11 January 2006

Government scraps fugitive plans

BBC

The government's controversial proposals on paramilitary fugitives are being withdrawn, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain has said.

The legislation would have seen those accused of paramilitary crimes before 1998 appear in front of a special tribunal, then be freed on licence.

Mr Hain told Parliament the legislation was necessary but, Sinn Fein's rejection of it made it unworkable.

He also said he wanted to hold talks on restoring devolution in February.

But he said the the issue of dealing with those accused of paramilitary crime who were "on-the-run" would not go away.

"When I introduced this Bill I said that I would not presume to tell any victim that they must draw a line under the past," he said.

"But the government remains of the view that this anomaly will need at some stage to be faced as part of the process of moving forward.

"It is regrettable that Northern Ireland is not yet ready to do so.

"We will reflect carefully over the coming months on how to move forward on this issue, in the context of dealing with the legacy of the past.

"We will not rush to conclusions. I will take stock in the autumn."

All the major political parties in Northern Ireland had rejected the legislation.

The scrapped government plans for "on-the-runs" covered up to 150 people wanted for crimes committed before 1998.

They would have their cases heard by a special tribunal and, if found guilty, would have been freed on licence without having to go to jail.

Republicans had objected to the inclusion of security force members in the scheme.

Drift

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the decision by Peter Hain to withdraw the "on-the-run" bill proved it had been unacceptable.

"It was a major breach of what was agreed at Weston Park and a serious act of bad faith by the British government," he said.

Earlier, Mr Hain said elections due in May 2007 had to be meaningful.

"We therefore need to make progress urgently. We cannot let things drift," he said.

"I am therefore asking each of the political parties to agree dates for substantial discussions in early February with the British and Irish Governments to give their views on the way forward to restore the political institutions.

"The prime minister, together with the taoiseach, will be closely involved with developments during the year."

He said there was public resentment at the continued payment of assembly member salaries and allowances totalling on average £85,000 per member.

Since it was suspended in October 2002, the assembly has cost £78m to maintain, he said.

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