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Republican Exiles

Volume 403: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2003

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8.

What discussions he has had with Sinn Fein/IRA about the early return of exiles to Northern Ireland. [107074]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Government have consistently made their position clear. The exiling of individuals is a despicable practice that we wholly condemn. It must end and those exiles must feel free to return in safety.

Will the Minister say whether the issue of exiles from Northern Ireland was on the agenda of discussions between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister at Hillsborough over the past few days? If it was, can the Minister say what advice he is giving to those families who wish to return to Northern Ireland? What practical assistance can be offered to them about their security should they return? Can he confirm that the return of exiles to Northern Ireland must take place before any concessions are made to so-called on-the-run prisoners?

I am unable to answer the detail of the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question at this stage. What I can say is that through the forces of law and order in Northern Ireland, the Government offer security to those who wish to return. As for the third part of his question, of course, it is clear that all aspects of the current discussions are interlinked and they can be considered only in the context of acts of completion. The practice of exiling must end and those who have been exiled must feel able to return to Northern Ireland.

Echoing the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), many people in Northern Ireland are appalled at the prospect of a deal for on-the-run terrorists, many of whom have committed serious atrocities. People see that as a serious injustice. Will the Minister assure us that priority will be given to the exiles, many of whom are innocent and have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing?

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about those in the unfortunate position of having been exiled. I have been working with, among others, the Maranatha community in trying to establish support for such people and to develop a suitable policy.

As for the hon. Gentleman's main point, he knows that the British and Irish Governments recognised at the Weston Park talks that the issue of terrorists on the run needed to be dealt with, and that steps should be taken for the purpose. As the Prime Minister made clear in his speech in Belfast, the Government will only contemplate such steps, and difficult issues such as on-the-runs, in the context of acts of completion.