NORTHERN IRELAND – NI (OFFENCES) BILL – 23 November 2005
Dr Julian Lewis: Has the Secretary of State received any indication from the IRA or its political representatives that they will return to violence if he does not take this further step beyond the agreement?
[The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Peter Hain): No. However, rightly or wrongly – the hon. Gentleman takes the view that it is wrong, and I respect that; indeed, that view is being expressed very vehemently today, and I understand that – Her Majesty's Government entered into two agreements that have led to this Bill being introduced. The first was an international agreement with the Irish Government, and that cannot be lightly disregarded. Any responsible Government would have felt that that was the right thing to do to get to where we are – and we have got there. Secondly, as part of the negotiations that led to that process and then to the 28 July statement by the IRA, yes, this was one of the factors in those negotiations and an agreement was made there. Yes, this is following the 28 July statement, but it was part of the process that led to this historic change by the IRA, which I know was welcomed by the hon. Gentleman and every other hon. Member.]
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Dr Lewis: As I understand it, the Secretary of State is saying that if a former serving soldier were charged and chose to try and resist acknowledging guilt, and opted to go through the whole judicial process, he might clear his name, but he could be found guilty. If he were found guilty, could he then use the new procedure to walk free? If he could not, he would in a sense have been blackmailed to accept a false rap and plead guilty in advance so that he could use the new procedure.
[Mr Hain: ... The paratrooper, or any other member of the Armed Forces, would face a choice. He could plead not guilty or guilty to the charge. Let us say that the Saville inquiry identifies an individual, who is then the subject of investigation by the police, arrested, charged and faces prosecution. He can then choose. Normally, he would go through the existing criminal justice system – the normal Crown Court route. He could plead his innocence throughout, but if convicted he could, in principle, serve a very long prison sentence. I took a deliberate decision – I need not have done so – to avail a soldier in that position of the option of the special process, which could leave him with a conviction, but still pleading his innocence, and with release on licence, so that he did not have to serve the sentence.]
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Dr Lewis: Let us return to the options facing a soldier who took part in an operation such as Loughall, which, I believe, had ministerial prior approval, and who finds himself accused. As I understand it from what the Secretary of State said, he has the option of, in a sense, accepting his guilt, even if he thinks he is innocent, and going through the special procedure, or fighting the case through the courts, where he may be found guilty. Let us suppose that he thinks he is innocent, but does not want to take the risk of being found guilty and serving a sentence. The temptation for him to take the new procedure and accept a guilt that he does not feel will be overwhelming. The historical record will be distorted, because he will have pleaded guilty to something for which no guilty plea was required.
[Mr Hain: As the issue has been raised, let me again say that a serving or retired soldier –whatever member of the Security Forces he may be – is not forced to plead guilty at all. He can plead his innocence all the way through the process, through the special court or through the normal court procedure – he can choose either. The advantage of him choosing the special court procedure is that he can take advantage of not having to serve a prison sentence if he is found guilty. He may be acquitted, in which case there would be no stain on his character, just as there would not be following such a case in a normal Crown Court.]
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Dr Lewis: I thank the right hon. Gentleman [Paul Murphy] for his generosity in giving way. Does he accept that the reason we are in a more peaceful situation has very much to do with the work of the soldiers and the Security Forces who were in the front line throughout the years of the troubles? Will he, therefore, from his experience throw light on the circumstances under which it was decided that there would be a historic review of any and every operation in which they were previously involved, which will far from reassure them that their work is appreciated or that their future is secured?
[Mr Murphy: I can certainly say that so far as the so-called cold cases were concerned, with the police, for example, I thought it very important that closure was brought to the cases of hundreds of police officers who had lost their lives when there had been no conclusion in terms of getting to the bottom of those cases.]