy.
I pay tribute to the press and the other media. Sometimes they are criticised, but, except for one unfortunate programme, they behaved with extreme decency, were very understanding and did a good job.
Every decent person in Northern Ireland wants that bomb to be the last. We never want to see a bomb outrage like that again. The Real IRA has claimed responsibility for the bomb outrage. The security forces are convinced that the bomb was a deliberate attempt to kill men, women and children, and I agree with their assessment. It is hard to believe that people with such evil intentions are in our midst, but it is true. They have killed before, and they are quite prepared to do it again. They must be stopped.
I therefore welcome, as far as they go, the changes that will be made in the law in order to help defeat terrorism. Of course they are too late and too little, and no doubt, when we debate the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill, there will be an opportunity to say more about that.
I thank all hon. Members for their sympathy and their condolences this afternoon, which I am sure will be very much appreciated by my people in Omagh.
§ The Prime Minister
I am sure that everyone will respect and agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
In view of the criticism, which a number of people have made, that the Government are going too far, what would have been the position if, following the terrible tragedy at Omagh, and against the background of what the Irish Government are proposing at this very moment in the Irish Parliament, the British Government had taken no further action against terrorism? If that had been the position, how would that have gone down among those in Omagh who lost their loved ones, and others who wait at the bedside while their dearest and loved ones receive the most urgent medical treatment, and, for all we know, may be seriously injured for the rest of their lives?
§ The Prime Minister
My hon. Friend is right; I do not think that it would have been understood if we had not responded. We must respond carefully and responsibly, but respond we must; first, to show that, both in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland, we will have the toughest possible responsible measures against terrorism. Secondly, because this is a group with absolutely no interest in the political process, it is important to have measures that enable us to deal with its members on the basis of stopping them committing these appalling acts of terrorism.
§ Mr Tom King (Bidgwater)
If it is our dearest wish that this is the last such outrage that ever occurs in Northern Ireland or in the island of Ireland, and as, if terrorism is to be eradicated, it will be necessary for co-operation of the closest kind between the Irish and 703 British Governments and people to continue, will the Prime Minister accept my support for the fact that Parliament meets today, on the day that the Dail is meeting, to discuss legislation that can combine against the common enemy? Will he recognise that, although, over the years, there have been periods of good co-operation, it has often been difficult to sustain it throughout that period? As the two Governments are joint trustees of the Good Friday agreement, I very much hope that it will be the wish—I am sure it is—of the House that that close co-operation in dealing with any remaining terrorists will be fully sustained.
§ The Prime Minister
I agree with that entirely. As the right hon. Gentleman knows better than anyone else, the fact that the British and Irish Governments are working so closely together, and the fact that public opinion in the whole of the island of Ireland, in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom—all that opinion—is behind the agreement, is vastly different from anything that has been known before. Those elements provide the context within which these measures can be carefully targeted—made to work—but they act alongside a political process that gives us a chance of a lasting, peaceful settlement.
§ Mr. John Hume Foyle)
May I express my deep appreciation to the Prime Minister for what he has said today, and also to the leaders of the two main Opposition parties? I have no doubt that, as the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) made clear, what they have said will also be deeply appreciated by the people of Omagh.
In the past 30 years, the people of Northern Ireland have suffered terribly. One in 500 has lost a life, and one in 50 has been maimed or injured—yet far the worst atrocity in all those 30 years is what happened in Omagh, where 28 people lost their lives, some of them children. I have seen many of the deaths, but one of my worst experiences was looking at the coffins of those children, with life in their faces as they lay dead in their coffins.
As the Prime Minister rightly said, the objective of the people who did that was to derail the agreement that had been endorsed so overwhelmingly, not by this House alone, but by the people, north and south. The powerful reaction of the people—the people of Omagh in particular, but the people north and south—demonstrated that our common humanity entirely transcended the divisions of our people.
It is our duty now to translate that common humanity into reality by working to implement the agreement that others tried to derail, to create a society in which the differences of our people are fully respected and in which we work together—and, by doing so, to build an eternal monument to those who have lost their lives on the streets of Omagh: that they will be the last generation to have so suffered.
I received a copy of the legislation that is before us just as I arrived here. It is detailed, and very important. Given the statements about it that have been made by leading lawyers and human rights groups, my party and I will have to study it in depth before responding to it; we should not respond in a hurry. I call on everyone, 704 however, to give full support to the authorities on both sides of our border, so that those who carried out this terrible atrocity can be brought to justice.
§ The Prime Minister
I fully share the vision of the future that the hon. Gentleman has set out, and has done so much to promote. As for the legislation, of course it is important. It very much follows what I said when I went to Omagh myself, but of course it is important for us to study it, assess it and see how it works. That is precisely why we shall have to keep it under review and renew it each time, as a House. There is that built-in mechanism to ensure that it works properly, and in the way we intended it to work.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)
I welcome the Prime Minister's statement. On top of today's Bill, however, can he be more specific about the improvement in security co-operation with the Irish Government since Omagh, to which the Secretary of State referred in an article in The Observer on Sunday?
§ The Prime minister
without going into the details of the co-operation—which I know the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to do—I can say that the actual working together of the Garda and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the services on either side of the border, has been immensely close. That has applied both to the attempt to track down the people responsible for this—to track down the members of this organisation—and, in particular, to working extremely closely in respect of any intelligence that can be gathered to prevent any similar attacks in the future.
Most of the people I have talked to who are engaged in the police or the security services in Northern Ireland say that the co-operation is closer than anything they have ever known. I think that—as the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said a moment ago—that co-operation is in part driven and underpinned by the will of the people, north and south, which is the importance of the Good Friday agreement and the referendum. Those two elements, in combination, give us the best chance.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
While sharing everything that the Prime Minister said about the horror of the Omagh bombing, may I plead with him to take an historical perspective? Violence has characterised the relations between Britain and Ireland over many years, and many of us have sat in this House when anti-terrorist legislation has been introduced, yet the only gain there has ever been was when this Government had the wisdom to open negotiations with the nationalists, which made possible the Belfast agreement, the referendum, the Assembly and the prospect of peace in the future. May I urge the Prime Minister not to take any action that might look as if it were going back to some of the old legislation, which was repressive and ineffective, and did not contribute?
On the wider question of terrorism world wide, the world was shocked by the bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. However, I was astonished that the Prime Minister supported the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan, as it is contrary to the UN charter and international law that any country can bomb any other country in reprisal for anything done to its own nationals in a third country.
705 I finish on the historical perspective. Will the Prime Minister remember that, 100 years ago today, 10,000 Sudanese were killed by the Army under General Kitchener? We may not remember that, but people in Sudan do. They were bitterly disappointed that we did not support them when their factory near Khartoum was bombed by the United States, which has been quite unwilling to agree to an inspection of that site to see whether the bombing was justified.
§ The Prime Minister
On my right hon. Friend's latter point, I am afraid that I simply have to disagree with him. Countries that are state sponsors of terrorism must recognise that action will be taken if they sponsor terrorism and if terrorists based in their country take action against their nationals abroad. I believe that article 51 of the UN charter provides a justification for that. I also point out that, although no one was killed in the strike against the Al Shifa factory in Sudan, almost 300 people were killed in Kenya and Tanzania in those bomb outrages—95 per cent. of whom were innocent passers-by.
On my right hon. Friend's first point, my view is that we must learn from our history, but we should not be mesmerised by or live in it. We must recognise the importance of targeting the measures carefully and of taking account of the possibility of a backlash in the republican community. That we have done.
We must also recognise the two big differences in the present situation. First, we march in step with the Irish Government. As we have said before, that is a huge difference from previous situations, and a huge difference from the history of the past 30 years and measures which have been taken. Secondly, we are not dealing with terrorist groups with a political basis, as was the case with the old terrorist groups which operated in Ireland for a long period. They had real support, real votes, and a political basis. We are talking about people who have no support anywhere and no votes, yet are prepared to use weapons of terror. In the circumstances, we must be prepared for a carefully moderated, sensible and well-targeted response.
We can have all the political processes in the world, and we can have complete agreement across all the mainstream political parties—indeed, we have that now in Northern Ireland—but the terrorists could carry on operating. In the exceptional circumstances that exist, I believe that we are right and justified in saying that we have a political process that must work, but that we must take exceptional measures to mop up the last recalcitrant and renegade terrorist groups that are prepared to threaten the future of Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
In fully endorsing what the Prime Minister said about the vile acts perpetrated on the people of Omagh and about the real and urgent need to bring those responsible to book, may I say that the time allotted for scrutiny of the Bill is totally and utterly inadequate? If there has been an intention for some time to combat international terrorism, why has it not been mentioned in any Queen's Speech since I have been a Member of this place?
§ The Prime Minister
On the last point, measures to make conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism abroad a criminal offence here have been discussed in this House 706 over a long period. The previous Government had a Bill. There was a private Member's Bill; there was a discussion about that. We have always made it clear that we support action on that front. I think that it is the right time to do it, given that we have measures that we are taking against terrorism ourselves, and measures that are necessary to defeat terrorism abroad, examples of which we have seen just in the past few weeks.
As for the time for scrutiny of the Bill, again, let me emphasise: the parts of this that we have done—evidence of a senior police officer being admissible and inferences that can be drawn from the refusal of people to mention facts that they later rely on—were, of course, highlighted in precisely the terms in which they are in this legislation in the statement that I made at the time of Omagh; both of them are here before us.
We have said that we will review at greater length other measures that have been proposed by the police and security services on both sides of the border, precisely because we have been concerned not to rush into legislation, but in the end those two specific things that are in the Bill are very carefully measured and very carefully targeted. They march us, as I say, completely step by step and in line with what is happening in the Irish Republic.
People simply would not understand it if the Irish Government were meeting today and the Dail was meeting in session passing laws that allowed them to act against these terrorist groups in the Republic of Ireland, and we were not meeting here to do the same in the United Kingdom's House of Commons.
§ Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)
In welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, I also thank you, Madam Speaker, for agreeing to the recall of Parliament, because, unlike the biblical law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a body for a body, this shows law being passed in this Parliament to deal with terrorism. I also welcome the fact that we are meeting at the same time as the Irish Parliament—again, I think, for the first time. Perhaps in our British Isles, the different nations, peoples and faiths can at long last learn to live and to co-operate together.
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that this legislation is fully in accord with the European convention on human rights and other international conventions, and that what we are about here is the creation of some new international law, acting jointly with Ireland and other sovereign democracies, against that threat of terrorism?
§ The Prime Minister
Yes. Our view is that it is fully in line with the European convention on human rights—in particular, it is in line with the safeguards that arise as a result of the Murray case before the European Court of Human Rights. We believe that it is, as I say, a targeted and judicious response to the acts of terrorism with which we are faced.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
I endorse everything that has been said by hon. Members about the atrocity in Omagh, particularly the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson), but in looking at the situation at Omagh does the Prime Minister agree that the tragedy there came as no surprise and that there had been, over the previous months, a series of bombs planned and planted by the group calling itself 707 the Real IRA? Indeed, just a fortnight before Omagh, a bomb in Banbridge could have had exactly the same consequences. It too had a misleading warning and could have resulted in carnage, had not a member of the RUC been vigilant enough to spot what had happened.
As the Prime Minister has said, this was done, obviously, with the intention of destroying the hopes that people in Northern Ireland have that we are coming out of violence and coming into a new era in which people will be able to work together, and I agree entirely with what he has said about the need to ensure that those hopes are not frustrated. I am sure that by far the greater number of people in Northern Ireland are determined to ensure that those hopes are realised, but, in pressing on with the agreement, does the Prime Minister agree that it is important that we ensure that the integrity of the agreement is sustained? There are a number of things that are linked together and the need for those who have been involved in terrorism to show they have left that clearly and decisively behind is underlined by what has happened. That is why it is necessary for us to focus again on issues such as decommissioning.
On that, I welcome the step that has been taken today, provided that it is only, as it should be, a first step and that it will be soon followed by other steps. We, of course, will take what opportunities we have to press on the leadership of Sinn Fein and other paramilitary-related parties the need for them to take this issue seriously now.
Is there not also a case for the Government to look more closely at some of their own procedures? I am thinking about prisoner releases. There are safeguards, but there is a need to scrutinise them more carefully to ensure that none of those released goes to augment any dissident group. Is the Prime Minister disturbed to learn, as I was, that a leading member of the Real IRA was released—I think by the Irish Government—some months ago as a so-called confidence-building measure at the request of Sinn Fein? We must ensure that that does not happen again.
We shall deal later with various security measures that are being brought forward. The Prime Minister has mentioned other matters. The House will be aware that the Chief Constable of the RUC has mentioned half a dozen measures that he considers important. I appreciate that the Government are looking at that list, although it is the same as the previous Chief Constable's list. We have been waiting five years for one Government or another to take action on it. Can we have an indication of the time scale on which the Government will consider the measures?
The Prime Minister has referred to the desirability of moving in tandem with the Irish Republic. I welcome that, but he should bear it in mind that the Irish Government have said that they do not rule out resorting to internment without trial if that becomes necessary. My judgment is that, if the measures that are being enacted in the Dail and, we hope, here in the next few days are ineffective—as I fear that they will be—the Irish Government will want to move to that quickly, particularly if there is another major incident. It would be gravely embarrassing if the Irish Government were prepared to intern but found that they could not do so because there were no parallel measures in the United Kingdom, allowing members of the Real IRA to flee to a safe haven in the United Kingdom. Must we not ensure that that does not happen?
§ The Prime Minister
On that last point, as we have shown today, we can act without delay if necessary. I have made it clear that we rule nothing out for the future. My judgment was simply that this is not the right moment. I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the Good Friday agreement. For the integrity of that agreement, all parts of it have to be implemented in full. The existing safeguards on prisoner releases have to be followed through and obeyed. We shall ensure that they are.
The measures put forward by the Chief Constable of the RUC will be looked at. A working party is examining them with the Chief Constable, in conjunction with what is happening in the Irish Republic. That can form part of the review of terrorist legislation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will bring forward in the not-too-distant future.
I agree entirely with what the right hon. Gentleman says about not frustrating people's hopes. I congratulate him on the work that he has done over some time to move the process forward. Over the past 15 months, I have learnt that there are two groups of people when it comes to Northern Ireland: there are those who say that there are tremendous difficulties, therefore it is all hopeless and we should give up; and there are those who say that there are tremendous difficulties, so let us overcome them. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman is in the latter group shows his courage and commitment to the process.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
In his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), the Prime Minister surely was not implying that article 51 covered a country sending cruise missiles to another country without warning.
Was the American evidence on the role of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory taken on trust before British support was given? Have the Government been shown compelling and convincing evidence on that point since? What support did Britain give at the United Nations to the Sudanese request for an early site inspection of the pharmaceutical factory? Would the Government consider sending a team from Porton Down to make a technical assessment? What steps will the Foreign Office take to resume diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level with Khartoum, bearing in mind the exposed nature of the British community in Sudan and the UK's close involvement with the UN relief work?
§ The Prime Minister
On my hon. Friend's last point, the staff were withdrawn after two of them were actually ordered to leave by the authorities there. The view taken was that it was best for the protection of the rest that they leave. The Americans do have strong evidence of attempts to manufacture chemical weapons in Sudan for use by terrorists, and that evidence has indeed been shared with us. Indeed, bin Laden himself lived in Sudan for some four years and has retained extremely close links with the regime.
Those states that sponsor terrorism must expect to have action taken against them. In respect of the Al Shifa plant, no one was actually killed; but, as a result of those bombs that went off in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, almost 300 people were butchered—wholly innocent people. It 709 is important and it is justified for states to take action to make it quite clear that those who take terrorist action against their citizens will not do so with impunity.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)
I should like to associate myself with the remarks made today by hon. Members on both sides of the House in respect of those who have been bereaved and those who are still suffering from the results of the Omagh massacre. We are all indebted to the hon. Member for the constituency, the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson), for his moving and touching speech. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) mentioned that he was moved by the coffins and the little corpses of babes. I was moved by the coffins that could not be opened, because they contained only parts of the bodies recovered. As one of my own Sabbath-school teachers was one of the victims, it was brought home to me in a very real way indeed.
No doubt, in the coming debate, there will be an opportunity to deal with the matters on the minds of Members from Northern Ireland, but I should like to put one point to the Prime Minister. I am sure that, when he read the reaction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the atrocity, he was aware that four men were arrested who were known by the security forces to be members of the so-called Real IRA: I refer to the brothers O'Hagen, Francis Curran and Shane Mackey. They were released. There is one question on the mind of the people of Northern Ireland today and they would like the Prime Minister to answer it. If the laws that he is now saying we must pass today had already been in operation, could those four men have been kept in custody and brought to trial to prove whether they were guilty or not guilty when the security forces said that they were members of the organisation that committed the atrocity?
§ The Prime Minister
I cannot comment on individual cases of individual people and it would be wrong if I did so. What I can say is that we believe that the legislation gives us a far better chance of being able, where people are members of the proscribed organisations, to prove that membership, because we have dealt with two of the major problems that the police have with proving such a charge.
I also say that, of course, the very purpose and object of the bomb were to wreck the agreement and produce a violent reaction from others. We all have a responsibility to make sure that that does not happen.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
In his statement, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the best way forward is by way of continuing political reform. I agree with him. I also agree whole-heartedly with his view that strong and decisive steps must be taken against those murderous fascists who committed that terrible atrocity. However, he must take cognisance of the genuine and utterly legitimate concerns of many people that the implementation of the legislation might harm the civil liberties of decent ordinary citizens.
We need sustained, methodical police investigation on both sides of the border to track down these dreadful, evil people. The Government must fulfil their promise of the early creation of a human rights commission for Northern Ireland with strong investigative powers. That is surely essential as part of the continuing political reform to which my right hon. Friend referred.
§ The Prime Minister
It is precisely because of our recognition that, with any such legislation, there will be 710 genuine, legitimate concerns about whether the balance between strong action and protection of civil liberties is right, that we have taken the measures that we have. Those measures are specific. There are also forfeiture provisions, but in evidential terms the changes are twofold: the admissibility in evidence of the word of a senior police officer, and the right to draw inferences from the failure to mention certain facts. Both those powers are carefully circumscribed. I think that we have got the balance right.
The human rights position is set out in the agreement and we will proceed accordingly. There is now a different context in which the British and Irish Governments take measures together. In the past 20 or 30 years, measures taken by the United Kingdom Government were fiercely resisted, not only by large parts of the community in Northern Ireland, but by many in the Republic, where they had no political support and there was no political base for them. The context today is completely different.
I urge on my hon. Friend, as I did on my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), that, while we must learn the lessons of the past—that is why we are moving in step with the Irish Government and the measures are so carefully targeted—we need to have an answer to the problem of small groups of people who will carry on with terror irrespective of the political process. The ordinary, decent people who expressed their democratic will in referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have a right to the protection of the law in so far as we are able to give it to them.
§ Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)
I, too, welcome the sensitive manner in which the Prime Minister expressed the sympathy of the House for the victims at Omagh, but certain aspects of the Bill are disturbing in the light of what he himself has said. There seems to be a distinction between small terrorist groups committing acts of terror with no political support and larger groups of terrorists who may, broadly speaking, have such support.
Do we now have a two-tier system under which the proposed measures will apply to groups such as the Real IRA but not to Provisional IRA, which, through its alter ego, Sinn Fein, has considerable public support? Since the Belfast agreement was signed, there have been 37 murders: 28 at Omagh and nine outside that outrage. There have been 29 punishment shootings and about 57 brutal beatings, inflicting terrible injuries. Almost every one of those crimes was committed by what might be called the good terrorist groupings that are party to the agreement: Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries. It seems that the new provisions would not apply to what might be called the major terrorist groupings prior to the advent of the Real IRA. Will the police be called upon to make a preliminary determination as to whether one is a wicked terrorist of a small group that is outside the process, or a good terrorist who belongs to a group within the process and, having so determined, apply the new provisions? If that be the case, we are entering a two-tier system of terrorist opposition and a two-tier system of the administration of justice, and many people would regard that as a grave mistake.
§ The Prime Minister
Obviously, we have to make a judgment in respect of any group about whether it qualifies under the provisions. There is a provision, which 711 we are entitled and able to use should the situation change in respect of any group, to add that group to this list. It is simply not correct to say that there is a division between one group of terrorists which operates according to one rule and another group which operates according to different rules. There is provision to change the list if that becomes the right thing to do. Our judgment in the round is the one that we have expressed about the activities of the Real IRA and other groups.
§ Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)
Justice for victims cannot be achieved by providing a safe haven for terrorists; nor can it be achieved by miscarriages of justice such as have occurred in the past. I welcome the Prime Minister's words about the admission of evidence and about the European convention on human rights. What further assurance can he give that the process will lead to a full and fair trial so that justice can be done and be seen to be done?
§ The Prime Minister
The short answer is that the standard and burden of proof remain exactly the same. As I have said, this is an attempt to amend the law simply in these two respects. They are important respects, because we know perfectly well that, on occasions, it has not been possible to convict people of these offences, precisely because of gaps in the law. We have very carefully attempted to steer a path between some knee-jerk reaction, by which we would bring in a whole range of measures that, on examination, cannot be justified, and ending up not acting at all in circumstances where people would not expect that. The fact that that is the collective view, not just of this Government but of the Irish Government too, is some earnest not merely of our good intent, but of the fact that we have been able to deliver the intent in practical legislation.
§ Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)
May I say with the greatest respect to the Prime Minister that what he said a few moments ago about internment is wrong? It is not a matter of judgment: it is a matter of fact that internment's only use is as an element of surprise and a weapon of surprise if a situation arises in which it has to be used. We all hope that that will not happen; but if it should we would be in a ludicrous position, because the Irish Government would be ready to exercise that surprise and act decisively but we would have to come here to debate the matter for a couple of days, during which all that we should be doing is bolting the doors on empty stables. Will the Prime Minister reflect on that and perhaps consult his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary? I make the point seriously. We are rightly following the Irish and agreeing with them on joint measures for the island. This is a glaring exception and we ought to put it right.
§ The Prime Minister
I do not agree with that view, for the reasons that I have expressed. It is a matter of 712 judgment as to whether reintroducing internment at present would help the situation. The hon. Gentleman was part of the previous Government for a long period and I notice that they did not do that. [Interruption.] They did not actually introduce the power, they did not actually implement the power, and I believe that the judgment that we have made is the right judgment. If we got that judgment wrong, the danger would be precisely the danger to which we have drawn attention—that there would be set up a series of reactions in other parts of the community that would undermine the very thing that we want to achieve.
§ Madam Speaker
Thank you. We must now proceed with the business of the House.