Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He has referred several times to the agreement. Will he say whether or not Sinn Fein have yet signed the agreement?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, all parties that took part in the Good Friday negotiations support the agreement.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. With great respect, I did not ask him that question. I asked whether Sinn Fein had signed the agreement.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I do not know whether they have formally signed the agreement. But certainly the fact that they took part in the negotiations up to Good Friday and gave their support to the settlement that was achieved is to my mind a sign that all parties that were there support the agreement.

The people of Northern Ireland were asked to consider the agreement and to vote on whether to accept or reject it in a referendum held on 22nd May. As your Lordships will know, more than 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland endorsed the agreement.

Since 22nd May my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been working to implement the agreement. Indeed, on 25th June elections to a new Northern Ireland Assembly took place. Other work is in hand. The Bill which is before your Lordships' House is also intended to implement the agreement.

The agreement contains a number of elements which form a package. None of the elements of that package stands alone. All were negotiated by the parties and put to the people. It was always going to be the case that no one party would get everything it wanted in the agreement. Everyone has to accept compromises. Everyone has had to accept parts of the agreement that they do not like. That will always be the case with an agreement of this kind.

The sentences Bill before the House is a product of that agreement. As I have said, under the agreement both governments gave commitments regarding the release of prisoners. I am aware that many noble Lords have concerns about the early release of prisoners, concerns that are shared by many people in Northern Ireland, including those who supported the agreement.

But this must be put in context. This is not the first piece of legislation to deal with the release of prisoners convicted of scheduled offences. In October 1995 your Lordships' House considered legislation brought forward by the then government which was designed to reduce the period that prisoners sentenced to five years or more for scheduled offences would serve in custody. That legislation was a direct response to the progress that had been made in political talks and the

29 Jun 1998 : Column 438

consequential changes in the security situation. Since November 1995, more than 240 prisoners have been released under that legislation. Of those released, only two prisoners have had their licences revoked.

We must also remember that prisoners convicted of terrorist-related crimes are being released on an ongoing basis. Since 1983 more than 450 life sentence prisoners have been released. And of that 450, only two have committed further serious offences. Prisoners convicted of the most heinous crimes have already been released and would continue to be released even were this Bill not to become law. The Bill before the House accelerates that process for certain offenders who meet the conditions set out under its provisions.

On 20th April my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland placed a paper in the Library of the House which set out in detail how the Government would intend to implement those parts of the agreement relating to prisoners. The Bill that is before your Lordships' House contains the safeguards that were set out in that paper; that is: prisoners who support terrorist groups that have not established or are not maintaining complete and unequivocal ceasefires will not be released; all applications will be considered by independent commissioners against criteria set out in the legislation; life sentence prisoners will not be released if they would be a danger to the public; prisoners will be released on licence and can be recalled and have their licence revoked if they engage in any terrorist activity after release; the Secretary of State can suspend the scheme in its entirety should the circumstances require it; and if an organisation returns to violence, prisoners released on licence who continue to support that organisation may be recalled.

The Bill also includes those matters referred to by the Prime Minister in his speech at Balmoral on 14th May. He said that the legislation would set out factors to be taken into account in deciding whether an organisation had established and was maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. Those factors are fully reflected in the text of the Bill.

There are some who would want those factors which were set out by the Prime Minister to be made into individual tests each of which must be satisfied. To do so would depart from the terms of the agreement. Under the agreement the test is whether an organisation has established and is maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. That is the test. The Prime Minister has helpfully set out factors that will be taken into account in applying that test but he has not--and the Government will not--change the test.

I shall now set out the main provisions of the Bill. Under the Bill prisoners may apply to commissioners appointed under its provisions for a declaration that they are entitled to be released on licence. The Bill sets out criteria that prisoners must satisfy to be eligible for release under its provisions. Each application will be considered on its merits and, if the conditions are met, the commissioners are required to make a declaration in favour of the prisoner.

The conditions a prisoner must satisfy are as follows. The first is that the prisoner must have been convicted in Northern Ireland of a qualifying offence and

29 Jun 1998 : Column 439

sentenced to five years or more, or life imprisonment. A qualifying offence is a scheduled offence which was not certified out by the Attorney-General and which was committed before 10th April 1998. Prisoners convicted and sentenced outside Northern Ireland may also apply if they have been convicted of an offence equivalent to a qualifying offence and transferred to Northern Ireland.

The second condition is that the prisoner must not be a supporter of a terrorist organisation. For the purposes of the Bill, terrorist organisations are organisations specified by order of the Secretary of State that,

    "are concerned in terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland or in promoting or encouraging it and have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire".
The agreement explicitly says that prisoners who support such organisations will not benefit.

As I have already said, in deciding whether an organisation meets the test under the Bill the Secretary of State is required to take account of the matters set out in Clause 3(9) which reflect the Prime Minister's speech of 14th May. Those factors are important and will be given the weight they deserve. The Secretary of State will also keep under review the list of terrorist organisations identified under the Bill and add or remove organisations as appropriate.

The Bill has no effect on whether an organisation is proscribed. Organisations that are proscribed will continue to be proscribed and membership of such organisations will continue to be a criminal offence.

The third condition the prisoner must satisfy is that he may not be released if he would be likely to become a supporter of a terrorist organisation or become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland. This means that no prisoner who the commissioners believe will return to terrorism may be released under the Bill.

The fourth condition applies only to life sentence prisoners. Such prisoners may not be released if they would be a danger to the public and this maintains the protection that applies in respect of the release of all life sentence prisoners.

Prisoners serving fixed sentences are not subject to this test, as in Northern Ireland the release of such prisoners is not dependent on a favourable risk assessment. But, as is the case for life sentence prisoners, prisoners serving fixed sentences will not be released under this Bill if they are considered likely to re-engage in terrorism.

If the commissioners make a declaration that a fixed-term prisoner meets the conditions set out in the legislation, he will be required to serve one-third of his sentence in custody before being released on licence.

A life sentence prisoner who satisfies the conditions will have a date set for his release which marks the elapse of about two-thirds of the period that the commissioners believe the prisoner would otherwise have been required to serve in custody. The commissioners will be given information about the periods served by life sentence prisoners who have been

29 Jun 1998 : Column 440

released on licence since 1982 to assist them in making an assessment of the period that individual prisoners would have been required to serve.

As a consequence of time already served, a declaration may result in the release of the prisoner on the next available day of release or on a later date. If a prisoner remains in custody, the Secretary of State will be under a duty to refer his case back to the commissioners at any time before he is released if she believes that he no longer meets the criteria for release under the legislation. A prisoner might no longer meet the criteria because of a change in his personal circumstances or because the organisation he supports has subsequently been identified as a terrorist organisation. In such cases the commissioners must consider whether the prisoner satisfies the conditions and if he does not they must revoke the declaration.

All prisoners released under this legislation will be released on licence. The licence conditions apply automatically in every case under the terms of the legislation. The Secretary of State may suspend a licence if she believes a prisoner is a supporter of a terrorist organisation and has become or is likely to become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism concerned with the affairs of Northern Ireland. In addition, life sentence prisoners must not become or be likely to become a danger to the public. If a licence is suspended it will be for the commissioners to decide whether the licence should be revoked.

For most fixed-sentence prisoners the licence will expire at the two-thirds point of sentence. Life sentences do not expire and prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment who are released under this legislation will remain on licence and therefore liable to recall for the rest of their lives.

The Bill also provides for the release of prisoners who remain in custody two years from the commencement of the legislation. This honours the commitment expressed in the agreement which said that,

    "should the circumstances allow it, any qualifying prisoners who remained in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme would be released at that point".
Similar provision is made for those prisoners sentenced or committed to custody after the commencement of the legislation, but no prisoner will serve fewer than two years as a consequence of Clause 10.

The Secretary of State has the power to vary this two-year period or to bring forward an order under which it would lapse. I shall not speculate about the grounds on which such a future decision would be made but would draw attention to the paper the Secretary of State placed in the Library on 20th April which referred in particular to,

    "progress towards the creation of a more peaceful society".
By giving the Secretary of State a power of this kind the legislation ensures that any decision on this matter can be taken at the proper time.

The Bill also includes provision in relation to victims. The Secretary of State received representations from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and members of his party about the provision of information to those victims who

29 Jun 1998 : Column 441

request it regarding releases under this legislation. I believe that the clause that was inserted in the Bill as a consequence has improved the Bill as a whole.

As I have indicated, this is an unusual Bill. Before the Bill was published the Secretary of State met representatives of a number of the parties, including some noble Lords who are here today, to discuss the Bill. Representations were made regarding the terms of the Bill and those representations were considered carefully. But in each case consideration was given on the basis that the Bill before the House must be fully consistent with the Good Friday Agreement that was endorsed by more than 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland.

The scrutiny of this Bill is not an opportunity to re-write the agreement. But where improvements are suggested which are helpful and would improve the terms of the Bill the Government have already demonstrated that they will accept or bring forward government amendments as necessary. Amendments have already been made to the Bill in another place which give greater certainty to the process where declarations are referred back to the commissioners (to which I have already referred) as well as to include more of the words of the Prime Minister and, as I mentioned, the Bill now includes a new clause relating to victims.

But, where amendments have been proposed which go beyond the terms of the agreement, they have been rejected. As the right honourable Member for Upper Bann said in another place:

    "We must take the Stormont agreement as a whole, and should not pick and choose".--[Official Report, Commons, 10/6/98; cols. 1096-97.]
If the Government were to depart from the terms of the Agreement they would lose all moral authority to hold other participants fully to the commitments they have made under the same agreement.

This Bill is a product of the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement concluded a process that was begun under the previous government, notably under the stewardship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and his predecessor. When we sat on the other side of the House we supported the Government in their policies on Northern Ireland. I believe that that support was important in bringing us to where we are today. I would hope that noble Lords who sit opposite today would support this Government in their policies on Northern Ireland and would support this Bill as part of the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement they also worked hard to achieve. To do otherwise would give support to those who have committed themselves to undermining the agreement. We cannot allow that to happen. My Lords, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Dubs.)

29 Jun 1998 : Column 442

3.26 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I have previously told your Lordships' House that I hate the idea of this Bill to release early those who have been convicted of the most horrible crimes. These terrorists had no compassion for their victims of all ages and occupations, including bystanders and so-called mistakes. They rejoiced in killing and maiming and in attacking economic life and smashing property. They did all that, from both sides of the political divide, to terrorise people and to destroy democracy. We all remember incidents which stick in the mind: murder at a war memorial and murder in a cemetery. The horrors will live with us for life. This is not an amnesty and it does not wipe clean the legal slate, and it cannot wipe out our memories either.

The act of release not only frees the prisoners, it does an injustice to the victims and their families. It eats away at the deterrent value of long sentences. It negates the painstaking work of detectives and forensic scientists who, under attack themselves, secured convictions. It mocks the work of the judges and lawyers, targeted and assassinated themselves. Judges have risked their lives to say "25 years", and we are going to say, "No, two years".

These releases, therefore, can only be acceptable as part of a process which will really lead to an end to the attempt to terrorise the people and the state.

However, an opportunity to reinstate democracy has arisen. The agreement is not what we, left to ourselves, would like; but that is true, as the Minister said, for every participant in the talks. It is the only agreement on offer, after years of effort by successive British governments and the other parties concerned.

I think we should take the risk and I support the agreement, but the whole agreement. The people of Northern Ireland supported the agreement, both in the referendum and in the vote last week for the new assembly. So should we.

I believe that no party to the agreement has physically signed it. But the parties, including Sinn Fein, recommended their followers to vote "yes" in the referendum, which shows support. The agreement says on page 1 that every participant,

    "will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement".

It is therefore right for this Bill concerning one specific type of action--prisoner releases--to insist that the other parts of the agreement are also observed. If each of the other parts do not go ahead, it would be wrong for the releases to go ahead. We are not trying to create a link. Everything in the agreement is linked by the agreement itself.

A key matter of concern in considering the Bill is the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. I do not mean that that aspect is the only one of importance, but it has a key link with this Bill, and that link is the terrorists themselves. The Bill helps convicted terrorists out of prison and decommissioning is the direct and clear responsibility of the terrorist arms of the organisations we face.

29 Jun 1998 : Column 443

I do not for one moment accept that Sinn Fein and PIRA are separate organisations, but those who stand for democratic office and have become members of the new assembly claim that. With regard to weapons, Sinn Fein can possibly claim to have used its influence without success. But PIRA cannot make that claim. Its members will be judged by the results, and the same is true on the loyalist side of the divide. The prisoners who stand to benefit from this Bill are mostly self-acknowledged members of specific terrorist organisations. The wing and the cell that they occupy in prison is evidence of that. Both this sentences Bill and decommissioning involve the terrorists. The constitutional Bill will not.

Ministers have said that decommissioning must proceed in parallel with prisoner releases and everything else over the next two years. The Secretary of State repeated that yesterday on television. Ministers' words are important; but Bills such as this one are Parliament's words. In spite of appearances in another place just now, Bills become Acts of Parliament, not Acts of government. The only way that we in Parliament can ensure that provisions in the agreement proceed in parallel is to write them into the Bill.

The wording of the Bill will be discussed in Committee, though it is right to refer to it today, as the Minister did. The Bill has been stiffened, both in its draft form and in another place. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her willingness to accept some of our suggestions, as well as others. But the Government have not yet accepted the most important suggestion that we made--to make clear that progress on decommissioning as well as other matters must proceed in parallel with progress on prisoner releases.

The Bill says that the Secretary of State should take into account decommissioning among other factors. We believe it is right, and crucially within the agreement, that she should satisfy herself on each factor, including specifically that decommissioning is progressing. The Bill says that the organisation must be committed to ending violence. But we are entitled to more than the words of killers. We are entitled to see some action over their huge arsenals as the months progress.

The Minister referred to the Balmoral speech of the Prime Minister as being a precursor to the relevant clause in the Bill. In that speech the Prime Minister set out tests one, two, three and four. The Bill crucially omits the word "and". I understand that that has the effect of meaning that each criterion need not be fulfilled, as the Prime Minister appeared to promise in that speech.

Much has been said in debates on this subject in relation to avoiding "preconditions". I want to be absolutely clear about that. The agreement does not provide for either decommissioning or prisoner releases to start one before the other; everything is to proceed together. We support the agreement and do not ask for physical decommissioning of actual weapons to start first. We want these events to move in parallel.

The agreement provides for both processes to take place over two years. Under the agreement, the two years for decommissioning started with the referendum

29 Jun 1998 : Column 444

on 22nd May. The two years for the prisoner releases will start some two months after the coming into force of this Bill. This fact of the agreement, on which the Government, we in Parliament and the public are entitled to rely, is significant. The accelerated releases of those with most to gain from the Bill under the two-year rule in Clause 10 will become due in July 2000 after we can all judge from the reports of the decommissioning commission whether,

    "the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms",
has in fact been delivered by 22nd May in the year 2000.

It is said by some--though not by the Government--that to insist on decommissioning is to want the impossible. We are told that in Irish history there is no precedent for it. But Irish history is the story of terrorism returning time and again after a lull. We are not trying to legislate for another lull, however long, but for a permanent acceptance of democracy. The whole process, to the credit of the Secretary of State and the Government, as well as their predecessors, has been full of unlikely, even seemingly impossible hurdles, and so far we have been pleasantly surprised. In some respects the impossible has happened. Everyone knows that without a permanent end to violence the agreement will fail. Decommissioning is part of that. With it, the agreement can succeed.

I firmly believe that it is both necessary and possible for decommissioning to succeed. I am supported in that view by the statement of the senior man from PIRA in the Maze--in an interview given to an unlikely paper, the Financial Times. There have been other statements from loyalist terrorists accepting the idea of decommissioning. That is Irish history in the making.

The fact is that decommissioning should not be seen by PIRA or anyone else as evidence of surrender. It is not the same situation as the commanding officer handing over his sword to the winning general or the collection of arms from defeated troops. This is agreed disarmament under independent auspices as an acceptance of democracy. The analogy is with the destruction of weapons recently following the end of the Cold War rather than the collection of German weapons in 1945.

I am not naive enough to believe that decommissioning by itself will solve the security problem; of course it will not. Not every group and breakaway group is likely to accept the agreement. The financial rackets will remain. Even if every weapon were destroyed at present, more weapons can be bought, and fertiliser cannot be decommissioned. But decommissioning, even if incomplete, will be a massive reassurance to everybody and of great symbolism both in Irish history and in our present situation. That is why we seek it and why it is important that it should appear specifically in the Bill.

Before I sit down I want to refer briefly to two other matters. We know and welcome the fact that this is not a general amnesty. The Bill requires the authorities to consider each prisoner and his or her organisation. The tests are both individual and collective.

29 Jun 1998 : Column 445

Curiously, as the Minister pointed out in his opening speech, the condition that the prisoner would not be a danger to the public if he or she were to be released is only to be applied to life sentence prisoners and not to those with fixed sentences. The explanation that the Minister gave was not entirely satisfactory and this will be one of the matters we will return to in Committee.

Similarly, we know that prisoners who are released will be released on licence. That means that a released prisoner who subsequently breaks the law will go back to prison to continue his sentence--provided the authorities can find him or her. What will happen if a released prisoner re-offends and escapes to the Republic of Ireland? Is there an agreement with the government of the Republic to ensure that such a prisoner can be returned to finish the full original sentence as well as any new sentence that may have been acquired in the process?

This Bill for the release of prisoners can be part of the key to a permanent end to violence, but it would be a monstrous injustice to implement it unless that end is clear.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the terms in which he introduced this debate. In the eight years in which I have had the privilege of speaking on Northern Ireland matters from these Benches, this is quite the most difficult Bill that we have had before us. We are looking now at the dark side of the Good Friday Agreement whose brightness gave us all hope. This is the other side of it: the moment when we have to think what the consequences of that agreement are. We have to deal with the future of those who have used terror, who have maimed and killed to get their way and who, having now failed, may or may not be seeking a better way.

I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said at the beginning of his remarks. I deplore the records of the people whom we are discussing this afternoon. I again express my sympathy for their victims, who include members of your Lordships' House. We must now look to the future. We cannot will the ends of the Good Friday Agreement without willing the means. It would be well to remind ourselves of the section of that agreement which relates specifically to prisoners. The agreement says:

    "Both Governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners ... Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements ... The Governments will seek to enact the appropriate legislation to give effect to these arrangements by the end of June 1998".

We support the agreement and so, in logic, we have to support the legislation. It is as simple as that. Some noble Lords may suggest that the legislation is born of a compromise of principles. It is the reverse of that; it is a principled compromise. We cannot have the agreement without this legislation. As other noble Lords have said in previous debates, it is impossible to cherry-pick. We have to take the agreement as a whole.

29 Jun 1998 : Column 446

It is undeniable that there are risks. Of course there are risks; there are very severe risks in the months and years ahead. Is the new adoption of the paths of peace by some who have horrendous records of violence a genuine change of mind? We do not yet know. Is it permanent? We cannot yet know, although each day that passes encourages us in that respect. What evidence of good faith can they provide? What are the confidence building measures? It is high time that we saw some from the PIRA.

More practically, what barriers to re-entry to violence can we provide through legislation and the newly-established settlement? We would do well to consider the legislation in context--not only in the context of the agreement but of the precedent legislation, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs said. The Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act 1995, pioneered by the previous government, set the precedent on this issue.

That legislation passed through Parliament just a few months after the first republican and loyalist ceasefires. It increased from one third to a half the amount of remission that prisoners convicted of scheduled offences could expect. It has led to some 240 prisoners being released on licence earlier than they would otherwise have been, of which only two have had their licences subsequently revoked. The House united behind the pioneering 1995 legislation. I hope that it will unite behind this successor legislation today and in the coming days.

A close consideration of the Bill suggests that a similar number of prisoners will be affected. Approximately four out of every five prisoners who are currently serving sentences for scheduled offences will be released within two years as a result of the legislation. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that 45 per cent., roughly half, would have been released within two years anyway.

The legislation is not a sudden swinging open of the prison doors to allow a flood of prisoners to roam. It is opening the prison doors little by little so that the inmates can smell the fresh breeze outside. It is letting them out one by one while keeping them on a tight and secure leash.

There need to be safeguards in legislation such as this, and some of them are set out in Clause 9. As the noble Lord said, it sets out the terms of the licences under which prisoners will be released. If the terms of licences are broken the prisoners can be locked up again and their sentences reimposed. Let noble Lords put themselves in the mind of one of those prisoners. They can imagine how strong a deterrent that would and could be to re-offending.

We welcome the independent element provided by the sentences review board, and in particular the independent commissioners. Their independence gives the process added credibility. We also welcome the fact that all prisoners will have to have served a certain amount of their sentence, depending on its length. Anybody who perceives that this is simply a "get out of gaol free" card is incorrect.

29 Jun 1998 : Column 447

As my noble friend, Lord Alderdice, is not able to be here today, I shall talk about victim notification. In the light of the comprehensive Bloomfield Report on the victims of violence over the past 30 years, it is essential that victims should not be overlooked in the legislation. In the whole process of settlement and reconciliation, the victims are as essential to our feelings and perceptions as the prisoners. I particularly welcome the new Clause 14, which was added to the Bill at Committee stage in another place, as the noble Lord said. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland have led the way by making the issue of victim notification a central part of their post-agreement platform.

Just as the views of Nationalists and Unionists need to be reconciled, it is good that there is an attempt to reconcile as far as possible the differences between prisoners and their victims. It will be very difficult. Victims and their families deserve, and have not received adequately until recent times, recognition and respect. They do not have a political wing and we all have a responsibility to see that they are not ignored in the process.

I turn now to the most contentious part of the Bill, the linkage between decommissioning and release of prisoners. When this legislation was discussed in another place there was a controversial amendment making the release of prisoners entirely conditional on the prior decommissioning of former paramilitary weapons. We do not support that amendment. If that view is advanced in this House, we will not support it. I can see the emotional appeal and the symmetry of it. If one puts together the two, a lot of people say "Yes, that makes sense". It is flawed for practical reasons. Decommissioning must be meant and voluntary if it is ultimately to succeed. Otherwise, in the arms bazaar of the modern world, armaments arms will simply be replaced. We must have a will to decommission, not simply the measures to decommission.

Secondly--a point made already by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs--the legislation as drafted is entirely in line with the spirit and letter of the Good Friday Agreement. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, we support that agreement. When one signs up to an agreement, one signs up to all of it. That is why it was called a deal; and it was. It was a hard-negotiated deal. We in this House should not seek to renegotiate or change the agreement, or to go back on the agreement made then. The agreement is, of course, not perfect. It creates fears for many people and it has flaws for many others. But it is none the less a good agreement. I hope that in this House we do not undermine the agreement.

The legislation before us already links prisoner releases to decommissioning. Paramilitary groups must be involved in the decommissioning process in order for their prisoners to be released. So if former paramilitaries show bad faith in the decommissioning process the Secretary of State--let us remind ourselves of this--can bring those prisoners back to prison if she thinks it appropriate. The current drafting of the legislation maximises the chances for General de Chastelain and his colleagues to advance decommissioning and to make sure that it takes place.

29 Jun 1998 : Column 448

As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, there are somewhat hopeful signs from Mr. Patrick Wilson of the Provisional IRA and from loyalist circles that perhaps the time has come to start matching fine words with deeds. I should just like to say a few words to Conservative colleagues--I deliberately say "colleagues" because we work closely on these issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, will confirm that we on these Benches gave the previous government consistent and loyal support on their steps towards peace in Northern Ireland, as we try to do with the current Government. That is not always easy. It does not follow that because one tries to operate consensually one agrees with everything the Government do. However, I hope that our Conservative colleagues will try to avoid in this House any repetition of the "grandstanding" that went on in another place in trying to establish extra guarantees and extra linkage, which, although emotionally appealing, unbalanced a very hard-won agreement.

I noted yesterday that, immediately following the election, Mr. David Trimble went out of his way to say how unhelpful those efforts from the Conservative Benches in another place had been during the election campaign to those, particularly in his party, who were trying to advance the cause of a peaceful settlement. Indeed, he said that those efforts seemed to be more for short-term party advantage than in support of a fair and full settlement. I shall read the amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Cope, described to us and I shall see the balance it strikes; but I have to say that we shall regard it as our main priority to ensure that the legislation is passed.

The greatest impact of the legislation will be on those organisations which will be listed under Clause 3(8)--those terrorist organisations which have not enacted a ceasefire. Because of this legislation, any prisoners from those organisations will be pleading for a ceasefire to be declared. But because of the agreement and the fact that most paramilitary groups seem to be abiding by it, those organisations should now feel the full force of the security efforts concentrated against them. They will do so now without any pretence to legitimacy.

The people of Northern Ireland have spoken and have said that they want a new way. That way has to include all those who are prepared to abandon the armed struggle. I believe that this legislation is a vital element in bringing a lasting peace to Northern Ireland. We shall be supporting it from these Benches.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, in his interesting opening speech the noble Lord the Minister suggested that the Northern Ireland parties and groups all had to make concessions to reach agreement. But your Lordships are not in that same position for you are not a party to the agreement. Yet this House is being invited to establish a very different and dangerous precedent. For example, it is not clear to me how the Parliament of the United Kingdom is going to limit or restrict release to one category of prisoners but deny it to others. How in the longer term can release be denied to those who have committed murder in the course of robbery, but have repented, or appeared to repent, of

29 Jun 1998 : Column 449

their sins? What about murders classified as crimes of passion? Then again, drug barons convicted and rightly imprisoned can claim to have seen the errors of their ways. Child molesters are also taken out of society, but after encounters with the counselling industry, can claim to have forsaken their evil ways.

Over many years, long before I had the privilege of joining your Lordships' House, some noble Lords have lobbied for the release of individual prisoners, mostly without success. Are all individual prisoners in the above categories to be exempted because they do not have a "union" to wring concessions from government; and would they too qualify if they organised in paramilitary-style interest groups? Arms should not be a great problem because, while 1.5 million legally held firearms were confiscated last year, absolutely nothing was done to destroy the 2 million illegally held weapons in England and Wales. In any case, the pressure groups would only need to convince governments that they could hold the nation to ransom--because modern environments make society very vulnerable even to the threat of force.

How can the Government or a future government resist future pressures--perhaps backed by threats of force--from prisoners in the groups I have mentioned? I have discovered that throughout the United Kingdom there is a conviction that the Bill is a concession to terrorism. We can be certain that the lesson will not be lost on other interest groups and will not be lost on any future terrorist organisations in Ireland or elsewhere.

In regard to the phrase "release on licence", I note that the Secretary of State is given the power to suspend the licence if the prisoner re-offends. But the Bill is very thin on the subsequent steps. There is the phrase,

    "he shall be detained in pursuance of his sentence and, if at large"--
that is, after being released on licence--

    "shall be taken to be unlawfully at large".
The words "unlawfully at large" are unlikely to terrify the said prisoner, who almost certainly will have crossed the frontier into the republic within a matter of hours.

What then does the Good Friday Agreement do? Does it contain a secret clause providing a fast track for instant return of prisoners from the Irish Republic to the Secretary of State, to be enrolled again in the five star hotel called the Maze Prison? Surely all those brilliant minds involved in drafting the agreement could not have failed to produce a provision for the return of escaped prisoners. Surely they were not so negligent as to fail to substitute arrangements to replace the ludicrous extradition farce, which can be spun out by the Irish judiciary for around three years with a nil return at the very end.

The gaping hole in the Bill is left by the omission of a firm insistence on decommissioning before the release of prisoners. Indeed, it is the indispensable key to even the preliminary arrangements for the Northern Ireland Assembly structures. That was explained by the leader of the SDLP, Mr. John Hume, who is to be congratulated on establishing his party as the largest in

29 Jun 1998 : Column 450

Northern Ireland. He asserted that democratically elected parties cannot sit down and do business with a group,

    "which has guns on the table; under the table; or outside the door".
Not for the first time in my political career do I find myself in agreement with Mr. Hume in that very clear statement, which I do not believe was made out of consideration for opportunism.

It also appears to be the position of the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. He, too, has clearly listed his criteria. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, has listed some of them. Admittedly, some are repeated in the Bill, but the more emphatic passages, such as the following, have been omitted:

    "an end to violence for good";

    "the so-called war is finished, done with, gone";

    "an end to bombings, killings and beatings";

    "an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence".
Those are the Prime Minister's words, not mine. More recently, in another place, in answer to a question from the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, the Prime Minister declared,

    "It is essential that any agreement is signed up to in full".--[Official Report, Commons, 6/5/98; col. 711.]
He said, in answer to the question, that, yes, of course it is the case that, both in respect of taking seats in the government of Northern Ireland and in respect of the early release of prisoners, the only organisations that qualify for that are organisations that have given up violence and given it up for good. That too could not be construed as political opportunism.

Last week, in conversation with some noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, the absence of linkage of prisoner release with the decommissioning of weapons and structures was pinpointed as the fatal flaw in the Bill. Many noble Lords have spotted and agreed that that is a fatal flaw. At that time I suggested that the Bill might have been drafted some weeks before the Prime Minister gave those cast iron assurances which I have repeated. That would appear to be the only convincing reason. It is fortunate and desirable that, in the next very few weeks, the Prime Minister will have an opportunity to impose his clear intentions and directions on the Bill.

All noble Lords will agree that the Prime Minister has devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to this current initiative. I suggest that we owe it to him to ensure that his sacrifices are not sabotaged by any department in either government.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, by the nature of the draw and the order in which we speak, I speak after the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. He has the great advantage of knowing more than most about Northern Ireland and I am aware of that. I speak just before the

29 Jun 1998 : Column 451

noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and he knows the reality of it in other respects and I am aware of that. I say that both ways. I have 24 tapes on Northern Ireland. They contain my thoughts over a period of time. I intend to destroy them. They should not be sold at some future date. When I returned to this country my signing-off note was, "Back home where people know very little about the problem." Going back, I wrote, "They live in the problem". I am very much aware of that.

This Bill has to be seen in the context of Northern Ireland. It is a place apart and it is different. There are 3,000 dead. There are large security forces there and there is special legislation that we would not have in this country. I remember going to Northern Ireland for the first time in 1971, I believe, and going to Longkesh. It looked like a prisoner-of-war camp with barbed wire--yet within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is different and remains so. Nevertheless, even in the darkest days, there is a way forward. Over a period of 20 years most governments have much the same policies. They try to ameliorate and they try to do a good economic job. They are hopeful that democracy will break through. I do not know whether it will always be that way, but, as things are, small steps forward are important.

I have never believed that there can be a military victory. No general advising me ever said that a military victory could be achieved. There is no such victory. In my view in recent months the paramilitaries have realised that there can be no military victory. It is not a place in which there can be a military victory. The history of Ireland shows that. Through the last century we had special legislation by Gladstone and Disraeli year after year. The situation has not changed in that respect. The only way forward is via the ballot box and recognition of the fact that there are two communities in Northern Ireland, whether we like it or not. The Belfast agreement is one part of the process of moving forward.

The section in the White Paper on prisoners is the key to this Bill. There is one part about prisoners which speaks about their reintegration. No-one has mentioned that. If I have time I shall return to that. The Bill is in line with the special laws on security. There is the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the emergency provisions Act, which followed the special powers Act. People could be locked up. There are harsher powers in the Republic than there are in the United Kingdom. That is in line with the differences that arise because of the violence that occurs.

Scheduled offences arose from the Gardiner Report in 1975, I believe, which I set up. Those scheduled offences are an important difference between that side and this side of the water. There was the establishment of juryless courts. A debate took place the other evening on the two soldiers. It has been said that if there were not special courts the soldiers would have been set free, but I doubt it. There are no juries in Northern Ireland because they cannot be trusted. They would be biased one way or the other. That situation arose from the Gardiner recommendations. I knew that it was not possible to have parole in Northern Ireland. An officer could not walk up the Falls Road to the Shankill or to the other side of the road, and say, "Mrs. So-and-so,

29 Jun 1998 : Column 452

what sort of son have you got? Is he a good lad? If we let him out on parole do you think he will behave himself?" The officer or the woman would be shot. So I introduced 50 per cent. remission. The last government returned to that a couple of years ago. Those who broke the rules would go back to prison if they were sentenced again for a similar crime.

I ended detention. That was executive detention. Those people were locked up by me. I signed a bit of paper. I used to sit in my office at the weekend with a policeman and someone from MI5. I would say, "OK, I will sign for this man to go away". It was executive action and I ended it. I was right to do so. The mistake that both Houses made was in allowing internment to take place. Violence escalated, and it led to the rebirth of the Provisional IRA. It was not thought so here, but that was the situation in Northern Ireland. I ended that, but I was not abusing the legal process. At the same time, I ended the special categories.

All governments have made mistakes. It was the Conservative Government who had been in power until 1974, when I took office, who set up special political category status. The Labour Government ended that. In fact, it was my actions that led eventually to the blanket protests and so on because although I said that 1st March was the cut-off date, it mattered not. I was right to do that although a real problem resulted from it. When we consider police primacy and the ending of special categories, how can I approve of this Bill? I have the figures with which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, supplied me about the number of people who will be released. They are significant figures. I hope that those figures have been placed in the Library.

Although questions remain to be asked, I shall leave them for now, except one. How can I subscribe to this Bill when I worked so hard to end that sort of thing? If people went to gaol, they stayed in gaol. Such matters were not decided by a "politician", to use a word that some noble and learned Lords sometimes use. I can subscribe to this Bill only if it is part of the peace process. If it proves not to be part of the peace process, my belief will be wrong.

Before I sit down, perhaps I may say that I see the merit in decommissioning. I know about the Mitchell principles, but I came across a note which I think was the view of the then Chief Constable of Northern Ireland. I repeat that I only think that this was his view. The note states:

    "Everybody who was close to what was going on wanted to see the guns out of circulation but there was a difference between what was achievable and what wasn't achievable".
This was in the days of the previous administration. The note continues:

    "It was perfectly clear from all of the intelligence assessments that the Provisionals were not going to hand in their arms. Indeed, some individual reports made it clear that some prominent players said they wouldn't hand in as much as a single rifle. In pragmatic terms, the issue of decommissioning was less important for the security forces".
I paraphrase: it was a political matter. What mattered far more was evidence that the Provisional IRA was demobilising its whole system. With the ability to make

29 Jun 1998 : Column 453

bombs that do not come from Gaddafi or the Middle East, what good is decommissioning when the IRA can make explosives at the drop of a hat?

The argument is not about decommissioning, which has become a political shibboleth because it looks good. The important question is the structure of the paramilitaries. If their structure remains in place, they will soon be able to return to violence and make arms themselves. Nevertheless, the cry has been, "Decommissioning!". This is not easy--and there are the Mitchell principles also.

I do not believe--I never have believed--that there is a solution to the problem of Northern Ireland. I believe that we are making a mistake if we believe that there is such a solution. Sometimes when good things happen in Northern Ireland, the media go rattling on as if all the problems are solved. That is foolish. The media do not know the area about which they are writing.

Both the previous administration and this Administration have tried hard. We have had the Belfast Agreement. This Bill arises out of one of the agreements made--out of an unsigned agreement, but an agreement nevertheless. This must be worked through. Whether it will be worked through and come about, I do not know. However, I am glad that there was the Belfast Agreement. It is a credit to all those who played a part in it. I wish it well. I wish this Bill well. I wish that I could say that I have no doubts about whether it will work. I would be dishonest if I said that. But the Government have tried hard and I wish them well.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, for whom I have the greatest respect, will not carry out his threat to destroy the tapes that he has made over his years of experience in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will see them safely locked away for many years. I believe that future historians would deeply regret it if that priceless material were not available. I hope that the noble Lord will reconsider what he said.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and others from the other side of the water will also have picked up a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, because it says so much about what we on this side of the water have got wrong about Northern Ireland. The noble Lord said that when he arrived in Northern Ireland he saw things which we would not put up with in this country. Northern Ireland is in this country--that is the whole issue. It is because we on this side of the water, as much as those south of the Border, tend to forget that that we have encouraged the IRA over the years in the belief that we do not truly regard Northern Ireland as a part of this Kingdom.

I must make my next remark because I shall then have some critical words to say about the policies of the Secretary of State. I must put on the record how much I appreciate her unfailing courtesy towards me during these difficult months in which a very heavy load has been set upon her and when her health has only been

29 Jun 1998 : Column 454

recovering to its normal strength. Whatever differences I may have with her, I have a very considerable admiration for that lady.

It occurred to me only today that Clause 3(8) gives us a flavour of the whole of this agreement and this legislation. Under it, we can expect that the IRA will not be defined as a "terrorist organisation". What is the IRA if it is not a "terrorist organisation"? If we believe that the IRA--or, as I should properly say, "the Provisional IRA"--is not a terrorist organisation because it has declared a truce, we delude ourselves.

Many people assume that my opposition to the agreement and the Bill is personal and that it arises from the fact that I was bombed by the IRA. That is not the case. Like most of my generation, I was bombed by better men than the IRA while I was still in short trousers. I was bombed by the Luftwaffe--men for whom I have a high respect and high regard. Nor does my opposition spring from the loss of five good, close friends, murdered by the Provisional IRA and the INLA; nor from the savage injuries which were inflicted on my wife, which have left her imprisoned for life in a wheelchair. There is no provision for early release for the victims of these terrorists. There is no provision for the early release of the innocent--only of the guilty.

My involvement in Irish politics goes back to 1972 when I became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Robin Chichester-Clark, the Member for Londonderry. I was, I am, and no doubt I shall die, a Unionist, whatever happens to the Union.

The Northern Ireland Agreement, of which this Bill is a part, grants to those who have used violence what would not have been granted had they not used violence. It is a victory for the bomb and the bullet over the ballot. It is a denial of the protection of the law to the law-abiding and a grant to the lawless of what democratic politics would not grant them. It undermines the Union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain. Before Ministers seek to argue the contrary, let them recollect that they claimed that devolution in Scotland would kill the SNP. I believe they now understand that feeding that monster has only strengthened it and it has every opportunity to devour the Labour Party in Scotland.

The strongest argument of the Government is that after 30 years of war Northern Ireland is simply war-weary, that the war cannot be won, as the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said, and that these are the best terms on which it can be suspended. It is hard to believe that a nation that spends £20 billion a year on defence is unable to defend its citizens against an army that is numbered in hundreds rather than thousands. What has been lacking is not the means but the will.

There is a stronger argument--stronger by far than war-weariness or belief in appeasement--for this Bill and the Northern Ireland agreement but it is one that the Government prefer not to make. In January 1996 I and my good friend Austin Mitchell, the Labour Member for Grimsby, interviewed Dr. Mowlam, then Opposition

29 Jun 1998 : Column 455

spokesman on Northern Ireland, on Sky Television. Dr. Mowlam told me openly and frankly:

    "Our policy is for the union of Ireland by consent";
that is, Labour was and is in Irish terms a republican party. Nor should that be any surprise. The Labour Party does not have any members in Northern Ireland because its sister party is the SDLP--a non-violent democratic but republican party. Mr. McCartney was refused the Labour whip--because he was a Unionist.

This Bill is part of a policy to achieve Irish unity, so I cannot complain that the Government are not achieving their objective; only that I do not share that objective. I oppose this Bill for the violence that it does to the concept of justice and the distinction that it draws between murder and bombing in pursuit of politics and in pursuit of any other end. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, was right. Justice must be even-handed. This legislation gives special treatment to political criminals. It would have been better entitled the Legitimisation of Political Crime Bill.

My former constituent, Mr. Reggie Kray, is not a nice man. In my judgment, he should have been hanged for the crime that he committed, but it is 30 years since he was convicted of a single murder. It is held that he is still too devious and manipulative to be released. On this side of the water a man is liable to imprisonment for the possession of a single shot .22 calibre handgun. In Northern Ireland known serial killers are to be released to be reunited with their armoury of weapons. Indeed, killing in connection with Irish politics on this side of the water is to be excused by the expedient of transferring murderers into the Northern Irish jurisdiction. Can such a contrast be justified on any grounds of principle or solely upon expediency?

What about Guardsmen Fisher and Wright? I was in America and was unable to attend the debate on this subject last week. I returned from America only this morning specifically to be here today. What about Fisher and Wright? I read carefully the words of the noble Lord. He indicated that they would have an opportunity to take advantage of the provisions of this Bill--like terrorists. The Prime Minister was economical with the truth when Mr. Hague questioned him on this. We know that the Secretary of State had decided last October that those guardsmen should serve not less than six years. Mr. Ingram, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, informed the other place that,

    "Fisher and Wright had not served a period sufficient to reflect the seriousness of the crime".--[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/98; col. 348.]
One murder. What a contrast!

It is my intention to move an amendment to this Bill to delay its coming into effect until Fisher and Wright are released. Common decency, let alone justice, demands that. It does not conflict with the agreement in any way whatever. Today we have finally wrung out of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that that agreement has not been signed by Sinn Fein. The weasel words that have been used are "signed up to", not "signed".

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page