04 December 2005

Police chiefs slate Hain bill as 'odious'

Times Online

Liam Clarke
December 04, 2005

SENIOR police officers will today join the widespread opposition to the Northern Ireland Offences Bill, which frees anyone guilty of murder or other crimes during the Troubles of the fear of imprisonment.

Chief superintendent Stephen Grange has warned that the bill risks undermining public confidence in the entire criminal justice system. Grange, who is the police commander in south Belfast, made his comments in a submission by the Superintendents’ Association of Northern Ireland to David Hanson, the security minister, which will be made public today.

Grange said his members had been particularly incensed by provisions in the bill that grant members of the security forces the same benefits and privileges as terrorist suspects.

“We are not aware of any officers who are outside the UK avoiding justice. Any police officer or soldier who has broken the law should undergo due process like any other citizen,” he said.

The bill, which enters committee stage in the House of Commons this week, is the result of a 2003 agreement between the British government and Sinn Fein to allow on-the-run terrorist suspects (OTRs) to return home without fear of imprisonment.

It provides for anyone in a paramilitary group on recognised ceasefire who is suspected of a Troubles-related offence to be tried by a special tribunal. The bill allows the suspects full legal aid and does not require them to attend the tribunal or answer questions. If they are found guilty, the conviction goes on their record but they are immediately released on licence.

When he introduced the bill last month Peter Hain, the secretary of state, said that in order to be even-handed he would allow any members of the security forces who were charged with collusion or other offences committed before the signing of the Good Friday agreement to be treated in the same favourable way.

The superintendents’ association is enraged by the concession, which it condemns as an “odious linkage, indeed equivalence” between “terrorist suspects who have fled justice” and “serving/former police officers, or members of Her Majesty’s armed forces”.

Opposition to the bill now extends to all political parties in Northern Ireland. Even Sinn Fein, which was alone in welcoming the bill, now says it does not agree with its present form. It is also opposed by all the opposition parties in the House of Commons and influential Labour backbenchers including Kate Hoey and Paul Murphy, Hain’s predecessor.

Both nationalist and republican victims’ groups have demanded that the act be scrapped, and senior British government officials privately concede that amendments will have to be made.

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