Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 5 May 1999

Vol. 504 No. 2

Criminal Justice (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill, 1999: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

On 27 April 1999, on behalf of the Government, I signed an agreement with the Government of the United Kingdom to establish an independent commission for the location of victims' remains. The establishment of this commission followed signals from Sinn Féin that actions of the kind now being taken by both Governments would facilitate the recovery of the remains of victims of violence. This is an important and worthwhile development. For the community in Northern Ireland as a whole, it represents another step in the ongoing process of healing within and between communities. It also brings us a step closer to ending the serious injustice which has long been endured by the families who have been denied information about the burial place of their loved ones.

Deputies will recall that the Good Friday Agreement specifically provided that it was essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation. In this context, the Bill before the House will help to bring to an end another sad chapter in the troubled history of this island.

It is regrettable that it is necessary to bring a measure of this nature before the House. The Bill has one purpose, to provide a framework to facilitate the location of the remains of victims. It sets out to do no more and no less than what is necessary to facilitate that process. It is important to say without equivocation, because there has been some confusion on this point, that this Bill does not contain an amnesty in respect of any offence. Instead what is at issue is excluding the use by the prosecution of evidence resulting from the process for which the Bill provides.

To those who harbour misgivings about the limited immunities which are provided for, I say that the road to peace and reconciliation is never an easy one, and every section of society must be prepared to compromise if we are to achieve our objectives of peace, harmony and mutual respect on this island. It would have been preferable if the need for this legislation had never arisen. However, government often involves making difficult decisions in the face of competing concerns. In this instance, without this legislation and the agreement, the location of the remains of the victims might never be revealed and the families of the victims would be faced with the additional pain and suffering of not knowing where the remains of their loved ones are. Humanity and compassion surely dictate that if there is an opportunity to lessen that pain and suffering, we must do all we can to seize that opportunity.

By necessity, the timetable for the passage of this legislation is relatively tight. In this context, I acknowledge in particular the co-operation of the Opposition spokespersons, Deputies Flanagan and Howlin, in having the matter debated this evening. They share my concern for the feelings of the families of the victims. Above all else, we should try to lessen their suffering by passing this Bill as quickly as is prudently possible, thereby facilitating the recovery of the remains – nothing less will suffice.

The Bill provides for an independent international commission, as established under the agreement between the Irish and British Governments, signed on 27 April 1999, to facilitate the location of the remains of victims of paramilitary violence killed prior to 10 April 1998. The date 10 April 1998 is an appropriate date given that it was the date of the Good Friday Agreement. Against this background, the Bill provides that the functions and membership of the commission shall be as set out in articles 3 and 4 of the agreement; for a prohibition on the use of evidence resulting from the process and for the confidentiality of information provided to the commission in relation to the process; and for immunities and privileges etc. relating to the commission.

The background to the Bill is as follows. On 29 March 1999 the Government approved the draft text of a statement to be issued concerning an initiative to locate the graves of missing people from Northern Ireland. That statement indicated that the Government was prepared to facilitate a process in relation to the locating of the remains through introducing legislation to the effect that evidence resulting from that process could not be used in the prosecution of offences. Shortly afterwards the Provisional IRA issued a statement to the effect that it had succeeded in locating the remains of nine victims. Lengthy and detailed discussions have taken place with the UK authorities with a view to putting in place a framework for the process of locating the remains of victims. This culminated in the signing of the agreement on April 27. It is only right to place on record my personal appreciation for the personal and tireless interest taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in making progress on this matter.

The Bill provides for the appointment of a commission and specifies that the objective of the commission shall be to facilitate the location of the remains of victims. The commission shall consist of not fewer than two members to be appointed jointly by the two Governments. There are standard provisions relating to appointments, procedures etc. and the provision to the commission of such moneys, premises, facilities and services, including staff, as may be necessary.

The Bill provides that evidence resulting from the process shall not be admissible by or on behalf of the prosecution in proceedings for an offence. It also provides for a similar bar on forensic testing to that contained in the Decommissioning Act but testing will be allowed to the extent that such testing is necessary, for inquest purposes, to establish the identity of the victim and how, when and where he or she died, or to determine whether an item can be safely moved or otherwise dealt with.

The Bill places an obligation on the commission to maintain confidentiality in relation to the information disclosed to it. This is a central provision in the Bill. However, there is a provision which would allow, at the discretion of the commission, the family of a victim to be told that information has been given to the commission relating to the location of the remains of the victim and the place where, according to the information, the remains may be found. The Bill also provides for immunities etc. in relation to the commission. There is also provision for the issue of search warrants to the Garda Síochána on the basis of certificates provided by the commission that the remains of a victim are likely to be found at a particular place.

As regards the Freedom of Information Act, it is envisaged, for obvious reasons, that there would be no question of the Minister for Finance making an order the effect of which would be to make the commission a public body to which that Act would apply. However, it is necessary to amend the Freedom of Information Act to ensure that information provided by the commission to public bodies, or from public bodies to the commission, can be fully protected. The Bill also contains standard provisions relating to the submission of reports by the commission, the dissolution of the commission when it is considered no longer necessary for it to remain in being, expenses, short title and commencement.

I will now deal with each section of the Bill. Section 1 is a standard provision providing for certain necessary definitions. In particular, "victim of violence" has the meaning assigned to it in article 3(3)(a) of the agreement, namely "persons killed before 10 April 1998 as a result of acts committed on behalf of, or in connection with, an unlawful organisation". An "unlawful organisation" is defined in article 3(3)(b) of the agreement as an unlawful organisation within the meaning of the Offences Against the State Act, 1939, in respect of which a suppression order has been made, or an organisation proscribed for the purposes of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1996.

Section 2 provides that the commission will be independent in the performance of its functions and will have the legal capacity of a body corporate. This is in line with article 2 of the agreement. Section 3 provides that the objective and functions of the commission, referred to in section 1 as "the process", are as set out in article 3 of the agreement.

The objective of the commission is to facilitate the location of the remains of victims of violence. The functions of the commission are: to receive information relating to the location of the remains of such victims; to disclose such information for the purpose of facilitating the location of remains to which the information relates; and to report on its activities to both Governments no later than one year after its establishment and annually thereafter.

The membership and terms of appointment of the commission and the appointment of staff shall be as set out in article 4 of the agreement. The commission shall have not fewer than two members appointed jointly by the two Governments. The two Governments may, if they so wish, jointly appoint one of the members to act as chairperson. The terms and conditions of the members will be determined by the two Governments. The commission may appoint staff to assist in the discharge of its functions on such terms and conditions as the commission, with the agreement of the two Governments, may determine.

In line with article 8 of the agreement, the commission will be required to keep proper accounts and, at the request of the two Governments, will appoint auditors who shall audit its accounts. Section 4 will enable the Minister to provide to the commission such moneys, premises, facilities and services, including staff, as may be necessary for the proper functioning of the commission. This is in line with article 6 of the agreement.

Section 5 provides that any evidence obtained, directly or indirectly, whether inside or outside the State, resulting from the process, shall not be admissible on behalf of the prosecution in any criminal proceedings. Neither will any evidence resulting from a test or examination carried out for the purpose of establishing, for the purposes of an inquest, the identity of a victim, or how, when and where he or she died. In addition, any evidence resulting from a test or procedure the purpose of which is to determine whether an item found can safely be moved or otherwise dealt with, will also be inadmissible. Tests or forensic examinations on any substance or thing found resulting from the process for any other purposes shall not be permitted.

Section 6, in line with article 7 of the agreement, provides that no information provided to the commission in relation to the process shall be disclosed to any person except for the purpose of facilitating the location of the remains to which the information relates. However, the commission may disclose or arrange for the disclosure to members of the victim's family that information has been provided to the commission relating to the location of the remains of the victim and the place, where, according to that information, the remains may be found. Needless to say, ensuring the confidentiality of information provided to the commission is an essential requirement in the process.

Section 7 provides that the Minister may, by order, make provision to the effect that the commission, its property and certain persons, as set out in the section, shall be afforded certain immunities and privileges etc. This is in line with article 5 of the agreement. Such provision is considered necessary given that the proposed commission will be an international body and given the need to ensure that the commission can give absolute assurances about maintaining confidentiality in relation to information provided to it. There is a similar provision in respect of the Decommissioning Commission in the 1997 Decommissioning Act. An order under this section shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after such an order is made. The order may be annulled if a resolution to that effect is passed by either House within the next 21 sitting days after the order has been laid before the House.

Section 8 provides that a search warrant may be issued by a Judge of the District Court if satisfied that the commission has certified that the remains of a victim are likely to be found in a particular place or premises. A person who obstructs a Garda acting under the authority of a search warrant will be guilty of an offence and if convicted shall be liable to a fine of up to £1,500 and or imprisonment for a period of up to six months.

Section 9 proposes an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act, 1997.

The Freedom of Information Act would not apply to the commission itself as it is not intended that the Minister for Finance would make an order declaring it to be a public body under the Act. There is, however, as I have already explained, a need to protect communications between the commission and public bodies.

Section 25 of the Freedom of Information Act, subject to certain safeguards, allows for the issue of a ministerial certificate to the effect that applications for disclosure of certain information may be refused because the record is exempt under section 23 or section 24 of that Act. The Bill provides that the same FOI regime would apply to communications between public bodies and the commission as applies to other sensitive information currently covered under sections 23 and 24 of the Freedom of Information Act. In effect this would mean that such information will be subject to the same regime which applies to information such as sensitive security information and information affecting relations with Northern Ireland.

Section 10 provides that a member, or a member of staff of the commission, or a person performing functions assigned to him or her by the commission, or an agent of the commission, shall not be required to attend an inquest in relation to any matter within his or her knowledge resulting from the process. This provision is considered necessary in the context of assuring confidentiality in relation to information supplied to the commission.

Section 11 provides that the Minister may, after consultation with the Secretary of State, dissolve the commission, in line with article 10 of the agreement. In doing so, the Minister may provide for such transitional or consequential provisions as appear to him or her to be expedient. Thus, it would be possible to wind down the commission in a manner which would allow for the meeting of any liabilities and for the disposal of any remaining assets of the commission in an orderly manner. Sections 12 and 13 are standard provisions providing for payment of expenses arising under the Act, the short title, and commencement.

The troubles on this island over the past 30 years or so have given rise to thousands of victims and it would be invidious to compare the levels of suffering endured by any one group or community. However, I believe there is a widespread acceptance that the plight of the families of victims whose remains have not yet been recovered has been an especially harrowing one.

The Government is confident that the Bill, following on the agreement signed last Wednesday, taken together with the similar legislation which is being put through the British Parliament, will encourage those who may have information about the secret burial places of victims to make that information known to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains. The Government believes, that providing this information is no more than justice and basic humanity require and deserve.

I look forward to a constructive and informed debate. I thank the Opposition spokespersons for their co-operation and all who helped make this day possible, especially Deputy Currie who has expressed an interest in this matter in this House and elsewhere over many years. I commend this Bill to the House.

I propose to share my time with Deputy Currie.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Fine Gael will not oppose this extraordinary Bill. This is not legislation which can be enthusiastically or warmly welcomed. It is only with the greatest reluctance that such legislation should ever be contemplated or enacted by a democratic Parliament. Murder is the most fundamental crime of all. The basis of our criminal law is that criminals, particularly those convicted of committing serious crime, will be tracked down, brought to trial, charged, convicted and obliged to face the consequences of their crime in open court and prison thereafter. This legislation runs counter to any normal understanding of the nature of justice.

The republican movement has shown a wanton disregard of the basic human rights of the disappeared people of Northern Ireland. They were abducted, in many cases tortured, and then murdered on the whim of self-appointed judges. In many cases lies and malicious propaganda were spread to blacken their names. In the final inhuman indignity, their bodies were dumped in unmarked graves. This is the greatest shame of all on the republican movement.

Sinn Féin and the IRA place great emphasis on their dead. Funerals, graveside orations and the remembrance of their dead are central to republican ideology. It is part of human nature to want to bury our dead and bring a certain closure to the grief of relatives. Shame on the IRA and Sinn Féin who have for so long refused to grant to others what they so loudly demand for themselves.

That the IRA is only now considering the possibility of identifying where these bodies are buried is due to the unwavering persistence of the relatives of the disappeared and the determination shown by many public figures, not least my colleague, Deputy Currie, who has consistently pursued this matter with vigour. There are considerations surrounding the issue of the disappeared people which have a wider application in Northern Ireland and warrant further debate.

It has suited the political agenda of many people to blur the difference between the victims of violence and the perpetrators of violence and to portray all who were involved in violence as victims. We should be clear on where we stand. There is no moral equivalence between the perpetrators of violence and the victims of violence. To try to make such an equivalence is a further violation of and insult to victims. A great deal more thoughtful consideration should be given to how the needs of victims of violence might be more adequately catered for. It is important that the surviving victims of violence be given the opportunity to record their experiences and their loss. Their stories need to be told and heard.

Some variation on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission might have some application on this island. There seems to be a compelling human need to establish the truth and the facts surrounding particular events. This is why the new inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday is welcome and why we should consider a new inquiry into the events surrounding the Monaghan and Dublin bombings. Perhaps such a new inquiry is necessary in the circumstances.

It is also important that the most positive and active consideration be given to establishing, by way of independent inquiry, allegations of RUC collusion or acts of omission on the part of the police force in relation to the deaths of solicitors, Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson. Establishing facts and reaching some truth has a redemptive quality, which should not be underestimated. It is better to face the possibility or reality of collusion and cover up, rather than allow the poison of suspicion to fester and infect.

The material, physical and psychological well being of the surviving victims must be higher on the political agenda. As part of the Good Friday Agreement we have seen the rapid release of many prisoners who committed appalling acts of violence. They are now free, while many of their victims carry a life sentence from which death will be the only release. The time has come for the Irish Government to make a significant annual contribution to victim support organisations in Northern Ireland. This could be done in consultation with the Northern Ireland Office and would be a welcome sign of our commitment to the necessary long-term policies of conflict resolution.

The Bill, as the Minister stated, is something which we, as democratic politicians, must consider, albeit reluctantly, as necessary. Section 5 is a most extraordinary section. The Minister referred in his speech to limited immunity and said this is not a blanket amnesty. We might consider this matter in some detail on Committee Stage.

The Minister might also refer to the composition of the commission. It has been reported that a person such as Sir Kenneth Bloomfield may be considered a likely chairman of the commission. Perhaps the Minister will be in a position to inform the House before the debate concludes of the Irish membership of the commission. Consideration might be given to the nomination of the former Tánaiste, John Wilson, given his role in regard to the position of victims. The legislation states the composition of the commission shall be not less than two, but it does not state how many it should be. Perhaps the Minister might elaborate on the number of members of the commission.

There are other aspects which we must consider. Given the extraordinary nature of this legislation, perhaps we should consider a repeal date upon which this legislation will become defunct, annulled or repealed. I see no reason a time frame, such as a year, might not be placed on the legislation. I would like to hear the Minister's views on that.

This legislation is part of the process which we have become accustomed to terming "conflict resolution". Another vital element must be a clear unequivocal statement from the IRA that its campaign of violence is over for good. The Republican movement, as a whole, must commit itself to the exclusive use of peaceful means to bring about political change. The guns and weapons of violence must be silenced and put out of commission to the satisfaction of the international decommissioning body. The new political dispensation, which is outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, means Republicans must now leave the armalite firmly behind and depend solely on their strength at the ballot box.

The road to conflict resolution must be ongoing dialogue based on mutual respect. We are all aware of the duration and intensity of effort required to arrive at the Good Friday Agreement. We are all very conscious of the difficulty surrounding particular issues, such as Drumcree, which have taken on a symbolic status. I give a warm welcome to the recent initiative on Drumcree. Elected representatives have a central and crucial role to play in conflict resolution and their efforts must be supported in every possible way.

There are aspects of the Northern Ireland situation and Drumcree which demand intense dialogue by other organisations. I refer here to the sectarian undertones of the Northern Ireland conflict. This sectarianism spills into the open at Drumcree at Harryville and in the frequent arson attacks on churches and other places of worship and the regular sectarian attacks on individuals and family homes. The Christian churches on our two islands need to address more forthrightly the history of sectarianism and its current day manifestations.

Just as the people of Ireland were prepared to make fundamental changes in our political systems, including constitutional changes of a profound nature last May, so also should the Christian churches take a deep look at their basic documents and current practices, with a view to confronting sectarianism. The Roman Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian traditions need to undergo a deeper process of reconciliation. No Christian tradition should define itself in opposition to another tradition or question the integrity of the deep traditions of faith held sincerely by another.

Christianity is not a political force and Christian churches need to be careful about being identified with particular traditions. Perhaps, the heads of all the Christian traditions on these islands might consider a deeper programme of reflection which might, in time, lead to formal public ceremonies of forgiveness and reconciliation. Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, would be an appropriate location for such a programme of work and for public rituals of reconciliation between the various Christian traditions.

At times such as the present, the political process surrounding Northern Ireland seems to be agonisingly slow. If we are ever tempted to falter we should look back and see what has already been accomplished. The achievements of the past five years are both substantial and real. The prospects for the future, despite present hurdles and difficulties, are also very bright.

Later this week we will see the election of a new parliament in Scotland and a new assembly in Wales. We are on the threshold of a new, exciting, dynamic matrix of relationships between all the peoples of our two islands.

Although this legislation may be particularly hard to accept, we are willing to do so for the greater good. At the same time, however, we must not be tempted to forget or ignore the concerns of victims. Attention to the well-being of victims, in all its aspects, must be a central element in the evolving peace process.

On Hallowe'en night 1975 a young man, Columba McVeigh, from my home village, left his flat in Dolphin's Barn, in this city and jurisdiction. He told his girlfriend he was just popping out for a few moments to buy a packet of cigarettes. He took nothing with him, apart from the clothes he was wearing. He never came back; he disappeared. He left behind in Donaghmore, County Tyrone, a father, mother, two brothers and a sister. Their long purgatory began that Hallowe'en night. They never gave up hoping there was some explanation other than the obvious one. When his father died a few years ago the obituary notice in the local newspapers and the Irish News included Columba's name among the grieving relatives. What better testimony could there be to a family which had not given up hope?

I welcome the possibility that at last his body is to receive a Christian burial and that his relatives will have a focus for their grieving. I have been pursuing this matter for many years. If the Minister checks the relevant file in his Department he will see the record of the representations I have made since shortly after Columba's disappearance in this jurisdiction.

While I welcome the possibility that the body is to be recovered and to receive a Christian burial, at this stage I share the scepticism expressed by some of the relatives. After 24 years I will only believe it when I stand in Donaghmore graveyard and see the mortal remains of Columba lowered into the family grave, it having been certified by DNA testing or some other method that they are his mortal remains.

I give no credit to the IRA. Even in pre-Christian times, bodies were returned on the cessation of hostilities. These people considered themselves barbarous and in many respects we also consider them barbarous. However, at least they had the humanity to return their opponents' bodies. In this case, the original murderous act has been compounded by a quarter of a century of inhumanity.

Four years ago, in a controversial edition of the "Late Late Show", I put this point to the president of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams. Under pressure, he promised on that occasion that he would ensure the bodies were returned, but the hopes raised among the relatives at that time festered some time ago. The recent IRA statement added insult to injury. The IRA took these people's lives and then attempted to take away their reputations. Columba McVeigh was branded an informer by the IRA in its recent statement. He was 17 years of age when this started. The British army raided the family home and a cigarette packet was found in Columba's room. It contained two or three bullets, no doubt planted by the security forces. Columba McVeigh told me the story and that is what he and his family believed.

From the beginning, this young man of 17 years was caught between the British army and the RUC on the one hand and the IRA on the other. When he was remanded to Crumlin Road prison for the alleged possession of these bullets, he was subjected to considerable intimidation and interrogation. Many questions remain as to what happened when he came out with the people on whom he relied and from whom he sought assistance, what advice they gave him and why they gave it.

He was an innocent young man. I knew him, his parents, brothers and sister. They are still my friends. Perhaps "naive" is a better word to describe him. At 17 years of age he was murdered and now he is to be branded an informer. Whatever evidence the IRA had must have been of the flimsiest nature. That is also the case with regard to the evidence upon which a number of other disappeared people were sentenced to be executed. Who murdered them? Who were the individuals who abducted Columba in this city, probably from the local pub he frequented to buy his cigarettes? I cannot be sure although I have my suspicions. There have been persistent rumours over the years and I believe I know who was responsible.

Even more important, who sanctioned his murder? Who sanctioned the murder of the other disappeared people? People who know about the workings of the IRA are aware that murders of alleged informers required sanction from the topof that organisation. I believe I know and the Minister has a good idea who was responsible for sanctioning the murder of Columba McVeigh and others like him. When I see this leading member of Sinn Féin appear on television looking as if butter would not melt in his mouth and when I read reports of his graveside orations over the graves of the martyred dead, I feel nauseated. That individual has a terrible responsibility on his conscience, if he has a conscience.

It was suggested that the people responsible for these murders would get off scot free. I welcome the Minister's assurance that there is not to be an amnesty. However, I am a realist. The passing of this legislation will reduce considerably the chances of those responsible ever being made amenable to justice. That is the reality. I do not like that. Those responsible should pay for their murderous inhumanity and I hope they will some day, either in this life or the next.

We must pass this legislation in order to have these bodies returned to their relatives and to ensure they are given a Christian burial. The relatives will be able to go to the local churchyard and will have a focus for their grieving. All uncertainty in relation to the fate of the disappeared will be removed. That is something worthwhile which I have pursued for a considerable period of time. Therefore, I must recognise the reality and agree with the Minister's response to people such as I who harbour misgivings about this legislation. He said the road to peace and reconciliation is never an easy one and every section of society must be prepared to compromise if the objectives of peace, harmony and mutual respect are to be achieved on this island. I accept that. I think of the relatives of the victims whose murderers have been released and are walking freely in the community. I know the pain that causes but that is part of the price we must pay.

Nine bodies are due to be returned. What about the other seven who are classified as disappeared and about whom the IRA says it will not provide information? The IRA has a responsibility to make known the information it has. Even if the IRA claims it is not responsible, it should know from its investigations what conclusions were reached and what information it has about these bodies. Perhaps by some other method we might be able to get the necessary information for these relatives so they too can retrieve the bodies of their loved ones.

I noted there was no reference to Captain Nirac who was captured in south Armagh. There have been rumours over the years about what happened to his body. The fact that no information is forthcoming about the whereabouts of his body might confirm those rumours. There is no denying it was carried out by republicans. There is a responsibility on them to let us know what happened to his body and to be as helpful as possible. Is that asking too much from people who have indicated in so many ways their total inhumanity?

I hope there is no further delay in this matter. Let us conclude this sad and inhuman saga as quickly as possible. There should be no more drawn out suffering for the relatives, no excuses for not providing the information quickly, no excuses in relation to this legislation and no excuses on any other matter. That is the least we should demand.

I support this legislation because I am a realist but I do so reluctantly for the reasons I have outlined.

I subscribe to the description of this legislation as extraordinary. Most people in this House find it distasteful. As parliamentarians, we are not used to creating a framework in such sad circumstances so that those responsible for heinous acts are less likely to be called to account.

We, on the Labour benches, have always fully supported the legislative programme on Northern Ireland of this and previous Governments. We do so because we see it as a consensus pathway to the ultimate goal of peace. Many of the steps on that tortuous path are unpleasant and unpalatable but necessary. We supported the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act which put in clear terms the Good Friday Agreement. We supported the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Act, which provides for the early release of convicted prisoners. This did not bring great joy on either side of the House. We supported the legislation introduced following the Omagh bombing, the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act, because of the need, which was clearly recognised by all sides in the House, for the tightest possible security measures, some of which were difficult for libertarians to support. We supported the British-Irish Agreement Act to facilitate the establishment of North-South bodies.

All these were confidence building measures by the State in its contribution to a framework for peace. It is clear that responsibility for building this framework within which peace can survive and flourish rests with more than the State. All the parties to the Agreement, political and otherwise, must play their role in creating a society where peace can flourish and thrive. Each must see what they can do to build the confidence on which that fragile flower can grow and flourish.

It is difficult to listen to a contribution, such as that of Deputy Currie, and not be moved. The concept of the disappeared is brought into reality when one talks about specific instances and the hurt of a family traumatised not only by a killing but by the absence of knowledge and a body. It is sickening beyond belief that not only would they deprive the family of a loved one of the body but that they would go to extraordinary lengths to discredit the memory of that loved one. It is incumbent on the IRA and others to reveal the location of all bodies and to do so as soon as these measures are enacted without any more delay or prevarication. It is our hope that this Bill, once enacted, will facilitate that process. It is for that reason alone that we support it.

Those of us who have read the book by Eamon Collins, Killing Rage, as I did in recent months, gained some insight into the incredible brutality that characterised and characterises membership of a paramilitary organisation. The details of the operations of the so-called nutting squad, the internal security wing of the IRA who took it upon themselves, while the political wing of the IRA was talking about due process and fairness in the courts, to provide their own kangaroo courts, instant judgment and sometimes instant death, are chilling and numbing. We all pray that their operational days are over. That is why we work assiduously to put in place a legal framework which will allow peace not only to gain root but to thrive.

Sections 3 and 5 are the Bill's core sections. Section 3 outlines the functions of the commission – to receive information relating to the location of the remains of victims; to disclose such information for the purpose of facilitating the location of remains to which the information relates; and to report on its activities to both Governments not later than one year after its establishment and annually thereafter.

Membership of the commission will not be fewer than two. My view is that it should be greater than two. Some of the names mentioned in the briefings provided to Fine Gael and myself, on behalf of the Labour Party, were welcome and I wholeheartedly accept and recommend some of the names mentioned casually in those discussions. However, I am concerned that it would be seen to be independent, inspire confidence and have a membership greater than two. I appreciate the detailed briefing we received which allowed us to facilitate this early Second Stage reading and, I hope, early enactment of the Bill.

There are two important related matters of which I hope the Minister will take note to ensure early progress. One is the issue of people who have been exiled from their communities by the paramilitaries. These kangaroo courts, when they did not have the ultimate sanction of death sentences, liberally provided their own apartheid system and had internal exile. People who have been exiled from their communities by such paramilitaries must be allowed return home. It is incumbent on the paramilitaries to remove all threats from these people and allow them return to their families. When the Minister is in dialogue, either directly or through intermediaries, with the political representatives of the paramilitary organisations or those associated with them I hope this matter will be raised. Not only have they a moral responsibility to return to the families of the bereaved the bodies of their loved ones but they also have a responsibility to the living to allow those whom they have exiled, for whatever reason, to return without threat to their communities and their families.

The other category I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister are British soldiers who deserted from the British army and fled into this jurisdiction during the currency of the troubles. Many of those people live here in this jurisdiction under assumed names and cannot return to Britain for fear of being arrested and imprisoned as deserters. These people deserve an amnesty. I hope the Government will raise this issue with the British authorities and the British Ministry of Defence to ensure they too, for whatever reason they could not endure life as a British soldier in Northern Ireland, will be allowed return to some semblance of normality, as we build what is described as some semblance of normality for all the families so viciously wounded in so many ways by the ongoing troubles and conflicts.

The Good Friday Agreement is the people's agreement and it must be implemented in all its aspects. I avail of the opportunity of this debate to make a point with which I think most people in the House will agree. A movement on arms, a movement on decommissioning is not a sign of surrender, it is a sign of strength. Everybody in the House wants to see decommissioning. Sinn Féin has made it clear it thinks the current climate is difficult. Unfortunately, it went further in its direct dialogue with my party and the Fine Gael party some months ago when it said decommissioning would never happen. I hope that was a bargaining position, that it will decommission and is using its good offices with the IRA to ensure decommissioning happens. We want the climate for decommissioning to be right and are willing to facilitate the creation of the right climate but there must be movement.

The British Government can play its role. The demand for further demilitarisation, the removal of soldiers from the streets and a return to normality would help. The ultimate responsibility must rest with those who have arms to participate in the totality of the Good Friday Agreement which negates the need for arms. Since there is no need for them they can surely begin the process of handing them up.

I do not wish to delay the House on this Bill. We would rather it was not necessary but it is necessary. Section 5 will make it more difficult for those who are guilty of the most awful acts to evade accountability and it may bring solace and an end to the torture of those families who have been deprived of their loved ones for years and in some cases many decades. For that reason the Labour Party supports it.

Step by step all the parties of this Oireachtas will build a wall of peace. We will help and contribute in any way we can. If that common endeavour is to be successful it will require the participation of all parties, all people of good will, to ensure this measure to bring comfort, will be one of the final legislative measures required to establish a lasting and permanent peace in this land.

It is regrettable that a parliament such as ours has to pass such legislation. As other speakers have said the prize of peace is a huge task for the various parties which compose this House. I am pleased to acknowledge the great role played by Members in supporting the peace process. It has been an article of faith among political parties that there is an element of bi-partisanship of unity and agreement when it comes to the peace process. That has been more honoured than dishonoured here. It is also important to be careful in the use of language when debating Bills such as this and other matters in the peace process. There is an awful visceral emotion that underlies the conflict that has affected this island for hundreds of years but particularly in the past 25 years. Resort to violence has been one of he worst features of Irish history.

It is important that people in responsible positions, such as ourselves, are careful and rational in our approach to issues such as this. I am pleased there is all-party support for it.

It is important to remember that these missing people and their families have suffered enormous pain. They come from different social strata and different backgrounds and all have suffered. They are not unlike people the Minister has dealt with in his Department. The Garda Síochána is now taking a more pro-active role on missing persons. While people do not know the whereabouts of their relatives they know something awful has happened to them. This is humane legislation which deals in a practical way with a problem that has arisen because we are building a peace process which we hope will lead to uniting people in a spirit of co-operation and friendship, North and South, regardless of religions.

Deputy Currie spoke most movingly on this point. He has represented people in the Six Counties and has been a victim of violence and speaks with great authority on this subject. What has happened in the past 25 or 26 years has been an exceedingly dirty low-intensity war. I use the word "war" carefully. It has not been nice. As a youngster in 1966 I recall asking my grandfather who was proud to have played a part in the struggle for Irish freedom in the period 1918-22 what he did. He was shot in the Civil War and still carried the bullets. His reply was remarkable and, as always, consistent. He refused to speak about it and described it as a dirty war. He did not do anything in that period of which he was particularly proud. It is important to acknowledge that the use of violence is not ennobling. It has been presented romantically in some republican circles as ennobling but that is not the case. It disables people and the society in which it happens.

The war conducted over 25 years since 1969 was dirty on all sides. It is important to not only concentrate on this Bill because it was also dirty on the state sides in the South and the North of Ireland. As the ultimate peace we all seek comes tantalisingly closer, the location of the bodies of the disappeared will hopefully be revealed, but the horrible collusive nature of the relationship between some elements of the police force in the North with loyalist death squads is also coming to the surface. This is an appalling exhibition of what went on in the Six Counties statelet. It is essentially dysfunctional and it has spread its dysfunctionality to this State.

As Deputy Howlin said, parties and individuals have compromised some of our basic values in terms of the libertarian agenda and the basic rights of people when they are arrested, taken into custody and brought before the courts. We are not proud of that, and we should not be proud of it. However, it had to be done because there were difficult and dangerous times over the 26 years.

I believe the IRA is serious in relation to recovering the bodies of the disappeared. I agree with Deputy Currie that the body of Captain Nirac would be an important symbol of the process. Captain Nirac, who obviously was involved in covert operations, was killed in a nasty and deliberate manner. It would be a great confidence gesture if the IRA returned his body in advance of the implementation of the Bill to show its good faith. I hope that is done. The organisation has shown some good faith to date in terms of bringing this matter to the fore and returning bodies where possible. I received representations from England in relation to Captain Nirac and I was informed that there was a will to return his body some time ago. Unfortunately, it met the rock of resistance of certain IRA units in the south Armagh area who were not keen on the idea.

Is there a body to return?

I understand from my basic and superficial inquiries that there is a body to return. I hope that is the case because British army personnel also suffered and were victims in this process although Nationalists and republicans do not always acknowledge it.

It is important to realise that society, including that in the southern state, is steeped in a tradition of glorifying the gun and violence in an inappro priate manner. I recall that some years ago a keen local historian in Tipperary conducted an investigation into what had become local lore in relation to the War of Independence. Approximately 60 or 70 years later, the body of a former member of the British army who resettled in Ireland during that turbulent period was discovered in the woods. He had been shot because he was allegedly an informer. Elderly people in the community remembered the person being shot but nobody spoke about it for almost 70 years. Those people in their declining years only then felt free to comment on and discuss the event with the local historian. A body was then discovered and returned. This is the type of society in which we live. It is a terrible legacy but one to which all parties in the House are committed to eradicating from national life. We want to build closer relationships with our nearest neighbour, Britain.

I welcome the provision in the Bill for the establishment of an international commission to supervise this distasteful business. Some lessons could be learned from this in relation to decommissioning and the inquiry into the horrible and brutal murder of Mrs. Rosemary Nelson. I suggest to the Taoiseach, the Minister and the Government that we consider instituting an investigative process into that killing which extends to an international rather than a local level. There is huge distrust of the state security and police force in the Six Counties and this must be acknowledged. It is inappropriate to have members of the RUC investigating this murder given the allegations and accusations which have been made. Reservations have been expressed in the US Congress about the use of the FBI's name in this process. It is not convinced that it is proper and appropriate for the FBI to be involved in a minor way. It feels the FBI should have a bigger involvement if it is to stand over the investigation.

The main point of this debate is to ensure the Bill is passed quickly and its provisions implemented to allow bodies to be returned to their loved ones. It is horrible that the people concerned have had to wait so long. It is a terrible comment to make in the Parliament of a free Ireland, that we cannot give those people justice. They did not receive a fair trial and they will never get one. The issue will never be resolved. This relates to other conflicts, such as that in South Africa where it was decided to establish a truth commission but I do not believe such a commission would serve this country well. It served South Africa reasonably well and people said in a more effusive period that such a body would be helpful here. However, Ireland is too small an island for such a body. We need to concentrate on reconciliation and practical measures such as the Bill. There is a concentration on openness and transparency in almost all areas of public life and elsewhere now, but it would not be appropriate in this area. It is a dirty period in our history and it should be left to the historians.

Extraordinary steps have been taken by political leaders on all sides in this conflict, including the IRA, Sinn Féin, the loyalist paramilitaries and various Governments. Deputy John Bruton produced the Framework Document, Deputy Albert Reynolds produced the Downing Street Declaration and the Taoiseach finessed the Good Friday Agreement. Every major party and some smaller organisations have played their part in building the process and this is a great source of confidence in it which will continue.

One of the most extraordinary images in recent years in this process was Dr. Mo Mowlam walking into one of Her Majesty's prisons and negotiating directly with people whom the British Government regarded as terrorists and criminals. Dr. Mowlam was criticised and denigrated for it and the move was regarded as complete appeasement. It was an act of utter abnegation and appeasement. The fact that an elected Government which claims sovereignty over a particular piece of ground negotiated directly with their own prison inmates on developing a peace process is without parallel. It was a courageous move on Dr. Mowlam's part and that is the type of distasteful but courageous actions which people must take in this process.

I also pay tribute to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, for his role. The Minister always gets the bad end of the stick in this process because he is involved in the sensitive area of security.

He needs praise on something.

It is not coming from that side of the House.

The Minister has played a good and strong role in the process in terms of sensitive issues about which one cannot boast. They cannot be highlighted in the press but they involve an intense engagement with the security dimension. The Minister has not played this role in a blinkered way. Some Ministers for Justice let the iron into their soul and became prisoners of what could be termed the security establishment. Some Ministers have a proclivity to not only fall prisoner to that but to luxuriate in the trappings of security, intelligence and other matters. To be fair to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, he has not fallen into that common trap that seems to ensnare Ministers for Justice.

We have to engage in these practical, though distasteful measures. As a journalist I had to meet distasteful people, republican and loyalist paramilitaries, members of the IRA, people who were out to cause mayhem and trouble, people involved in killing. My involvement in covering the peace process led me to becoming involved in politics. The triumph of this process is the triumph of elected representatives pursuing the issue by political means which is the appropriate way to resolve issues. Some elements of the media like to focus on the more ephemeral aspects to the peace process, that somehow it has been a victory for paramilitaries and those previously engaged in violence. It is very important to send out a strong signal that politicians are in charge and peaceful democrats are winning the peace. The people who resorted to violence in the past have come round to our point of view and have come into the middle which we have proudly occupied for a number of years Individuals and parties have played their part in finding new ways of looking at the problem. Dr. Garret FitzGerald started the process with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, a measure which we in Fianna Fáil wrongly opposed at that time. It is important that I as a member of Fianna Fáil acknowledge that we were wrong and foolish to oppose that agreement, which I suspect was opposed for opportunistic reasons. It is important we acknowledge the role played by Dr. FitzGerald as one of the essential building blocks in building the peace we now have. Measures such as this will build the confidence we need for peace.

The investigation into the Rosemary Nelson case will be a litmus test for Nationalist confidence in the process in which we are engaged. Nothing gave greater encouragement to those who resorted to violence than the stymied Stalker investigation. It drew support, moral and actual, to the people who resorted to violence – there was a policy of "shoot to kill" which clearly was not investigated properly.

I was the only reporter present at a House of Commons' committee and was the first to report Douglas Hogg's injudicious remarks identifying solicitors in Northern Ireland as being very close to paramilitaries and Mr. Seamus Mallon's – another member of that committee – condemnation of these remarks. When I heard of the subsequent shooting of Mr. Pat Finnucane, I stood rigid to the spot. I know that Mr. Finnucane's brother has been associated with such organisations. It requires true democrats to be extremely careful in their use of language in relation to this conflict. A wrong word, allegation or insinuation can lead to people loosing their lives. As we see, a wrong inference or the motive wrongly expressed can lead to further hardening of the hardliners position such as those in South Armagh denying the family of the body of Captain Nirac. We can be reassured that this legislation will not damage our democracy but will build on the peace process.

I thank Deputies Flanagan, Howlin, Currie and Conor Lenihan for their con tributions. This is an important Bill and I welcome the tone and content of this constructive debate. As speakers have acknowledged, none more eloquently than Deputy Currie, it is a particular cruelty that families of these victims have for so long been denied information regarding the burial places of their loved ones. One can only imagine the pain and suffering that these families have had to endure during the past three decades. If this Bill and the Agreement can lessen that pain and suffering, surely it is incumbent on this House to move as quickly as is prudently possible on this matter.

Questions have been raised about how quickly the commission can be established. As the House will appreciate the necessary legislation has to be in force in both jurisdictions before the commission can be established. Progress in this House is mirroring progress in the House of Commons where the equivalent legislation is being debated today. I understand that remaining stages in the House of Commons will be taken this day week and I hope the remaining stages of our legislation will be taken here on the same day. I hope it will prove possible to have all stages of the Bill taken by the Seanad by the end of next week and I understand that it is hoped to have the UK Bill debated in the House of Lords on 17 May. That is the broad timetable of the legislation in both jurisdictions. I can assure the House that I do not envisage any undue delay between the enactment of the legislation in both jurisdictions and the establishment of the commission. To this end discussions are continuing between my officials and officials of the Northern Ireland Office with a view to making the necessary practical arrangements. In this context I should mention that while the role of the commission is very important, I do not envisage that it will be necessary to put in place terribly elaborate structures to enable it to carry on its work. The main functions of the commission are to receive and impart information. In practical terms where the commission is satisfied that it has information that might lead to the location of the remains of a victim, it will pass this information on to the Garda or RUC who will take the matter from there. Members of the commission will be appointed jointly by both Governments. Final decisions have not yet been taken in this.

The Agreement provides that the commission should have no fewer than two members and I would not envisage a number significantly in excess of two. Consultations are continuing about this and other matters and I envisage decisions being taken in sufficient time in the context of the legislative timetable. It is not possible for me to indicate with any certainty the number of victims of paramilitary violence whose remains have not been located. Figures of the order of 20 have been mentioned but of their very nature such fig ures are speculative. As I mentioned in my opening speech the Provisional IRA has indicated that it has succeeded in locating the remains of nine victims. Separately the IRSP arranged to have information provided about a person murdered in Paris and the French police are pursuing this. That is the only definite information I can give the House. It is important to emphasise that the terms of the Bill apply to the victims of unlawful organisations which are defined in the agreement by reference to organisations proscribed in this jurisdiction under the Offence Against the State Act, 1939 and in the North under their equivalent legislation. This should encompass the victims of any paramilitary organisations which have been active on this island during the past 30 years.

There are differences of detail between this Bill and the equivalent measure in the UK, but in drafting the Bill and formulating our approach to the matter in general, officials of my Department have worked closely in tandem with their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast and the Home Office in London. This was very important given that both Bills must operate in tandem. Naturally, given the differences in law between here and the UK, the wording of the UK legislation will differ in some respects from the wording of our legislation. This is not an important factor. What is important is that even though it may be worded differently, the legislation in both jurisdictions will achieve the same objectives.

I put on record my deep appreciation for the assistance and co-operation of the official in the Northern Ireland Office and the UK office. In this respect I am very conscious of the work that has been carried out by officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and it is only right that I acknowledge the deep appreciation which I and the House have for that work, most of which goes unnoticed.

I can understand the misgivings some may have about certain provisions of the Bill. Let me repeat that it does not offer an amnesty for offences. It provides that evidence resulting either directly or indirectly from the process, whether inside or outside the State, will not be admissible in any criminal proceedings on behalf of the prosecution. This non-admissibility might not be welcomed by everyone but, as has been acknowledged by each contributor to this important debate, without such a prohibition the evidence might never come to light, the victims' bodies might never be found and their families would continue to endure the torment of not knowing the burial place of their loved ones. I think we are all agreed that this cannot be allowed to happen. As I stated earlier, the road to peace and reconciliation is not an easy one. Compromises must be made and balances struck.

As to the confidentiality of information provided to the commission, there is a provision which allows it to provide some information to the families of the victims, to the extent that they could be told whether information has been provided to the commission relating to the location of a victim's remains and the place where, according to the information, the remains may be found. This will be a matter for the discretion of the commission.

It is understandable that much was said this evening about the plight of victims' families. This is a particularly difficult time for them, having had their hopes built up that, at long last, the remains of their loved ones can be located. The families are particularly concerned at the possibility of distressing media coverage when the remains are being searched for. Given the agony already endured by these families I have no doubt that, in the best traditions of the Irish media, they will be especially sensitive to this concern.

A number of speakers referred to the current state of the peace process. We are discussing this legislation at what is, it must be conceded, a difficult time for the wider process. For several months there has been an impasse over the formation of the Executive, which has been related to decommissioning. Sadly, this has stalled the implementation of elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Having been present at recent talks in Belfast and London, I am utterly convinced that all parties remain committed to the success of the Agreement and are working in good faith to find a consensus on the best way forward. Huge efforts are being and will continue to be made to explore whatever limited room for manoeuvre may exist. The two Governments remain absolutely committed to seeing the Agreement implemented in full and will do everything possible to make it a reality.

The parties met again earlier this week in round table format in Belfast and tomorrow will meet the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, in London. I am sure the House will join me in wishing them every success in their endeavours. It is vitally important that dialogue continues. Without real engagement, an attempt to understand the other side's concerns and requirements, and a willingness to compromise, it will not be easy to reach that necessary consensus.

In the disappointment of this present impasse, let us not lose sight of the great progress which has been recorded over the past year, which would have been inconceivable not long ago. This legislation is another step towards overcoming the terrible legacy of decades of conflict. While we have not yet succeeded in finding the consensus necessary to move forward, be assured that no one is walking and that we are still talking. There is no other way. The Agreement continues to represent the only viable way forward to the future of partnership and reconciliation which we all wish to see. It is the will of the people and it is the responsibility of political leaders from all traditions to ensure their will is done.

A number of important points were made which were more appropriate to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and I will bring those matters to his attention. This evening's debate has been extremely useful, in the best traditions of this House. All views will be fully considered between now and Committee Stage, to which I look forward. I thank Deputies for their co-operation on this most important matter.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 12 May 1999.