Parliament: Ministers attacked for deal on `disappeared'

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MINISTERS CAME under fierce attack yesterday from Ulster Unionists who said that legislation aimed at helping to find the graves of Northern Ireland's "disappeared" amounted to an amnesty.

Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist MP for Belfast East, said the measure, under which details given to trace the remains of people abducted and killed by paramilitaries cannot be used in criminal proceedings, would establish a "dangerous principle". The information will be passed to an international commission.

But Adam Ingram, opening the second reading debate on the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill, insisted it would not amount to granting immunity from prosecution for the killers. "These were vicious and cowardly crimes and, if evidence is obtained from other sources, it will be used to seek to bring those responsible to justice," he said.

The Bill, which Government business managers plan to push through the Commons in just two sittings this week and which mirrors legislation going before the Irish Parliament, was not a "concession to terrorism or barbarism" but a "wholly humanitarian" gesture.

"The families of those who have borne so much grief and hurt over all those years have the right to know where their loved ones are buried and no one with any humanity in their heart has the right to deny the families the right of laying their loved ones to rest with the dignity they deserve," Mr Ingram said.

Under the legislation, an independent commission to help locate the remains of people who disappeared mainly in the 1970s and 1980s will be set up. It follows a statement in March by the Provisional IRA that the graves of 9 of perhaps 16 victims had been located.

Mr Ingram announced that Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, who published a report into "the disappeared", had agreed to sit on the commission.

The opposition spokesman Malcolm Moss said his party deeply deplored the necessity for this "odious piece of legislation". He said: "Frankly, it sticks in the throat that we should, in effect, have to bargain with terrorists in order to locate the bodies of those who they have killed."

Dr Norman Godman, a Labour MP, warned that the Bill could protect a senior IRA member. "I was told last week by a man in Northern Ireland who I regard highly that one consequence of this Bill, intended or unintended, would be to give a measure of protection to a senior member of the IRA who was involved in some of these killings and who is still active."

Andrew Hunter, a Tory, condemned the legislation as another "obscene landmark" in the Government's approach to Northern Ireland affairs.