some default text...

Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, I appreciate yet again the strength of feeling shown on all sides of the House about these two guardsmen. They do not need to apply under the Bill. I have explained--and shall repeat for the sake of avoidance of doubt--that the procedures under the Bill are of course open to them. However, the Secretary of State has indicated to the guardsmen that she is currently reviewing their cases. She has also indicated that she will be able to arrive at a conclusion and, if necessary, have consulted the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge by the end of next month. That is not far away. Of course, every day in custody is too long for people who are detained. But in terms of the Secretary of State's commitment to arriving at a decision quickly, I believe that that is still a clear avenue. I do not believe that it will take years, as the noble Lord said. But that is--

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He mentioned that the Secretary of State will consult the Lord Chief Justice if necessary. Last week, I understood the Minister to say that that was necessary. Has the situation now changed?

Lord Dubs: No, my Lords, it has not changed. If the Secretary of State is minded to release the guardsmen, the procedure is that she consults the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge. My words, "if necessary", were not necessary in themselves. I thank the noble Baroness for correcting me.

I suggest that these are not lengthy procedures in the scheme of things. I appreciate, as does the Secretary of State, the concern of this House that a quick decision should be arrived at.

Perhaps I may deal with one or two specific points that were made before dealing with the substance of the amendments. There is no suggestion whatever of changing the qualifying date of 10th April. Indeed, this is Third Reading and we should have needed an

22 Jul 1998 : Column 900

amendment to that effect if that were to be on the face of the Bill. There is absolutely no intention on the part of the Government to change that qualifying date.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, spoke of the appeasement of wicked men. Yes, the terrorists are wicked men. People who bomb, shoot and murder innocent people are wicked men. But this Bill is not an attempt to appease wicked men. It is an attempt to give effect to an agreement that is supported by virtually all the political parties in Northern Ireland--loyalist, unionist, nationalist and republican--as well as by this Government and the Government of the Republic. The intention is to give effect to an agreement. I suggest, as I have before, that without this Bill there would be no agreement. Your Lordships have to decide whether what is at stake in Northern Ireland--the prize of peace--is so important, as I believe it is, that one has to deal with certain measures on the way, about which we all feel very uncomfortable, to say the least.

I was asked by my noble friend Lord Stoddart whether the agreement was even-handed as regards whether all those who supported it should continue supporting it. Yes, of course; we regard the agreement as a complete package. All the political parties, as well as this Government and the Government of the Republic, are bound by it. One of the reasons that the Government resisted some of the amendments suggested at earlier stages is because they would have undermined the sense of integrity of that package. If we were to change the parts of the agreement within our control, we should not have the authority to say to others that they may not change the parts of the agreement within their control. That is why we have to hold the line in the way that we have.

I wish to make three other introductory comments. First, of course, this House has debated the matter on a number of occasions; but we have also come to decisions on a number of occasions. Last Monday we came to a clear decision on a way forward, which was supported unanimously by the House. Secondly, I suggest that the effect of the amendments would be counter-productive: they would not achieve the ends wished for and argued for by the noble Lords who have tabled them. Thirdly, as I have indicated, the Secretary of State is already reviewing the cases.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, what is there to review? The facts are known. The Royal Prerogative is a weapon which can be used. Why can it not just be used? We know the facts on this issue. These guardsmen have been locked up and almost certainly should not have been. There are no more facts to know; there is nothing more to review.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, as I indicated on the previous occasion, the Secretary of State has to review several thousand pages. She has had other evidence put before her from the solicitors of the two guardsmen. We have to have a proper procedure, to which the Secretary of State is committed. She is currently following that

22 Jul 1998 : Column 901

procedure. I believe that that is a proper way forward, and that is the path that the Secretary of State has indicated that she is following.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that this cuts both ways? If the Government wish to preserve the agreement, as everyone does, unusual action--which is available to the Secretary of State--should be taken by the Government. Surely it is not necessary for the Secretary of State herself to read all the thousands of pages? Does she have no staff who can make a summary? I find it extremely difficult to believe that it is not within the power of the Government, and of the Secretary of State in particular, having been offered the solution of the Royal Prerogative, to cut through the red tape and save the agreement without putting the guardsmen to the wholly improper indignity of having it suggested that they might secure their freedom through the Bill. No one wants that, not least the guardsmen themselves, I should think. The Secretary of State has powers, and those powers should be used. We should not be left to feel that we must send a signal to them and the people of Northern Ireland that we believe in good, not ill, through supporting the amendment; we should be given an opportunity to be absolutely certain that the right answer will emerge soon.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I understand what the noble Baroness is saying, but we are dealing with the liberty of two individuals who have been convicted in a court. It is no light matter for a Government Minister to override the decision of a court. That has to be done after thought has been given to it. It is not something that can be delegated totally to officials. The Secretary of State herself, as an individual, has an awesome responsibility. This will be one exercise of that awesome responsibility. It would not be easy for me to say to her that the House says that she should delegate the work to an official; that the official should tell her what to do; and that she should then do it. The noble Baroness was not suggesting that the official would order the Secretary of State what to do. It is a serious responsibility. It is not easy for this House to suggest that the Secretary of State should abdicate that responsibility by delegating it to someone else, who would then advise her. She will receive advice, but in the end she has to make the decision. In a case such as this, given the enormous concern that has been expressed and the new evidence that came forward in the debate in this House on Monday, I do not believe that it is a task that the Secretary of State should treat lightly. I believe that she is approaching it in the serious way that this House would wish her to.

Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, the Minister suggested that the Secretary of State had certain procedures to go through and a large number of cases to deal with. He was perhaps implying that there were other cases in the pipeline. There have been procedures over the years for the early release of prisoners. We have spent the last weeks, and longer, discussing special procedures for the terrorists. A condition of this should

22 Jul 1998 : Column 902

perhaps be that she should change the order in which she is looking at cases. A measure is already going through for the terrorists: when the Bill goes through, they will be able to use the procedure under it. Among all the cases that the Secretary of State is dealing with, and given the strong feeling on the matter, surely the case of the guardsmen can at least be taken immediately, as a high priority, accepting that the Secretary of State has a great many papers to look at concerning that case.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not aware that the Secretary of State is currently looking at any cases other than those of Fisher and Wright. If I am wrong about that, I will let your Lordships know. My understanding is that that is the only substantial case that she is looking at. It is the procedure that she follows in regard to the case of the two guardsmen to which I referred.

Lord Waddington: My Lords--

Lord Carter: My Lords, we are at Third Reading. I understand that this is a very sensitive subject, but no Peer should speak more than once. Noble Lords are allowed to ask the Minister short questions for clarification when he has finished, but one should not continue with speeches at Third Reading and one should certainly not speak more than once.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I shall not detain the Minister for more than a moment. If the Minister has no other cases on her desk at the present time, and as all the evidence in relation to this case is available, why on earth need it take four or five weeks to come to a conclusion? If the will is there, she could surely come to a conclusion tomorrow.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page