Draft Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) Order 2008

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Paul Goggins: I shall respond first to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle. The issues would be significant ones for any Minister to have to deal with, but I can assure him that the matters will remain reserved following devolution. It is right that terrorism, terrorist offences and the legislation behind them are dealt with in the House, through the legislation that we have. I hope that that offers him some reassurance.
Hopefully, I can provide some clarification on "glaigh na hEireann. The hon. Gentleman is right, of course. He understands such matters better than most. "glaigh na hEireann is the IRA in the Irish language. What is clear—the House of Lords made its ruling absolutely clear—is that whatever name any dissident group associated with the IRA trades under, it is the IRA. The other groups mentioned—Continuity IRA, Real IRA, "glaigh na hEireann, whatever they call themselves—are the IRA, and they are proscribed. Those three organisations, if the order is passed, will also be specified. I hope that that offers some clarification to him and to the Committee.
Turning to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, I was pleased with the measure of agreement that he gave regarding "glaigh na hEireann. He clearly had no difficulty with that, as he quoted extensively from the IMC report and gave his support to the specification. He is right that that organisation, Continuity IRA and Real IRA still pose serious and significant threats. The Chief Constable described them as organisations in the end-game, lashing out. Although in some senses paramilitarism is weaker than it has been in Northern Ireland in the past, the potential threat of those organisations is quite deadly. We all understand that, and pay tribute to the Chief Constable and his colleagues for the way which they take on dissident groups.
The hon. Gentleman questioned why we should despecify organisations such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. I should point out that the 17th IMC report—the one before last—made it very clear that within the UDA
“there is a genuine desire to make progress”.
The IMC did not believe that the UDA had serious ambitions or a strategy to enhance its capacity for paramilitary activity. That is not to say that there are not people within that organisation who are still intent on criminal activity and in causing harm and difficulties; none the less, the general sense of direction is positive, and we need to build on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle is quite right that this is twilight zone to some extent. We have got to push people across the line: when we get as many across the line as we can, people need to know that there will not be any abnormal, unusual pieces of legislation to protect them and that they will have to face the full force of the law if they break it.
In relation to the UVF, paragraph 2.36 of the latest IMC report—the 18th—makes the position very clear. It states:
“Overall, in the light of what we have said above, we think that the British Government should revisit the question of the despecification of the UVF”.
We have arrived at this debate on this order with the recommendation of the IMC behind us, and we know that it looks carefully and closely at such things. That is why the Secretary of State, having looked at all the evidence on the advice of the IMC, has introduced the order. The IMC has made it clear that the UVF remains committed to the statement that it made in May 2007, in which it made it clear that it was putting arms beyond use. I continue to agree with the hon. Member for Tewkesbury—we have discussed this before—that that is not enough. The UVF needs to go further and to engage fully and properly with the IICD, and decommission its arms fully and finally to ensure that we have a sustainable path to peace. We have made it clear that the organisation must go further.
In an attempt to persuade the hon. Gentleman not to divide the Committee, I offer two further thoughts. First, it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to keep the list of specified organisations under constant review. I made that clear in my opening remarks. On the advice of the Security Service and the Chief Constable, the Secretary of State would not hesitate to specify the UVF again if things moved in a negative direction, and if there was a cause for concern and a reason to believe that it was no longer on the path to peace or moving in the right direction. I offer the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that we will not hesitate to return and specify that organisation again if there was growing evidence that that was a necessary step.
Secondly, it is important to recognise the difference between proscription and specification. We are not seeking to deproscribe any organisation. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the Committee that the UVF remains a proscribed organisation. That is all laid out in the Terrorism Act 2000. We are talking today about the despecification of the UVF. The benefit of despecification is that it will attract the opportunities given under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. However, there are very clear criteria on that. Stringent tests are carried out by the Sentence Review Commissioners even on individuals who have been associated with organisations that are no longer specified when they are released from prison. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the full details of the test that must be carried out, but there are four conditions. The Act states:
“The first condition is that the sentence...was passed in Northern Ireland for a qualifying offence...The second condition is that the prisoner is not a supporter of a specified organisation...The third condition is that, if the prisoner were released immediately, he would not be likely...to become a supporter of a specified organisation...The fourth condition is that, if the prisoner were released immediately, he would not be a danger to the public”.
The Sentence Review Commissioners must judge a decision about particular individuals using those four tests. Even if an individual is given a life sentence for a serious crime and even if they have been a supporter of an organisation that is no longer specified, if they have a life sentence and the commissioners believe that they would pose a threat and danger to the public, they would not automatically be released.
2.59 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
3.13 pm
On resuming—
Paul Goggins rose—
Mr. Robertson: I was trying to intervene.
Paul Goggins: I happily give way.
Mr. Robertson: The point that I was about to make has been slightly lost—
Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) (Lab): On a point of order, Dr. McCrea. You specified that the Committee would resume at 3.15, and the hon. Members who left when you specified that time may be under the impression that it will not resume before 3.15.
The Chairman: I did specify 3.15, but the Whips on both sides of the room were happy that we started when we did.
Jim Dowd: Very well. I stand rebuked.
Mr. Robertson: Twice I have lost my point. Perhaps you will allow me, Dr. McCrea, to remind the Committee that the Minister had just run through the conditions for someone being released early from prison under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. He said that one provision was they could not continue to support a specified organisation. That goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle. If they cannot support a specified organisation, can they rejoin a proscribed organisation? That is my question; perhaps the Minister will discuss it.
The Minister spoke about the UVF, but it concerns me that the IMC report states that individuals are still procuring arms, and a point in the UVF’s own statement suggests that it may be ready to recruit again should the need arise—those are my words, not the exact words. Will he be so kind as to take those three points on board?
Paul Goggins: There is no doubt that as we see organisations and individuals moving in the right direction, it is not always plain and straightforward what progress they are making. Although the hon. Gentleman quotes from part of the statement made by the UVF, and I think earlier by the UDA, the general thrust of the statements that those organisations have made in the recent past has been positive—putting arms beyond use, moving to a more peaceful society and stating that those organisations should have a role within it.
The Secretary of State has to make a judgment in the round on whether organisations should be specified. My first point of reassurance is that if there is evidence that the broad thrust is negative—that people are moving from peace back toward conflict, taking us backwards rather than forwards—the Secretary of State will not hesitate to return to the House with a different order, which will respecify those organisations if he feels that that is absolutely necessary.
To answer the final point that the hon. Gentleman made, if somebody comes out of prison and still supports a proscribed organisation, rather than a specified organisation, that is an offence, if the evidence is there.
Mr. Robertson: My question was whether they will still be allowed out of prison on that basis.
Paul Goggins: The point is that when a decision is made by the Sentence Review Commissioners on whether to allow somebody out under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998—the outworking of the Good Friday agreement—it is absolutely clear that that individual must not engage in the activities of a proscribed organisation. They must not engage in criminal activity or pose any kind of threat, and if they do they can be recalled to prison.
I hope that that offers the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. The fact that we are despecifying an organisation does not give carte blanche for people who have committed grave offences in the past to carry on doing, willy-nilly, whatever they want to do. They have to stick to those terms clearly, and if they do not they can be recalled. I shall not rehearse the criteria that I went through before; they are there on the record. Serious consideration against those four criteria has to be undertaken by the Sentence Review Commissioners, and only if they are satisfied will they allow somebody out under the terms of the 1998 Act.
In offering some reassurance, I am trying to say that all those organisations that are proscribed will remain proscribed. There are some organisations that are proscribed, but not specified. I assure the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that it is an offence to engage in the activities of proscribed organisations. If people do that, they can be prosecuted and, if necessary, sent to prison.
I want to get across to the hon. Gentleman the message that because we are despecifying does not mean that people get off scot-free and that we are no longer interested. That is far from the case. The order is, however, a positive message to those in the UVF who are trying to take the organisation and those who have been associated with it in the right direction on the path of peace that they must carry on and get to the point where they fully decommission and fully engage peacefully in society.
Mr. Robertson: The Minister has been extremely courteous in giving way, as usual. I take his point about sending that message to the UVF, but when the message was sent to the UDA, in the following 12 months it murdered four people. It hardly took the message on board, did it?
Paul Goggins: Earlier, I gave the strong message from the 17th report of the IMC about the activities of the UDA. The IMC identifies
“a genuine desire to make progress”
and states that it does not
“believe that the UDA has terrorist ambitions or a strategy to enhance the organisation’s capacity”.
Undoubtedly, there are individuals within that organisation who engage in criminal acts. Indeed, it is recorded in the IMC reports that members of the Provisional IRA have engaged in such activities as individuals, but that does not detract from the massive movement forward made by the Provisional IRA as an organisation in no longer having the will or the capacity to engage in conflict. One has to differentiate between individuals and organisations and see the signs of progress for what they are, although they are only signs, not the end game.
We shall discuss in future debates whether these unusual legal arrangements, such as those for the amnesty period, are to continue. We are making it clear across all parties that special arrangements of this kind cannot continue for ever and that there has to be a point where people stop delaying and fully engage in decommissioning. That message is not diluted one bit by the proposal that we should despecify the UVF.
Finally, I feel that earlier I probably did not explain my point sufficiently well to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle, who is no longer with us— [Interruption.] I understand that my hon. Friend is now back in communication with the Committee, which I am grateful for. I made the first half of the point, which was that "glaigh na hEireann is the generic term for the IRA, as he rightly said. The House of Lords ruling makes that clear and does not differentiate between different parts of the IRA regarding its legal status. The IMC does differentiate between different factions within the IRA, as do the Government, on its advice.
That relates to how those groups style themselves: the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA style themselves in those particular ways and in February 2006 the IMC noted for the first time that there was a new splinter group styling itself "glaigh na hEireann. Our understanding of what "glaigh na hEireann means is based on those who style themselves in that way claiming responsibility for grave acts, as they have done and as other groups have done. In law, we understand that the IRA is a generic term; the advice of the Security Service and others, as well as how the organisations style themselves, is what differentiates one from the other.
In the last two years, we have had this new group that styles itself "glaigh na hEireann, even though a range of organisations see themselves in a similar way. I hope that that provides some further clarification, that I have been able to persuade the hon. Member for Tewkesbury to reflect a little on the points he was making and that he will support the order.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 6.
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