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

[back to previous text]

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): The Minister mentioned the rioting in Belfast. What role did the level of punishment beatings that took place in Belfast before and after the signing of the agreement play in deciding whether the organisations should be specified?

Jane Kennedy: Paramilitary beatings are one of the factors that we consider, and we seek advice from the security advisers on their number and on who is carrying them out. That forms part of the overall advice that is given to the Secretary of State when he is considering the ceasefires. Paramilitary beatings and shootings are to be deplored. They are carried out by all the organisations involved in violence in Northern Ireland, and are just one example of the kinds of violence that the Secretary of State takes into account.

Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jane Kennedy: I should like first to deal with the other organisation that was specified—not only for getting involved in the general level of violence, but for the murder of the journalist Martin O'Hagan. That will show how we take into account all the different activities in which we have clear evidence that the organisations are involved.

The decision to specify the LVF was taken on the basis of its recent actions and, in particular, the murder of Martin O'Hagan, a local journalist, who was shot two weeks beforehand.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) that all the organisations involved in violence carry out paramilitary beatings. Can she confirm that those remarks refer to the Provisional IRA?

Jane Kennedy: I answer that question by saying that the peace process in which we are engaged is not perfect, and none of the ceasefires is perfect all the time. When we consider whether to specify an organisation, we take into account all the circumstances that pertain at the time. There were occasions when all the organisations that were reviewed raised questions in our minds, but we considered the situation in the round, taking into account all the factors that I have described. [Interruption.]

The hon. Gentleman is clearly not satisfied with that answer.

The Chairman: I will indulge the hon. Gentleman one more time, but this debate is about the order, not whether the Real IRA is a proscribed organisation.

Mr. Blunt: On a point of order, Mr. Hancock. The debate relates to proscription as well, because one of the consequences of specification arises from the Terrorism Act 2000, which lists proscribed organisations and specified organisations, and under which it is not possible for an organisation to be specified unless it is also proscribed.

I do not understand why the Minister cannot give a simple yes or no answer to my question.

The Chairman: Order. You will have to wait your turn and make that point in your speech. The Minister has given specific answers in her own way on three occasions, and you are now asking her to answer your question in the way that you would like it answered, rather than in the way that she would like to reply. If you have a further point to make, you should make it in your own speech.

Jane Kennedy: If I may, Mr. Hancock, I shall follow your guidance and move on. I shall listen to the hon. Gentleman's comments in due course.

The activities of the UDA, UFF and LVF were incompatible with any claim to be on ceasefire, and their actions cannot be tolerated by any civilised society. Such acts are morally indefensible and inexcusable. The result is that early release prisoners associated with the UDA, UFF or LVF can now have their licences suspended and be returned to jail if it is believed that they continue to support their organisation. The provisions in the Terrorism Act 2000 relating to charges of membership introduced after the Omagh bombing in 1998, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, will also apply to all three organisations. Any UDA, UFF or LVF person who is found guilty of a scheduled offence that took place before the Good Friday agreement cannot qualify for early release provisions.

I can assure the Committee that the police have been reminded of the provisions in the 1998 Act relating to early release licensees, and of the need to use them when applicable. Section 19(3) of the Act requires that when an order is made but has not, for reasons of urgency, been approved, it

    ``shall include a declaration to that effect . . . shall be laid before each House of Parliament after being made, and . . . shall cease to have effect at the end of . . . 40 days . . . unless a resolution has been passed by each House approving it.''

The first two requirements have been complied with, and I appear before the Committee today to ensure that the third and final requirement is fulfilled.

4.51 pm

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Hancock, and I am sure that it will be a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

It is important to begin by establishing some background to the order. In my interventions in the Minister's speech, I tried to establish that the issues of specification—deciding whether or not a particular organisation was on ceasefire—and proscription, to which I shall return, were far from clear. The order has arisen from the Belfast agreement, yet between 10 April 1998 and 31 December 2000 24 people were murdered by loyalist groups and 39 people were murdered by republican groups. There were 278 bombings, 528 shootings, 151 casualties of loyalist action, 96 casualties of republican action, 232 assaults identified by loyalists and 139 assaults identified by republicans.

Anyone who concludes that matters have improved since those statistics were compiled, or since specification, need only look at the figures on the RUC website for this month alone. The scale of offences committed in Northern Ireland is completely out of the ordinary compared with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. On 1 October, there was an armed robbery at a post office, a police appeal after the Lurgan murder and disturbances in north Belfast in which police were injured. On 3 October, guns were stolen in Portstewart. On 4 October, an armed robbery took place in Dundonald. On 5 October, there was a gun attack Coleraine, an armed robbery in Londonderry and pipe bombs were defused in north Belfast. On 8 October, a Fermanagh man was beaten by a gunman, there was an armed robbery in south Belfast and shots were fired in a Belfast bar. There was another armed robbery on the same day, ammunition found, and there was a pipe bomb attack at a Gaelic Athletic Association club. So it goes on, at the same pace, through the rest of the month. I realise that those were events and dates leading up to the specification, but the list continues until yesterday, 29 October, when a man was shot dead in Craigavon and another in Fivemiletown.

The scenario in Northern Ireland has not improved, and in some respects has got much worse. The Committee should be aware of the experience of Securicor, which suffered 11 raids in 1999, 30 in 2000 and has already suffered 75 in 2001. That has led to the possibility that Securicor will withdraw from its operations in Northern Ireland. Obviously, huge consequences for the simple transaction of business in Northern Ireland will flow from that.

I press the Minister on what it takes to be specified, and mention the challenge that Dr. Mowlam faced in 1999 following a murder that was pretty much directly attributable to the IRA. I am reminded of a cartoon that appeared this month in the Irish Times. Its centrepiece is the fairground game in which one has to use a hammer to hit a point that then pushes up a weight to ring a bell, to test one's strength. The cartoon has two huge hooded figures, one marked ``Republican'' and one marked ``Loyalist''. On the way up to the bell are various gradings, such as armed robbery and shooting, ending up with explosions and murder. They have plainly been trying to hit the point hard enough to ring the bell, and concluded that it is impossible to be defined as off ceasefire.

We must conclude that the Secretary of State's measures in announcing the specification of the organisations were the only shot in his locker. If we examine what it means to be specified, and the consequences that can flow from that, we will see just what an empty exercise specification is in practice. I would like to go into the effects of specification.

The explanatory note attached to the statutory instrument says:

    ``The effect of specifying an organisation is that a prisoner who is, or who would be likely to become, a supporter of such an organisation, is ineligible for release under the 1998 Act or, if released, is liable to recall to prison.''

I think that the Minister drew attention to the legislation now incorporated into the Terrorism Act 2000 as sections 108-111, and remarked that that would also apply to specified organisations.

Yesterday, by helpful coincidence, the Minister gave a written answer to the House about the perceived associations of prisoners who had so far been released under the Belfast agreement and directly under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Eighty-seven prisoners had a perceived association with the UDA, 14 with the UFF and 16 with the LVF. If the Northern Ireland Office has identified such associations, why have none of those been rearrested?

If the Government were determined to do something about specification they could at least try to take action under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. I draw the Minister's attention to section 9 of the Act, which deals with situations in which the Secretary of State may revoke prisoners' licences. Section 9(2) says that the Secretary of State may suspend a licence under section 4 or section 6 if he believes that the person concerned has broken or is likely to break a condition imposed by that section. Membership of, or support for, a specified organisation breaks the terms of a licence.

Prisoners with a known association with a particular organisation have been released early. I cannot believe that the Minister gave her answer yesterday without being able to link those 87 individuals to membership of the UDA. Why have these people, or some of them, not been rearrested? Surely, if specification is to mean anything—which I suspect that it does not—a person who has left prison as a perceived member of the UDA must demonstrate that he or she no longer supports or belongs to the UDA. That is not necessarily a matter for the Secretary of State. The commissioners appointed under the Act have to judge whether any decision taken by the Secretary of State to arrest people and to suspend their licences is correct. Why has the Secretary of State not at least tried to make something of specification, and to bring back some of the 117 people who are associated with the organisations that have been specified under this statutory instrument?

Will the Minister tell us how many prisoners remain to be released? According to her answer of yesterday, we have so far released 444 prisoners under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act—230 in 1998, 80 in 1999,123 in 2000 and 11 so far in 2001. Are there any more to whom the Act could apply? As I understand it, the provisions for accelerated release in section 10 mean that people convicted after 10 April 1998 for offences committed before that date need only serve two years of their sentence before they are released. How many people to whom that applies will now remain in prison for the proper duration of their sentences because they are perceived to be associated or are directly associated with a specified organisation? Why is it not possible to recall the bulk of the 117 prisoners with a loyalist association who have been released?

Presumably conditions have been placed on the evidence that can be given about whether someone belongs to one of the specified associations. I hope that the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, which was introduced following the Omagh bombing, and became part of the Terrorism Act 2000, has some meaning. Under section 108 of the Terrorism Act, it is possible for an officer of the rank of superintendent or above to give evidence as to whether someone is a member of an organisation. Among the 117 released prisoners with a perceived association, there must be some about whom a senior police officer has direct evidence that they belong to the said association. It should be possible to suspend their licence and bring them back into custody, once the organisation that they support has been specified and is no longer identified as on ceasefire.

However, if it is necessary to rely on the Terrorism Act 2000 and not on the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, there will be no difference between a prisoner who has been released on licence and someone who has been arrested for the first time for being associated with a specified organisation. I hope that the Minister can attend in detail to the question whether there is a difference. Would sections 108 to 111 apply to people with no convictions who are arrested for the first time for association with a relevant organisation?

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 30 October 2001