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Lord Renwick of Clifton: I have the highest regard for the noble Lords, Lord Tebbit and Lord Molyneaux, but I must appeal to the Committee not to support this amendment. We all have strong feelings about aspects of this Bill. As others have said, there will be no early release for the victims of terrorism. Like many others in this House, I have spent a large part of my professional life fighting against those who committed these horrendous crimes, but in relation to this amendment, surely we have to keep in mind the purpose of this Bill, which is to give effect to an agreement upon which the future of Northern Ireland will depend and which, if successful, should help to ensure that there are no more victims of terrorism.
The fundamental consideration is the principle of consent--and that has been fully protected. The other fundamental issue is not decommissioning but a permanent end to violence. Decommissioning is part of that, but it is not the only part. The Government have to make a judgment as to the quality and permanence of the ceasefire in a process which, as the Prime Minister said, will necessarily be more rigorous over time. The 1995 Act on the early release of prisoners, which was sponsored, I believe, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, received bipartisan support. This is not an amnesty, and it is also deserving of general support. All sorts of conditions are imposed: an application can be refused; a licence can be revoked; the entire process can be suspended--and no doubt will be--if there is a return to violence.
Viscount Brookeborough: I cannot say whether this amendment alters the agreement. However, I support the intention behind it. Its intention is to provide the people of Northern Ireland with some tangible evidence that these terrorists will become reformed. When we ask for this evidence we are told that a prisoner must declare that he is not the supporter of a terrorist organisation. On a purely practical point, he will leave his cell, which is located in a terrorist block, and declare in an interview that he no longer supports his cell mates. Presumably, the decision as to his release will not be taken while he is in the interview. What happens to him? Does he return to his cell where others ask him where he has been, or will there be a cooling off area in which all of these reformed terrorists wait their time? A practical problem arises should an individual declare that he no longer supports a terrorist organisation.
The other matter that is put forward by way of reassurance is that the licence can be revoked if the individual commits another terrorist crime. However, the licence can be revoked only if he is caught and convicted of being a terrorist. I do not believe that the point about release on licence is as reassuring as it seems. If he commits an offence he must still be caught in order to reconvict him or revoke the licence. I support this amendment in an attempt to tighten up the regulation of this matter.
Lord Sheppard of Liverpool: I apologise to the Committee that I was unable to be present in the Chamber at Second Reading. However, I read the Official Report of that debate and found it intensely moving. Many noble Lords who contributed had to wrestle over bitter years with the framing of policies with no simple right course of action. Many have had close experience of the suffering of victims. We have to ask what signal we will send out if the Committee agrees to this amendment which seeks to change the agreement, sensitively balanced as it is; for in it there is not a link between the release of prisoners and the decommissioning of weapons. It is organisations that can make that commitment, whereas the point just made makes it extremely difficult for an individual to do just that.
This debate takes place in Westminster. The place in which we debate these matters influences the way we speak and think. If we were bringing a proposal to the conference to try to produce an agreement, this could well be part of what your Lordships might want to do. But the agreement that has been reached is an honest attempt to chisel a structure that will be respected by all sides in the community. If we made these changes, what message would that send to the people of east Belfast or the Bogside? Very importantly, what signal will it send to those Unionists who have committed themselves to making the assembly and the agreement work?
On a number of occasions I had the privilege of visiting Northern Ireland together with my friend Archbishop Derek Warlock, often with Free Church leaders from Liverpool. We listened to people from different sides of the religious divide and were very conscious of their closeness to the victims of brutal killings at funeral after funeral. Often they visited victims from other communities. Yet one was conscious of their very firm commitment to reconciliation.
I use "reconciliation" in a quite different context. Derek Warlock and I made a three-week visit to South Africa in 1989, at the invitation of the two archbishops of Cape Town, when the state of emergency was still in force. I used the word "reconciliation" at a meeting with students in Cape Town. They angrily dismissed that word as being soft. I believed that they were wrong. With enormous courage South Africa has appointed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I believe that the way it has worked has demonstrated that reconciliation is not a soft word. It does not imply that crimes do not matter. Reconciliation is very costly. It does not mean appeasement. But it means that each side may have to give up something that it would have wanted to keep.
I have been reading an assessment of the commission's work written by Professor Hugh Corder of the University of Cape Town. He says that the commission has been the medium through which the chasm dividing the life experiences of white and black South Africans can begin to be understood and narrowed. He concludes:
I do not believe that Northern Ireland is yet ready for a truth and reconciliation commission. No amnesty is being granted. As the Minister has made clear, prisoners are released on licence which can be revoked. But in Northern Ireland reconciliation needs to be worked for no less. The Good Friday Agreement puts in place a structure that must not be weakened. On it must be placed the costly process of healing relationships across communities. Victims and their families need to feel safe if they commit themselves to this reconciliation. Protagonists on all sides need to be drawn into it. There are no modern examples of a peace process of which the release of prisoners has not been a major part of the
I hope that the Committee will forgive me if what I am about to say has already been referred to. I could not see it in the Second Reading debate. I believe that it is worth referring to the comments of Nelson Mandela about Ireland. He said that as long as there were men and women on all sides who were able to rise above feelings for revenge, who could put the future of their children first and put terrible episodes behind them in order to move on, this process could work, as his eventually did. It would take a long time and there would be many disappointments but it could be done if the will was unshakeable.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I appreciate the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, but I am not sure that I agree--I recognise and urge the need for compromise which leads to reconciliation--with him that the day will ever come when the model of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission will make a useful contribution in Northern Ireland. I accept the burden of his sentiments, and I am glad that he said what he did.
I respect the motives behind the amendment, and I understand the reasoning that leads to it. I want briefly to challenge the consequences. I can be brief because the noble Lord, Lord Renwick, said very much what I was going to say. First, there is a problem with the amendment, which I think is more than technical. It deals with persons rather than organisations--a point made also by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough.
It is difficult for prisoners to be capable of co-operating with the decommissioning commission. It is possible that some may be, but many will not. After all, most weapons are held centrally and controlled by quartermasters. The notion of individuals co-operating with the disarmament commission is a difficult one with which to deal. However, that is not my main objection to the amendment, which is that it undoubtedly tries to move on beyond the Good Friday Agreement.
An amendment was moved in another place which tried to make the connection directly between decommissioning and prisoner release. It was defeated. Indeed, Mr. David Trimble said that for him it had been a negative factor in the elections that we have just had. I hope that we in this place will recognise that our responsibility is to send positive messages in support of Mr. Trimble, and not inadvertently send messages in support of Mr. Paisley. Although, as I said, I understand the motives behind the amendment, I hope that the Committee will not accept it.
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