Fugitive Bill now requires 'major surgery'

 

Proposed legislation to deal with paramilitary fugitives or on-the-runs will require "major surgery", the Northern Secretary has said. Dan Keenan, Northern News Editor, reports.

The Northern Ireland Offences Bill, which aims to resolve the question of those who were on the run and not covered by the prison release scheme, is now opposed by all Northern parties including Sinn Féin.

Peter Hain acknowledged that the Bill cannot continue its parliamentary passage "in its current form" and would require significant amendment.

In Dublin, the Government has said its plan to grant pardons to on-the-runs would not go ahead if the British legislation failed.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, Mr Hain said he did not know what changes he would make and he would consider the options in the weeks ahead.

"Now that Sinn Féin have done a U-turn and said they don't want the Bill anymore as it covers the security forces, as it always would have had to without some extraordinary clause exempting them . . . we simply can't proceed with the Bill in its current form." He said the Bill was widely criticised by opposition parties and senior MPs, including Mr Hain's predecessor Paul Murphy. "It will need major surgery, I'm very clear about that," Mr Hain said.

"But I am very reluctant to kill the Bill as people are asking me to, when that would leave unresolved this issue of on-the-run suspects never having to account for their actions . . . [ and] for victims to know that there is some end to it as well," he added.

"People will have to decide whether we bring an end to the past, in particular that victims receive some kind of acknowledgement and there is accountability for what was done, or whether we continue to be looking over our shoulders rather than moving forward to a new future."

Mr Hain also referred to unionist criticism of his call for political progress between the DUP and Sinn Féin within the next 12 months, or the next Assembly elections, set for May 2007, will be scrapped.

He said public opinion demanded that Assembly members make common cause for the sake of Northern Ireland. "It's a question of voters saying to them, 'if we are paying your salaries, we expect you to do your job'."

But Peter Robinson warned Mr Hain there was "less trust at the end of 2005 than there had been at the beginning of the year" between the DUP and republicans.

Both governments want all-party talks to begin if the next report by the IMC ceasefire watchdog confirms the IRA is inactive. Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin said Mr Hain's government should "lift their unilateral suspension of the institutions tomorrow".

Seán Farren of the SDLP said the two governments "must press ahead to restore the institutions of the Good Friday agreement".