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Lord Waddington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. How on earth can that be contradicted? What evidence would be put before the commissioners to persuade them that the declaration was not true? That is what I do not understand.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, it is not for me to describe how I think the commissioners will operate. Clearly, there would be other evidence about that individual. If an individual's record had been close association with an organisation that was not on ceasefire, the commissioners would presumably look at that, as they would look at other facts about the prisoner. We must make it clear that there is no easy way in which a prisoner can claim that he is part of an organisation that is on ceasefire when his track record suggests otherwise.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. My point was that all those people are being considered, and would be likely to be applying to the commission, precisely because they are paramilitaries. They are there because they are paramilitaries as well as for their crimes. It is difficult to see how they would have the faintest possibility of getting out, having spent X years in the Maze in the IRA section of the prison, behaving under "military discipline", and all the rest of it, then suddenly saying, "I am not actually a supporter of this organisation." I find it difficult to believe that anyone would dare to do it, or could be credible if they did.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, there may be a misunderstanding here. I am talking about prisoners who satisfy the test that they are not associated with an organisation that is not on ceasefire. The key test is that they are not associated with an organisation that is not on ceasefire. If a terrorist happens to be a member of the Provisional IRA, and the Provisional IRA is on ceasefire, then that prisoner would qualify.
I thought that the noble Baroness was talking about prisoners who are associated with the LVF, the Continuity Army Council, the INLA, or one of the organisations that are not on ceasefire. I think that the LVF claimed recently to be on ceasefire. If the organisation is clearly on ceasefire, and the individual is associated with that organisation, that individual will qualify. If the organisation is not on ceasefire, then the second test will be whether the individual is associated with it. That is what I thought was the point at issue.
Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, perhaps I can ask the Minister to clarify a point. To ask for release, the prisoner has to come from a prison cell block which has IRA written all over it. The IRA may be on ceasefire, but presumably to be in that block the prisoner has to be a supporter of something called the Irish Republican Army, otherwise he could not survive. In fact we have seen that those people, even within the Maze, who do not necessarily support it are sometimes murdered. This seems unrealistic. The prisoner is a supporter because he is permitted to live within the environment where there are supporters of something called the Irish Republican Army. I thought there were no other armies apart from the legitimate British forces.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not sure that I follow the noble Viscount's point. Let me restate the position to avoid doubt. The terrorist in prison cannot be considered by the commissioners unless he is associated
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, will the Minister give way again? There is surely a difference between being on ceasefire and being, or not, a terrorist organisation. Whether the IRA is on ceasefire or not, it is a terrorist organisation. That is the point that the noble Viscount and I are making. It is impossible overnight to become not a supporter of a terrorist organisation if one has spent one's entire time in the prison in that group and essentially supporting it. It is a totally different issue from whether the organisation is, or is not, on a tactical ceasefire.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, we have to look at the details of the Bill. We may be dealing with a point which is more appropriately dealt with in Committee. We are using the term "terrorist organisation" in the Bill as a way of identifying whether an association with such an organisation would allow a prisoner to come under the terms of the Bill for early release. That is different from organisations that are proscribed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Provisions Act. That is a different process. It is a criminal offence to be a member of a proscribed organisation. I do not want to take up more time than is necessary, but there is a distinction there which it is important to bear in mind, and which I thought I had explained earlier.
The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked about the relationship of Sinn Fein, the IRA and decommissioning. Under the agreement, Sinn Fein is required to use its influence to bring about decommissioning. We expect that to happen, and Sinn Fein to act according to the agreement.
As the Prime Minister has said, we consider Sinn Fein to be inextricably linked to the IRA, and we will hold Sinn Fein accountable for its actions. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked me whether we should not consider terrorists to be war criminals. I have great sympathy with the point of substance there.
Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, I apologise if I gave the impression that I was asking for them to be considered as war criminals, because I do not accept that they are POWs. I was merely relating it to the fact that had they been POWs we would consider them as war criminals. If I said it, I apologise. I did not ask that we change them into POWs or war criminals.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thought that the noble Viscount was saying that some war criminals had committed the most appalling crimes, and that terrorists should be seen as having committed crimes of similar horror. I have great sympathy with the point the noble Viscount was making, because these crimes are horrendous. However, the prisoners who committed them have been convicted in criminal courts of crimes under the criminal law. Those prisoners are not POWs, as the noble Viscount said.
The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, said that the Bill established the concept of political prisoner. It most emphatically does not. It is not an amnesty. These are not political prisoners. These are people who have committed criminal offences, even if they claim that their motive was political. Prisoners are still required to serve sentences in custody and on licence.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I find it distressing that I have had to interrupt the Minister so often. If these people are not being treated differently because they are political prisoners, why is this particular group of murderers not being treated like other murderers? There is only one explanation: their crimes were political.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, let me restate the point. We do not accept that these are political prisoners. It may well be that their motive was political, but they have committed crimes. The noble Lord understands perfectly well that we have a Good Friday agreement and these matters were contained within the agreement. He may shake his head, but that has been the point of the debate all afternoon. I am sorry that I have not persuaded him to the Government's way of thinking. That may have been a forlorn hope, but I ask him to have at least some respect for the motives underlying the Government's position in this legislation, which is to give effect to something that the political parties who took part in the agreement supported.
Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I do not believe that those who are querying the issue of political prisoners are criticising the Good Friday agreement. Most of us have said that that is the wish of the people of Northern Ireland and we are not looking to take it away. However, we find it impossible to understand the distinction between those who commit murder as terrorists and those who commit murder during other violent crimes. How can a differentiation be made if not on a political criterion?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, that difficulty is inherent in the Bill. Much of today's debate has been an attempt to explain why we have the Bill and why we are proceeding in this way. Of course at one level it is very uncomfortable to have to see one group of prisoners treated differently from another when perhaps both categories have committed murder. But the prize at stake is peace in Northern Ireland. If in order to achieve that enormous prize we must do things which are difficult and uncomfortable, this Bill is a way forward in doing so. A fundamental concept of the Bill is that we are treating certain prisoners differently because they qualify under the Bill because there was an agreement. I believe that noble Lords understand and accept that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about making remorse and an acknowledgement of guilt a condition of release. While I have sympathy with her motive it would be difficult to impose such an undertaking, particularly as some of the terrorists would sign such an undertaking whether or not they believed a word of it. I am not sure how much further forward that would take us.
I was asked about the impact of the Bill on Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, and a third noble Lord. Noble Lords have also said that the guardsmen should not be treated in the same manner or less favourably than prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes. We have had a number of debates in this House on the subject of these two Scots Guardsmen and their continued imprisonment. The last debate was about a week ago. I do not intend to address the issues raised in those debates, but I will set out how the Bill before your Lordships' House could affect them. Under the terms of the Bill, prisoners may apply to the commissioners for a declaration in respect of their sentence. The terms of the Bill do not require that an applicant be a terrorist or a supporter of an organisation, only that he meets the conditions set out in Clause 3. As such, it will be open to Fisher and Wright to apply under the terms of the Bill. I cannot say whether an application would be successful; that matter would be the responsibility of the commissioners. However, as prisoners whose cases have already been considered by the Life Sentence Review Board, they could expect to receive early consideration should they apply. If they choose not to apply the question of their release will continue to be the responsibility of the Secretary of State under the arrangements and law which currently apply to life sentence prisoners. Therefore, they can come under this Bill if they wish to or will in any case be considered next October under the arrangements already in existence.
We have had a long debate and I apologise for taking longer than intended in trying to deal with the many points that were raised. There were a number of interventions which I was happy to take. The Good Friday agreement gives the people of Northern Ireland an unparalleled opportunity for a peaceful future. Many of those persons who voted in the referendum have never known a time when there was not killing and bombing. They have grown up in a society beset with violence. But on 22nd May this year, 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland voted for the Good Friday agreement. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have undertaken to implement the agreement in full. This Bill is part of the implementation of that agreement and I call on noble Lords to support it.