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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) Order 2001

Sixth Standing Committee on

Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 30 October 2001

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 3411).

The order was laid before the House on 17 October and was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 12 October under the urgency procedure provided by section 19(3) of the Act.

Before I go any further, Mr. Hancock, I welcome you to the Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under you. This is the third time in two days that I have spoken in a Standing Committee on delegated legislation and I am starting to feel slightly heady. The Committee deserves to know the background of the order, so I hope that h Ms will bear with me while I explain it in detail but without unnecessary delay.

The Secretary of State announced on 12 October that he was specifying the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Loyalist Volunteer Force. Specification took effect from midnight that night and my right hon. Friend evoked the specification by virtue of the powers conferred on him by the 1998 Act. The Act makes provision for the release on licence of certain persons serving sentences of imprisonment in Northern Ireland. For any prisoner to enjoy the benefits of early release on licence, four conditions must be satisfied under the Act.

The second of those four conditions is that a prisoner must not be a member of a specified organisation. Section 3(8) of the Act states:

    ``A specified organisation is an organisation specified by order of the Secretary of State; and he shall specify any organisation which he believes-

    (a) is concerned in terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland, or in promoting or encouraging it; and

    (b) has not established or is not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire.''

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Minister read out section 3(8)(b), which refers to a ``complete and unequivocal ceasefire''. Can she explain the statement of the then Secretary of State, Marjorie Mowlam, in 1999 when Charles Bennett was murdered, and the murder was attributed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the IRA? When asked whether the ceasefire remained in place, she replied, yes, in the round.

Jane Kennedy: I hope to be able to explain that and I shall refer directly to the matter when I come to it. However, I want to set out the context in which the present Secretary of State's decision was taken.

I invite the Committee to read section 3(9) of the Act, which states that in applying section 3(8)(b), which concerns the status of an organisation's ceasefire,

    ``the Secretary of State shall in particular take into account whether an organisation-

    (a) is committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve its objectives;

    (b) has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence;

    (c) is directing or promoting acts of violence by other organisations;

    (d) is co-operating with any Commission''.

In this case, that is the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. That almost brings me to the hon. Gentleman's point.

In determining whether section 3(8)(b) applies to any organisation, the Secretary of State must take account of the four factors in section 3(9) which I have outlined. As was confirmed in judicial review findings, which tested the decision of the former Secretary of State in 1999, that does not stop my right hon. Friend taking account of other factors as well, providing that they are relevant to section 3(8). The factors are not however absolute criteria. Failure to meet one of the factors does not require the Secretary of State to specify an organisation. A decision must be made in the round, taking account of all available information.

The initial list of specified organisations was made on 30 July 1998 and, with some subsequent revisits, the list comprised the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, the Red Hand Defenders and the Orange Volunteers. Under section 3(10) of the Act, the Secretary of State is obliged to review the list of specified organisations from time to time in case changes of circumstances require it to be amended.

A statutory duty is placed on the Secretary of State to review and it is not an arbitrary decision on his part. To that end, he keeps under continuous review the status of all organisations purporting to be on ceasefire, and he takes advice from the Chief Constable and his other security advisers as to the robustness of all ceasefires. Under the general requirements of the Act, an order to specify any organisation shall be made by statutory instrument, which has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament, except if the Secretary of State thinks it necessary, for reasons of urgency, to proceed without a draft having been laid before each House.

Mr. Blunt: Perhaps, after describing what is in the Act, and mentioning the judicial review of the murder of Mr. Charles Bennett, the Minister would give an indication to the Committee of what it takes for an organisation to be specified, and how many people the Provisional IRA, to mention but one group, would need to murder before it was specified by the Secretary of State. How many shootings would there have to be and how many explosions would need to be linked to the Provisional IRA? What were the triggers that led the Secretary of State to specify particular loyalist organisations?

Jane Kennedy: I have tried to explain that. When reviewing whether an organisation is under ceasefire, the Secretary of State is required to take advice from security advisers, and to look at all circumstances in the round. As I said earlier, the definition of a specified organisation is contained in section 3(8) of the Act. The Secretary of State applies that definition in conjunction with section 3(9) and 3(10). I want to go on to explain why we are considering this order now and why the activities of the UDA, UFF and LVF brought us to the point at which we felt it was necessary to specify them.

The hon. Gentleman asks how many individuals an organisation needs to murder before it is specified. The fact is that ceasefires are kept under review at all times. Each time they are reviewed, all organisations are reviewed and we take advice from our security advisers.

Mr. Blunt: I hope, Mr. Hancock, that I can make many of my points by intervention.

Does the Minister agree with the plain view expressed by those who sought judicial review of the ruling that the ceasefire was maintained after the Charles Bennett murder, which is that such a ruling flies in the face of the language used in the Act? When someone has been murdered, and that murder has been attributed to an organisation, it is impossible for a normal person reading the Act to believe that that organisation is maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire, and that it has also ceased to be involved in either acts of violence or preparation for violence. It is plain that the Provisional IRA has continued to be involved with violence. Will the Minister confirm that we are now dealing with judge-made law, and not with the intentions of Parliament as expressed in the Act?

The Chairman: Order. That is a point for the hon. Gentleman to make in his contribution.

Jane Kennedy: I do not accept the premise put forward by the hon. Gentleman. In considering the specification that we are debating today, the Secretary of State has taken into account the actions of the UDA, UFF and LVF not only in the few days leading up specification, but over many weeks. He concluded—this is important—that the scale, level and pattern of the activities in which those organisations were involved were at a distinctly different level from those of other organisations. I ask the Committee to accept that the conclusion was based on the advice that we received from our security advisers.

Lembit Ipik (Montgomeryshire): Am I right in assuming from the Minister's comments that any Northern Ireland Minister needs to balance the desired outcome of peace with a degree of judgment within the process? If that is correct, is she saying that Ministers and civil servants felt that the decisions made along the way were the ones most likely to lead us to the stage that we have happily reached in the peace process?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a degree of discretion but it is carefully defined. In considering the status of ceasefires, the Secretary of State must take into account evidence of an organisation's activities. All ceasefires are reviewed together, and the Secretary of State must reach a decision that takes all circumstances into account. I cannot enlighten the Committee any further.

For reasons that I hope will be self-evident, it was necessary for the Secretary of State to proceed with the specification of the UDA, UFF and LVF with immediate effect. Over the previous weeks and months we had received briefings from the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland on the activities of all paramilitary organisations. That happened this year, and not at the time of the decision that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has questioned. Based on those briefings, it was clear that the level and pattern of violence emanating from or inspired by the UDA and UFF merited a decision to specify them.

Much of that violence manifested itself in the widespread and indiscriminate use of pipe bombs, which were targeted in a blatantly sectarian way at the Catholic-nationalist community. The interface areas of north Belfast along the Ardoyne-Crumlin road and between the New Lodge and Tiger Bay areas, at which the hon. Member for Reigate may take a look when he visits the Province, bore the brunt of the violence that over-spilled into both Catholic and Protestant communities.

On 28 September, the Secretary of State had decided to announce his decision to specify the UDA and UFF. However, at the eleventh hour it was communicated to the Secretary of State that the UDA had accepted the damage and violence it had been doing both to individuals and to the general peace process. It decided to bring that violence to an end. The Secretary of State made it plain that although he was deeply sceptical of any words emanating from that organisation, he was prepared, even at the eleventh hour, to put it to the test—not by its words, but by its deeds.

Unfortunately, that scepticism was to prove well founded. Although there was an initial period of calm following the UDA's reprieve, on the night of 11 October serious rioting broke out on the lower Shankill road following a police house-search and arrest operation, which had revealed pipe bombs, pistols, ammunition and bomb-making equipment, along with various items of paramilitary paraphernalia. Between 100 and 150 people were involved in the orchestrated rioting that followed the search, in which pipe bombs and petrol bombs were thrown at the police.

On the next day, 12 October, on the basis of clear advice from the Chief Constable that the UDA and UFF were responsible for the rioting, and in keeping with his previous warning, the Secretary of State announced his decision to specify those organisations.

 
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Prepared 30 October 2001