15 December 2005

Northern Ireland Fugitives Bill denounced

::: u.tv :::

The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill was tonight labelled one of the worst pieces of legislation produced by a British government in the province.

By:Press Association
THURSDAY 15/12/2005 16:43:59

In a hard hitting attack following the completion of the Bill`s committee stage at Westminster, nationalist SDLP leader Mark Durkan denounced the government for agreeing to look again at only one issue - whether people accused of murder during the Troubles should be forced to take part in special tribunals considering their cases.

The Foyle MP said: "That exposes the British government`s total intransigence in its defence of this Hain/Adams Bill.

"It shows their blatant contempt for the real feeling of backbench MPs since all have objections to it.

"The fact is that this remains one of the worst pieces of legislation on Ireland ever proposed at Westminster.

"It still covers state killers. It still allows loyalists to benefit without having decommissioned a single bullet or ended their activity.

"It still robs victims of any chance of truth. Because there is no time limit, killers can afford to sit back and see if the police come knocking on the door - knowing that if they do, they will still not face a day in prison.

"It still allows on-the-runs to come back, even though exiles can`t.

"It still does not give victims even the right to be informed that somebody has applied under this legislation."

The Bill proposes that people suspected of offences before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement can apply for a special licence to ensure they will never be arrested or sent to jail in Northern Ireland.

They must apply to a certification commissioner who will ask the police if the individual is suspected of a crime during the Troubles.

If they are, applicants will be issued with a certificate listing the offence they are suspected of and guaranteeing they will not be arrested if they set foot in Northern Ireland.

The certificate will also set in train a special tribunal, with its own judge and legal team, which will hold public hearings to consider whether the applicant is guilty or innocent.

In the original legislation there was no obligation in the Bill on the suspect to appear at the tribunal.

If the suspect is found guilty, they will be issued with a licence similar to that given to prisoners released early from jail under the Good Friday Agreement, which will guarantee they will not have to serve time behind bars unless they become involved again in terrorist activity.

The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Democratic Unionists, SDLP, Ulster Unionists, the cross community Alliance Party, victims groups and human rights organisations have all been fiercely critical of the Bill.

A bitter war of words has, in particular, erupted between nationalists, with the SDLP accusing Sinn Fein of negotiating a scheme which would not just allow on-the-run IRA members to return to Northern Ireland but also enable members of the security forces who colluded in loyalist murders to avoid jail.

Sinn Fein has insisted it never approved or discussed with the British and Irish governments the inclusion of Royal Ulster Constabulary or British soldiers in the scheme.

The Government`s commitment to look again at the issue of suspects appearing before special tribunals was welcomed by DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson and cross community Alliance Party leader David Ford.

But they warned the Government it did not make the legislation acceptable, with Mr Ford insisting ministers must link the scheme to the safe return of people exiled from Northern Ireland by loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

During his first visit to Belfast as Conservative leader, David Cameron insisted those suspected of crimes appear before the special tribunal.

Mr Cameron said: "My party in parliament has been very, very clear that people who have committed dreadful crimes in the past must appear in court and I think that this has been a real block.

"I gather the government is making some moves on that and we will respond constructively to them."

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