The Government took a pounding in the Commons yesterday as MPs from almost all quarters of the House denounced its plans to allow IRA fugitives to return to the UK without facing prison terms. Tony Blair acknowledged "the pain and anguish" the new legislation would cause, but characterised it as a difficult issue which was hanging over the peace process and had to be got out of the way.
But in a heated debate Peter Hain, his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, faced a sustained barrage of angry criticism which came not only from the Tories and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, but from Labour backbenchers as well.
The Government's Bill would allow republicans who have been "on the run" to return to Northern Ireland for legal proceedings in a special court. But the fugitives need not appear, and even if convicted they would not be imprisoned.
Some MPs were also angered by clauses extending the new system to members of the security forces, claiming this equated troops and police with IRA terrorists. The Government argues the measure is a result of a "tough and difficult decision" taken to move the peace process forward. But opponents claim it does not amount to justice and is painful for the bereaved of the troubles.
The issue has been on the table between the Government and republicans for several years but moves to resolve it have been repeatedly postponed.
Estimates of the number of republicans involved range from 40 to 150. The authorities had hoped that this summer's arms decommissioning by the IRA would have created an easier atmosphere in which the question could be settled. But the Commons gave a rough ride yesterday to Mr Hain, who was barracked as he asserted the measure did not represent an amnesty.
During an emotional session Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House, intervened to say he would suspend the sitting if MPs continued their barracking of Mr Hain. "If there is so much shouting, I'll suspend the sitting." Some protested at the proposal that fugitives need not appear before the special court while victims and witnesses might be required to do so.
The Tory 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.
Paul Murphy, a former Labour Northern Ireland secretary, asked the Government to consider very seriously amendments to the legislation, particularly on this point.
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory party leader, referred to Norman Tebbit, the past cabinet minister whose wife was paralysed in the 1984 Brighton bombing, saying that he "bears daily the scars of IRA activity". He put it to Mr Hain: "He and his wife, who sits in a wheelchair, had to swallow very, very hard as the Government moved again and again on these issues, but we swallowed. People think this is a grubby and reprehensible move on behalf of the Government and one step too far."
The Rev William McCrea, a Democratic Unionist MP, his voice trembling with emotion, said: "I stood in a mortuary and looked in the face, or a part of a face, of a young girl, my cousin of 21 years of age, engaged to be married that day. I then asked to see my other cousin, 16, her brother, blown up by the IRA. He wasn't on a table. There wasn't enough to put on a table. His earthly remains were lying on the floor in a sheet. I'm asking you to tell me - am I to bury justice to appease murderers of the IRA?"
The measure is opposed by the police union in Northern Ireland. Irwin Montgomery, its chairman, said the Government had devised a system " designed to cause maximum hurt - because terrorists do not need to appear before tribunals, but victims' families do".
Tony Blair met the widows yesterday of four police officers who had been killed by the IRA. They said later that he had listened intently as they argued that the new proposals were "an affront to justice".
In the Commons, Mr Hain conceded: "The legislation is hated by victims." But "it's precisely in order to bring closure to the end of this awful and murderous IRA campaign," he added.
Still on the run
The most prominent "on the run" and probably the most important republican figure affected by the legislation. The Belfast woman had been shot and seriously injured in a 1971 incident which led to her being charged with the attempted murder of a soldier in Belfast. After being granted bail she fled south to the Irish Republic. In the 1970s she served three years in prison in the Republic for attempting to smuggle material into a jail holding IRA prisoners. An attempt to extradite her back to Northern Ireland subsequently failed. She has been prominent in the United States, where she spends much of her time heading up the Sinn Fein presence in Washington.
KEVIN BARRY ARTT
Escaping in the IRA breakout from the Maze prison in 1983, he moved to the US. He was picked up by the FBI in 1992, but managed to avoid extradition to the UK. He had been jailed for the murder of the Maze's deputy governor, Albert Miles.
The Belfast republican went into hiding in California after escaping from the Maze prison in 1983. The book has been legally closed on most other IRA escapees, but his case remains unresolved. He was arrested in 1993 but resisted extradition.
The Co Fermanagh republican was a prominent figure in 1981 as the election agent for IRA hungerstriker Bobby Sands. In 1986 he was charged with having a rifle in a car, and when he was granted bail he moved south. An attempt to extradite him failed.
Another 1983 Maze escapee, he settled in California until his arrest by the FBI in 1994. He had been serving a life sentence for the murder of a civilian shop worker in Belfast. With Brennan and Artt, he waged a successful legal campaign against extradition.
He was named in the House of Commons by Democratic Unionist party MP Jeffrey Donaldson who said he was wanted in connection with the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing which killed 11in Co Fermanagh in 1987. There has been no official confirmation of this. Some security sources say he is wanted for questioning not about that attack but about other republican activity in the area.