Life Sentences (Northern Ireland)

[back to previous text]

Mr. Robert McCartney: The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) has detailed the concerns of public representatives in Northern Ireland about the implementation of the order. As I understand it, the aspiration that the order is intended to encapsulate is that the public should be protected, that the human rights of prisoners should be observed and that decisions should be taken by a body independent of the Executive.

The Chairman's attention having been called to the fact that ten Members were not present, he suspended the proceedings; and other Members having come into the room and ten Members being present, the proceedings were resumed.

Mr. McCartney: The order is proposed because of the requirement that the law in this part of the United Kingdom should conform with human rights legislation. That is welcome, but must be viewed against the background of the application of prisoner release in Northern Ireland—an issue raised by the hon. Member for East Antrim. If human rights legislation is to be implemented and the protection of the public is to be of the highest order—we are now legislating to ensure that—the breaches of human rights and of the rule of law that were committed by Executive action for the purpose of political expediency are thrown into bold relief.

One difficulty that will arise is the implementation of the order on the basis of human rights given the existence of a large body of persons sentenced to life for heinous offences who have been released by Executive action in clear and apparent breach of the principles of human rights and the rule of law. That is to some extent justified, it is alleged by the Minister, because the people of Northern Ireland in some form of referendum okayed a breach of the rule of law and the principles of human rights—a breach that the order acknowledges to have been fundamental. It is now apparent that, under the order, the Executive actions taken to release prisoners in Northern Ireland under the so-called Good Friday agreement would have been unlawful.

Although many people will properly welcome the order, they will say, ``How come, if the fundamental principle is the protection of the public, someone such as Michael Carraher, who personally executed 12 British citizens including Lance Bombardier Restorick, can be released after serving 18 months?'' There was no question of a punitive tariff. If a punitive tariff had been properly applied in that case, a person who took 12 lives would be at the top end of it—but he was released.

Michael Carraher is only one of many on both sides, because I take the same view of both loyalist and republican terrorists. They are the most abhorrent human specimens imaginable, but they have been released on the basis of Executive action in breach of human rights. It is now being said that that action was in some way justified because the people of Northern Ireland approved it in a referendum, but they approved it because, the day before the referendum, a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom gave those people undertakings—in his own handwriting, publicly, in newspapers and on television—that no prisoners would be released until they had eschewed violence permanently, given up their arms and stopped terroristic activities, including beating other human beings with iron bars, crucifying them and shooting them in the knees, ankles and wrists.

We were promised that all those activities would cease, but they have not ceased and, in many areas, they have escalated. Therefore, although I welcome decisions made on such issues by an independent body, free from Executive control, it throws into bold relief the Executive action taken for political purposes. There is nothing more corrosive of the human spirit—as a barrister and senior counsel for longer than I care to remember, I am very much aware of this—than a sense of injustice. There is no greater injustice than for people to see the Government acting in fundamental breach of the rules of justice, the rule of law and everything that has made the administration of justice in the United Kingdom a model for the world. So I welcome the order, but I am sorry that it comes in the wake of Executive action that is a disgrace to democracy.

10.12 am

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): I will not say much, but a few things must be said. I will not trespass on the points made so powerfully by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney).

The Minister drew attention to the fact that a sentence is divided into two parts, but I see no way in which the punitive part of the sentence can be determined other than by the court. Therefore, the court has immense discretion in this matter—I see that the Minister agrees. It is also clear that, at some point, the punitive part of the sentence ends and the individual enters a period of rehabilitation, during which he is supposed to become fit for release and learn to live among ordinary decent folk, instead of living in the terrorist world from which so many prisoners come. During that period, the individual may be considered for release. However, the proposed order applies not only to terrorist prisoners but to all life prisoners. So I want to ask whether different approaches will be taken towards those who are sentenced for terrorist offences and those who are in prison for other crimes.

There are always some prisoners who are considered to be so dangerous that they should never be released. I am certain that no one in the Committee would deny that. Under the Belfast agreement, all terrorist prisoners were all let out. Yet that large group included men and women who, in normal circumstances, would never have been let out. Those people are out in the community not as a result of legalities but as a result of political deals being done. We have to accept that. I would be glad to hear the Minister say why they were released without consideration of the danger that they pose to the public, but I do not expect to hear a satisfactory answer.

Another interesting situation has now arisen. The Home Secretary recently said that he will tighten up on those who commit violent crime and that a much harsher line will be taken on all sorts of crime by changing the law. He also made it clear that police throughout the United Kingdom should make it clear that no matter when murders were committed, those who committed them will be pursued and imprisoned. There is widespread welcome among the press and the public, and in the Government, for the fact that forensic science is now so advanced that people have recently been arrested and charged with murders committed more than 30 years ago. That same Government did a deal with the Provisional IRA and others not to pursue people on the run for committing the most heinous murders on the island of Ireland and elsewhere, on behalf of terrorist organisations pursuing political and constitutional changes.

Can the Minister give a satisfactory explanation for those two totally different approaches to murder? It will require far more than saying, ``Oh, things are different in Ireland.'' The relatives of the dead do not consider it to be ``different in Ireland''. Such murders are not different; they are far worse than murders committed for financial gain or in the heat of the moment in Great Britain. I believe that, by taking such an attitude, the Government have sunk to the bottom depths of the devil's morality.

The Minister said something else that was worthy of comment. He said that when considering who should be released, the age of juveniles would be critical. No one in this Room would deny that that is an important factor, because many young people are sucked into violence; they are pressured and used by older and much worse people to commit the most dreadful crimes. Children as young as 14 and 15 years old have been used—and are still being used, if only to throw stones in the streets. Those young people have been deliberately taken into a society by older and more evil people in which violence is seen as the means of getting one's way. We live with that every day and every weekend in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

If the physical age of individuals is to be taken into account, can the Minister say whether their mental age should be taken into account? We know that many of those young people were of lesser ability; they were easily led and subjected to pressure. I should like my concern about youth circumstances to be answered. Sometimes the involvement of older people also needs to be taken into account in such matters.

As the Minister knows, the Assembly reports are available, so we can find out what the politicians there thought about the proposal. However, we have not seen the comments of other bodies. In future, when we come here to discuss similar orders, we should have seen not only the Assembly debates but the opinions of other bodies. Those are relevant too, and they might colour our judgments and conclusions.

10.20 am

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I am perplexed on one point and seek an assurance. It concerns paragraph 4 of the evidence submitted by Professor Livingstone of Queen's University, Belfast, set out in the Ad Hoc Committee report. He identifies two apparently conflicting issues on which the Life Sentence Review Commissioners would make decisions. Article 6(4)(b) of the order relates to the commissioners having regard to the possibility of serious offences being committed by people released after serving the punitive part of their sentence. I am worried about that. It appears to be the main criterion.

Professor Livingstone mentions that a different article—3(4)(b)—allows a wider view of what is to be taken into account in considering release. The concern under article 3(4)(b) with avoiding further offences is very different from the idea of avoiding further serious offences. There seems to be a conflict. I am particularly worried that, if the commissioners have regard only to the possibility of further serious offences, it may be possible on release for the people concerned to harass those who gave evidence against them, or to employ niggling tactics that could be threatening and unpleasant, without falling foul of the requirement to commit no further serious offences.

I want my right hon. Friend to take Professor Livingstone's submission very seriously. In studying paragraph 4, he should keep in mind, in relation to the Life Sentence Review Commissioners' consideration of the possibility of serious offences being committed by those who are to be released, whether those people would also be deemed likely to commit offences of aggravated nuisance or to engage in similar activity that would destabilise the community.

10.23 am

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 22 March 2001