07 December 2005

Politicians debate 250 alterations to 'On The Runs' Bill

Belfast Telegraph

By Brian Walker
07 December 2005

The Secretary of State has said the Government will keep its word to Sinn Fein by not forcing IRA fugitives to appear in court when they return to Northern Ireland.

But he has hinted he could be forced to compromise if the majority view in Parliament is weighted against it.

Mr Hain was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph hours after MPs of all parties attending the Commons unleashed a bitter attack against the Bill on the first day of detailed scrutiny in committee.

Committee sessions will extend over the next two Tuesdays and Thursdays and MPs may sit into the small hours picking apart 250 amendments.

This record number of proposed alterations is designed to bury the Bill under its own weight. The Government may seek a truce with MPs later but is adopting a "wait and see " attitude now.

Leading for the DUP, Peter Robinson called the Bill "profane and unacceptable in every direction."

To SDLP leader Mark Durkan it was "the most awful legislation to do with Ireland that the House has ever had in front of it."

Joining the chorus, Ulster Unionist Sylvia Hermon predicted it would never make it through the Lords.

It is when the Lords seek to block the Bill that ministers are likely to offer concessions.

Commenting on the latest attacks, Mr Hain held out hopes of a compromise over demands to set a formal time limit on the whole process. He will have powers to do so himself.

"On the time limit, there may not be a lot of difference," he said.

Asked if he thought Sinn Fein would stop co-operating if the Bill was changed to compel offenders to plead before tribunals in person, he replied that "any party that does not attend Parliament to persuade their fellow members on the detail of the Bill, though not its principle, have only themselves to blame."

On Gerry Adams' objections to including the security forces in the conditional amnesty he said: "I will not accept their removal. I took the decision to include them with the Prime Minister's full support in the late summer."

The issue of bringing the security forces within the scope of the Bill produced the first crack in the parties' united front, when Mark Durkan was pressed by Peter Robinson.

Asked by the DUP deputy leader to say if he would oppose an outcome which would benefit terrorists but not the security forces, Mr Durkan said he "saw no problem in holding the governments to account on the original premise of the legislation ".

Mr Hain said he would "wait and see " what changes opposition parties could unite around.

But he added: "The principle of the OTRs Bill, including their non-appearance before the tribunal, was agreed at Weston Park."

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