THE GOVERNMENT'S attempts to push through its emergency anti-terror legislation were marred last night by a rebellion of MPs furious that Parliament had been given little time to consider the measures.
Seventeen Labour MPs supported an unsuccessful amendment by Kevin McNamara, the party's former Northern Ireland spokesman, to the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill. The MPs, who included Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Dennis Skinner, Bernie Grant and Robin Corbett, voted for the amendment criticising the move as a contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Bill received an unopposed second reading.
Earlier, sixteen backbenchers joined Liberal Democrats and senior Tories to vote against moves to cut short debate on the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill. The Government agreed to review the legislation after six months and made a key concession to require the Royal Ulster Constabulary to audiotape all its interviews with suspects.
Some rebels on the timetable motion said the legislation was too Draconian and was being rushed to coincide with the visit to Northern Ireland today of President Bill Clinton. They also objected to clauses aimed at outlawing UK-based groups that conspired to commit offences abroad, saying legitimate opposition groups could be stifled.
The Government hoped the Bill, drawn up in the wake of atrocities in Omagh, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, would be approved by the Commons in one sitting. However, delays caused by the rebels meant the House was expected to sit well into the night.
The Bill will make it easier to convict members of proscribed terror organisations such as the Real IRA, which that claimed responsibility for the Omagh massacre. The measure makes admissible in court the opinion of a senior police officer that an individual is a member of such groups, allows a suspect's failure to answer questions to be taken into account, and gives police the power to seize their property.
Whips were surprised by the strength of feeling expressed by a coalition of MPs including former prime ministers John Major and Edward Heath, former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke and the Northern Ireland Assembly First Minister, David Trimble.
The exchanges followed a pledge by Tony Blair that those responsible for the Omagh would not be allowed to wreck the peace process.
Labour malcontents included such figures as Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the Commons Transport Select Committee, and Donald Anderson, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. They were joined by 19 Liberal Democrats and 39 Tories, and several Unionist MPs, including the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
During the Second Reading debate, Mr Major said he would support the Government but stressed that he believed the Bill had been drawn up in haste and may as a result be "defective". Mr Blair sat stony-faced for nearly an hour as MPs raised objections on the timetabling of the Bill.
Tony Benn, MP for Chesterfield, said: "What a way to treat Parliament ... as if we're the Supreme Soviet just summoned to carry out the instructions of the Central Committee." The Tory Richard Shepherd (Aldridge Brownhills) said: "The Government is acting manipulatively. We have been knee-jerked here."
Labour MPs who voted against the timetable motion were: Irene Adams (Paisley N); Mr Benn; Dennis Canavan (Falkirk W); Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley); Jeremy Corbyn (Islington N); Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow); Mrs Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich); Bernie Grant (Tottenham); Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak); John McAllion (Dundee E); John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington); Kevin McNamara (Hull N); Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway); Chris Mullin (Sunderland S); Dennis Skinner (Bolsover); Audrey Wise (Preston). The Government won the vote on the procedural motion by 317 votes to 88.
In an emotional statement, Mr Blair said earlier that the Omagh bomb was "an indiscriminate attack on a whole community" and an attempt to ruin the Good Friday agreement. However, the reaction of the people of Northern Ireland, particularly those injured, had persuaded him the men of violence had failed and that a political settlement was the only way forward. Mr Blair said that he had recalled Parliament precisely to implement measures to ensure Omagh was the last outrage of its kind.
He understood the civil-liberties concerns of some backbenchers but the measures were a "proportionate and targeted response" to deal with small and evil groups that commanded no public support.
"The aim of the bombers was not just to kill innocent people but was to strike at the heart of the peace process. Further political progress is by far the best answer to violence. We will not forget the horror of Omagh. But I say this to the bombers: You sought to wreck the agreement, and you failed. You sought to divide the community, and you failed. You sought to win new support, and you failed. You failed because violence and terror represent the past in Northern Ireland and democracy and peace represent the future."
Mr Trimble welcomed the Bill, but said the bombing underlined the need for all terror groups to begin handing over their guns and bombs. If the measures proved ineffective, and another atrocity was committed, it would be "embarrassing" if the Irish government rushed to intern suspects without the RUC having similar powers at its disposal. Mr Mullin, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said the Government could reassure many critics of the Bill if it agreed the proposal to tape RUC interviews. "If you get this wrong, you shall end up creating a political base for a tiny, isolated sect that at the moment has no political base. That's what happened in the past and we must avoid that in the future."
The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, rejected criticism that the Bill was an over-reaction to events at home and abroad.
Winding up the debate, the Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman, Andrew Mackay, gave a cautious welcome to the Bill, but added: "I strongly agree with several MPs that this legislation on its own will not guarantee peace."
Once the Bill has been passed by the Commons, it will go to the Lords today.
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