27 December 2005

Hain may offer deal to win backing for IRA amnesty


Michael White, political editor
Tuesday December 27, 2005
The Guardian

The government is braced to make new year concessions on its controversial bill to give an amnesty to on-the-run IRA suspects in order to win the support of enough MPs and peers at Westminster to get the measure onto the statute book.

It is not yet clear what changes will have to be made. But the source of most criticism and anger is that - as the bill stands - none of the suspects involved would even have to make a court appearance.

Victims and their families have been offended by that prospect and Paul Murphy, the former Northern Ireland secretary, told MPs last month: "I would have a great deal of sympathy with such an amendment." Without Liberal Democrat backing the bill will not get through the Lords. Ministers are privately exploring renewed cooperation with the new Conservative leadership of David Cameron, although constructive exchanges between the current secretary of state, Peter Hain, and Mr Cameron hit a bumpy patch in the road yesterday after a critical interview given by Mr Hain was belatedly published.

Mr Hain's call for a return to the kind of bipartisan approach to the Northern Ireland peace process which characterised the support Tony Blair gave John Major a decade ago prompted a sharp response from David Lidington, the Tory spokesman, who accused the minister of picking a fight "on very weak ground".

The Northern Ireland Offences bill, which would allow terror suspects - who have never faced court for alleged outrages committed before the 1998 Good Friday agreement - to escape jail, got a Commons second reading last month. But the 310-272 majority failed to convey the depth of anger expressed by opposition parties and had even Mr Hain's immediate predecessor, Mr Murphy, acknowledging sympathy for some changes.

Sinn Féin, the one party to have backed the bill as removing a roadblock to a restored Stormont administration, last week withdrew support after its supporters realised that an amnesty would also apply to British soldiers who may have been involved in illegal killings.

The ePolitix website yesterday published an interview with Mr Hain in which he complained it was a "great shame" that the Tories had been so harsh on the on-the-run bill, compared with Labour's broad support for Mr Major's efforts.

Mr Lidington later retorted that he tried to give ministers the benefit of the doubt: "But on this bill we are looking at something that would allow people who have committed barbaric murders, things like the Enniskillen Poppy Day massacre, to go free without serving one day in prison or even appearing themselves in court."

The Hain interview was given earlier this month, the day before Mr Cameron went to Belfast and made supportive remarks about the need to trust the government's explanation for abandoning the "Stormontgate" prosecution over the alleged IRA spy ring against rival parties.

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