HC Deb 20 March 2002 vol 382 cc291-4
3. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

If he will make a statement on his policy towards terrorists who have (a) escaped and (b) not been apprehended. [42005]

4. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

What plans has he to introduce legislation regarding suspected terrorists who are on the run. [42006]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ( Dr. John Reid)

We recognised at Weston Park that the issue of those on the run needed to be dealt with. We will deal with it. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, how we deal with it is open to discussion.

Mr. Turner

That was a very equivocal response to a very important question. At a time when the Government are spending £100 million on the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, will not the relatives of the 11 innocent victims of that other bloody Sunday, Enniskillen, remembrance day 1987, be appalled to hear that the Government are even contemplating an amnesty for terrorists such as Charlie Canfield? Cannot the Government get their act together and send a straight message to the terrorists that there will be no amnesty for those on the run or those who have escaped?

Dr. Reid

Of course, the thoughts of all hon. Members are with the victims of all the troubles. We have made more progress in the past four years resolving the difficulties than we ever did in the previous 40 years. That is partly because we have recognised the amount of pain and the fact that pain is indivisible. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of those on the run. It is a difficult question, and for many a distasteful one. I have no illusions about that.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

It is not difficult.

Dr. Reid

The right hon. Gentleman says it is not, but 1 understand just how difficult it is. I also understand that it is distasteful for many people. Many of the things that we have had to countenance in the peace process, such as the release of prisoners, have been both difficult and distasteful. I would not want in any way to diminish that consideration. However, we have managed to achieve such success in the peace process because we have been courageous enough to face up to issues that are difficult and distasteful. I urge the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) to look at the wider context and consider the benefits that the peace process has brought, and to look elsewhere, not least the middle east, to see what happens when political processes fall.

Rev. Martin Smyth

One may have sympathy with the Secretary of State's position, but will he acknowledge that last year some 700 people in Northern Ireland did not enjoy their human rights, as they were expelled from their homes, and 39 of them were expelled from Northern Ireland as well? While the political spokesmen keep talking about community justice, is it not near time we said clearly that there will be no further advance until we see advances in realism from those who are leaders of terror?

Dr. Reid

It is not often that I can say that I unambiguously and unequivocally agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says, but I can on this occasion. There is absolutely no justification for kangaroo courts, punishment beatings, exiles and people taking the law into their own hands, particularly when there is now a police service in Northern Ireland that I think is due the support and participation of all members in all communities. I say, again without equivocation, that it is time for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is time for people to put a bitter, bitter past behind them, and resolving the issue of exiles is another important part of that process. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will keep up pressure on those responsible to end the despicable expulsion of people in Northern Ireland from their homes and their homeland.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is more concern in Protestant and Catholic working-class communities about the possibility of on-the-runs being given an amnesty than on any other issue in Northern Ireland politics, including decommissioning? How would he answer those who say that it is one thing to bring about the early release of prisoners but quite another to excuse people, so that there is no black mark against them and no action is taken. That is what bothers many working-class people in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Reid

Yes, I recognise fully the deep concerns that are felt on both sides of the community. I read with interest the recent report from BASE 2 on those who have been exiled. It does not afflict only one community. I think that about 60 per cent. of the huge number who were threatened or had to move from their homes last year were from the loyalist community and about 40 per cent. were from the republican community. There is no justification for that. I say this to those who want to see progress in Northern Ireland: we have been told for decades by people in Northern Ireland and the spokesmen of the various communities that they wish to get away from what they were accused of having—arbitrary justice, kangaroo courts, punishment meted out without due justification. All those issues are exemplified in the case of the exiles. We will do everything possible to make sure that those expulsions cease and that we find a way of reconciliation so that those who are expelled from their homes can return to them.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that any resolution of the on-the-run issue must include some process of detainment and release under licence to ensure parity with the early release scheme?

Dr. Reid

As I have told the House previously, we have committed ourselves to resolving this issue but have not decided how it will be resolved. Recent discussions have included issues raised by my hon. Friend and Members on both sides of the House regarding the security forces, exiles, matters of truth and victims. Those factors bear heavily upon us in our consideration of this matter, and that is how it should be. However, I repeat that there have been numerous occasions during this process when we have had to confront the most difficult and sometimes distasteful issues that we would prefer never to have to address. We recognise, however, that those issues are part of the bigger picture of achieving a settlement in Northern Ireland and a future for the generations of Northern Ireland that is better than—and more advanced than—anything that previous generations have managed to live under, and we will confront them.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry)

The Secretary of State has said that to some degree he accepts the resentment and anger in Northern Ireland about the action that Her Majesty's Government are contemplating. Can he outline to the House what pressure Sinn Fein-IRA brought to bear on the Government to make them contemplate on-the-run terrorists being given an amnesty in the face of such opposition, not only in this House, but right across the communities in Northern Ireland?

Dr. Reid

The issue has been raised, not as a result of any particular pressure, but following on from and flowing from the logic of the Belfast agreement. It was an anomaly that we accepted had to be addressed; we are in the process of addressing it. I have told the hon. Gentleman that how we will do so has not been decided. I can say that with complete honesty and sincerity and I hope that he accepts that. The fact that we are spending so much time considering the issue is a sign of its importance and of our understanding of the concerns about it on both sides of the House. When we have reached a conclusion, we will of course come back to the House.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

First, why was there no cross-party negotiation in Northern Ireland before that initiative was announced? Secondly, while we generally support the Government's Northern Ireland policy, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that if he tries to force the policy through without due consideration for the feelings of victims, friends and families and the application of justice, as they see it, the Liberal Democrats, and I am sure other parties too—perhaps even members of the Labour party—will oppose it in this Chamber and the other?

Dr. Reid

I should explain that this question arose out of discussions that took place at the inception of the Belfast agreement. It is an anomaly that has to be addressed as a logical outflow of some of the agreements reached then, including the difficult and for many people painful agreement on the release of paramilitary prisoners. I am the first to accept the depth of feeling on the issue. I hope that the fact that we have allowed people to know that it is under consideration has been useful. It certainly has been useful from the point of view that people have been less than reticent about making their views known on the subject. Obviously, that cannot but affect how we consider these matters.

I repeat that problems that have gone on for decades—indeed, in some cases centuries—on the island of Ireland cannot be resolved without dealing with some very difficult issues. I urge the hon. Gentleman and everyone else in the House, when they weigh in the balance the question of on-the-runs, to remember the context, which is a far better Northern Ireland as a result of such painful decisions than we have ever had in the history of that Province.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

In solving the difficulty that the Secretary of State and the Government have created for themselves, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee—with a yes or a no—that he will not use the royal prerogative to bypass Parliament?

Dr. Reid

I have told the hon. Gentleman that all these matters are under discussion—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] If the tragic and painful history of Northern Ireland could be summed up in yes and no answers, we would have solved it decades ago. It cannot be; nor can we reconcile the parties to a conflict that has lasted decades without being prepared to consider issues that are difficult and cause a great deal of pain. I have no problem listening to hon. Gentlemen and Ladies explain to us the difficulties, distaste and pain with which the issue of on-the-runs is addressed within the community in Northern Ireland, but I would tell them this, particularly in regard to the manner in which the issue is often raised by those on the Opposition Front Benches: we have made more progress in four years in Northern Ireland than we ever did in the many decades before that. We have done so because we have had the courage to confront issues that are controversial and painful. We are doing this in a solemn and detailed fashion on the question of on-the-runs—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I want to call Question 5.