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29 Jul 1998 : Column 476

Northern Ireland (Sentences)

10.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam): I beg to move,

The Good Friday agreement commits the Government to providing for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners convicted of scheduled or similar offences. The Government introduced legislation to meet that commitment, and that legislation, the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, received Royal Assent last night.

The Good Friday agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, and it is our duty is to implement it as faithfully and as fully as possible. The agreement will work only if all parties honour the commitments that they have made.

The purpose of the order is to specify organisations under section 3(8) of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. The order is important and forms a key part of the scheme provided for by the legislation. Under section 3 of the Act, a prisoner will not be eligible for early release if he or she supports an organisation that is specified.

In addition, prisoners may have their licences suspended and be recalled to prison if they support an organisation, regardless of whether it was specified when they were released.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): If my right hon. Friend has seen Mrs. McBride, ought she not also to take an early opportunity to see Mrs. Wright and Mrs. Fisher or the Scots Guards Association?

Marjorie Mowlam: I am aware of that point. I saw the family of the man who was killed in the incident, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence saw the Scots Guards Association. In that sense, both have had their voices heard by Government. I know the interest that my hon. Friend takes in the matter, and I assure him that I am well on the way to reviewing the case, and will make an announcement as soon as possible.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): Is it not the case that, last year, the Secretary of State informed the release committee that she felt that it was inappropriate for her to become involved in individual cases? The impression that she has given by seeing the McBride family or its representatives is that she has contradicted her stated opinion and consulted one side and not the other in a matter for which, ultimately, she has responsibility.

Marjorie Mowlam: The situation changed when I announced that the review was on, and the parents, who were extremely upset at the possible releases, wanted to express their views to me. That does not bias me one way or the other. I discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who has seen the association that is fighting the case for Mr. Fisher and Mr. Wright. I am reading the facts and making my own judgment, not talking to one side or the other in any way. I would have preferred to remain outside both, but, when the Secretary of State for Defence saw the one side,

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and the parents were very upset, I thought that it would do no harm to hear of the pain that they felt they would continue to suffer.

The conditions that I specified are not the only ones that a prisoner must satisfy. In addition to the requirements regarding the nature and length of the sentence, the commissioners who will make decisions under the Act must consider that the prisoner would, if released, not be likely to become a supporter of a specified organisation or become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism concerned with the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Can my right hon. Friend estimate the approximate numbers of republican and loyalist prisoners who might be affected?

Marjorie Mowlam: There are approximately four to five hundred--probably 420--scheduled offence prisoners in the Maze. Their eligibility is for the commission, under the criteria that I am outlining, to decide. I do not have in my head the numbers of loyalists or republicans. My hon. Friend will understand that the numbers depend on which groups are specified; their prisoners will not be eligible for early release, and the commission will consider each individual case and make its decision.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): I think that the Secretary of State said forty-five hundred--[Hon. Members: "Four to five hundred."] I thank hon. Members.

Marjorie Mowlam: Some reports say 400, some 500. The figure depends on the organisations that prisoners identify with, on whether they are transferred prisoners under scheduled offences, and on whether they are on remand. There are variations. I think that about 420 will in the end be eligible.

Prisoners will not be permitted to be part of the scheme if they support a specified organisation or become involved in the commission or preparation of terrorist offences. A life sentence prisoner will not be released if he or she would be a danger to the public. The commissioners make that decision.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): If a Sinn Fein-IRA murderer is released and Sinn Fein-IRA break their ceasefire, will that murderer be returned to prison?

Marjorie Mowlam: If that individual supports Sinn Fein-IRA actively by leafleting, raising money or committing terrorist acts, yes.

Mr. Wilshire: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam: No. I am sorry, but I have given way once to the hon. Gentleman. I beg the forbearance of the House to allow me to make some progress before taking further interventions.

In deciding whether to specify an organisation, I am required to make a judgment on two matters. First, I must judge whether the organisation is concerned with terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland,

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or in promoting or encouraging it--that is, that it is a terrorist organisation. The second matter follows directly from the words of the agreement, which states:

    "Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements."

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Marjorie Mowlam: If the hon. Gentleman will let me make a little more progress, I shall certainly give way.

In deciding whether an organisation has established and is maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire I must in particular take into account the following factors: first, whether an organisation is committed to the use now and in future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve its objectives; secondly, whether it has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or preparation of violence; thirdly, whether it is directing or promoting acts of violence by other organisations; fourthly, whether it is co-operating fully with the decommissioning commission. Those factors are familiar to many hon. Members, and follow directly from the Prime Minister's speech at Balmoral on 14 May. I can, in addition, take into account other relevant factors, but, in making my overall judgment, I must take account of each of those.

I have considered which organisations I am required to specify under the Act, and have decided to specify the Continuity Irish Republican Army, or CIRA; the "Real" Irish Republican Army; the Irish National Liberation Army, or INLA; and the Loyalist Volunteer Force, or LVF.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) first.

Mr. Robinson: During the referendum campaign, the Prime Minister came to Northern Ireland. He indicated that no prisoners would be released unless the organisation of which they were part had given up violence for good. Over the past few weeks, the Provisional IRA has killed one man and brutally beaten another. Why is it not on the list?

Marjorie Mowlam: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall refer to that matter in two or three points' time, when I shall go into some detail and answer him directly. Will the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) wait until then as well?

Mr. Robathan indicated assent.

Marjorie Mowlam: Good.

Prisoners who support the organisations that I have specified will not be eligible for early release. I have reached those decisions on the basis of security assessments and following consideration of advice from the RUC; but, in the end, the judgment is mine.

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I should like to say a little about my decision in each case as to whether or not an organisation has been specified. The Continuity IRA has been involved in acts of terrorism since 1994, and there are no indications that either CIRA or its political wing, Republican Sinn Fein, has any intention of abandoning violence as a means of pursuing its political objectives. I have therefore specified the Continuity IRA.

The Real IRA has carried out a number of attacks so far this year, which have included car bombings and mortar attacks. There are no indications that the Real IRA intends to call a ceasefire, and I have therefore specified that organisation.

The Irish National Liberation Army is a more established organisation, having been in existence since 1975. At no time since then has it declared a ceasefire. It has been responsible for many appalling attacks, and there are no indications that the INLA is yet ready to declare a ceasefire. Its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist party, has spoken of the possibility of a ceasefire, but there are no indications yet that there is a serious prospect of that being delivered. I have therefore specified the INLA.

The Loyalist Volunteer Force or LVF has been responsible for many murders. In May this year, the LVF declared a ceasefire--a welcome step. It has also named a contact person with the decommissioning body, and meetings have taken place. However, a ceasefire must be demonstrated in acts as well as words. I hope that that will be the case--[Hon. Members: "Oh!"]--but I have yet to be convinced that the LVF ceasefire is complete and unequivocal; therefore, I have specified the LVF.

The three other organisations that I have decided not to specify in this order are the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. In each case, the advice I have received does show that there have been serious deficiencies. In particular, although all three organisations--or in the case of the Provisional IRA and the UDA, the political party with which theyare associated--have had discussions with the decommissioning body, there has been much less progress than I would wish to see.

I take that extremely seriously, and will expect to see the progress on decommissioning that is envisaged in the Good Friday agreement. However, viewing the matter in the round, as I am required to do by the Act, I have concluded that all three of those organisations are maintaining complete and unequivocal ceasefires.

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