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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 19:29 GMT
MPs vote to pass NI fugitive bill
Machine gun
There are 150 people on the run from terror charges
The government's controversial bill to allow paramilitary fugitives to return to Northern Ireland without facing prison has been passed by MPs.

The proposals cover up to 150 people wanted for crimes committed before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The bill attracted sustained criticism from unionists, the SDLP, opposition MPs and some Labour backbenchers.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said he understood "the pain and anguish" the legislation would cause.

Among those lobbying the prime minister were the families of four murdered Royal Ulster Constabulary police officers who met Mr Blair at Downing Street before the vote.

One of them, Phyllis Carrothers, said they had left disappointed.

"I'm an RUC widow and I asked Mr Blair, as a family man, to look at a photograph of my three children just prior to my husband's murder... and he really just had no answer," she said.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Should a terrorist be treated differently from any other murderer because his actions are inspired by his beliefs?
Megan, Cheshire UK

The legislation will deal with people suspected of terrorism who have not been brought to court and those who have fled prison.

Sinn Fein has repeatedly pressed for them to be able to return to Northern Ireland.

Under the legislation, paramilitary fugitives would have their cases heard by a special tribunal, but, if found guilty, would be freed on licence without having to go to jail.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said Mr Hain was proposing to give people who had "run away from their crime" the opportunity to avoid it "completely and utterly".

SDLP leader Mark Durkan denied that the proposals flowed from the Good Friday Agreement, whilst the DUP's William McCrea appeared close to tears whilst talking about close relatives who had lost their lives through terrorism.

Paul Murphy
The government should consider amendments, Paul Murphy said

He denounced the bill as an "attempt to appease IRA murderers".

Some Labour backbenchers, such as Frank Field and Kate Hoey, also criticised the bill.

Mr Field told MPs that a different standard was being set for those who he referred to as "white Protestant and Catholic terrorists" to that for "black Muslim terrorists".

Justice minister David Hanson told the Commons they would consider amendments on whether suspects should appear in person before the special tribunal.

He said this could happen once the measure reached the committee stage at Westminster.

It's part of bringing closure to NI's past, just as after the Agreement over 400 paramilitary prisoners were released on licence
Peter Hain
NI Secretary

The bill was passed by 310 votes to 262, a majority of 48.

A Conservative Party attempt to block the bill's second reading because it "creates an amnesty for terrorist fugitives" was rejected by 313 to 258, a government majority of 55.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy had earlier said the government should consider very seriously "sensible amendments" to its bill.

Mr Murphy acknowledged a 2003 deal did not require on-the-runs to appear in person before a special tribunal. But he said consideration should be given to deal with victims possibly having to appear, but not the accused.

Secretary of State Peter Hain defended the bill in the Commons debate.

How does he think that this legislation, which is really a wiping of the stone clear, how will that ever close what is in the hearts and the minds and the souls of those people?
Ian Paisley
DUP leader

Citing the previous Conservative government's decision to enter into secret contact with the IRA, Mr Hain said governments had to take difficult decisions to further the peace process.

DUP leader Ian Paisley said there could be no closure for relatives when no action had been taken over the deaths of 202 RUC officers moved into the "cold case" investigations.

"How does he think that this legislation, which is really a wiping of the stone clear, how will that ever close what is in the hearts and the minds and the souls of those people?" he said.

Ulster Unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon said the bill was "so morally wrong and so morally bankrupt" she could never vote for it.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Lembit Opik said it was "perverse" that on-the-runs should be allowed home whilst those exiled by paramilitaries remained outside Northern Ireland.

'No easy option'

Speaking earlier, Mr Hain denied the fugitives were getting an easy option.

"It's part of bringing closure to NI's past, just as after the Agreement over 400 paramilitary prisoners were released on licence," he said.

"If they breached the terms of these licences, as some did, they were hauled back in and this could happen to these people who are now outside the reach of the UK jurisdiction."

During Prime Minister's Question Time, Tony Blair said allowing paramilitary fugitives to return will cause a lot of pain and anguish, which is going to have to be dealt with.

The prime minister was responding to a question from DUP MP David Simpson, who asked Mr Blair what the British people would think if the killers of a female police officer in Bradford last Friday were granted an amnesty.

In response, Mr Blair said he understood "the pain and anguish" the legislation would cause.

"I hope he understands that as a result of the Good Friday Agreement those people convicted of terrorist offences before 1998 have been released, it is now necessary to deal with those who have not been convicted but nonetheless have been suspected of such offences," he said.




SEE ALSO:
Call to 'amend NI fugitive bill'
23 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
Fugitives plan 'will cause pain'
23 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
Blair defends NI fugitives plan
22 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
Dozens of fugitives could return
26 Oct 05 |  Northern Ireland
Ford hits out on prisoner issue
02 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland


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