|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Perhaps, for the sake of accuracy, I might say that I said that of the prisoners who had been released only two had committed further offences. I meant that the process of releasing prisoners had resulted in the vast majority behaving lawfully on release.
Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is saying, but I personally think that two is two too many. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, referred to political categorisation. If criminals kill someone in a warehouse raid--the aim of that warehouse raid may be to raise funds for terrorists--why are they outside the life imprisonment requirement? I did not take part in the debate on the imprisoned guardsmen. Why do the Government feel that the guardsmen would pose a greater threat to the communities than the people who are being released? It would be interesting to know that.
If prisoners can count on a sentence that is given by the judicial authorities being commuted into a shorter sentence, does that mean that there may be more crime because the price to be paid for that crime will be a lesser one? Why should the protection afforded to the Garda by not releasing in the south people who have attacked policemen be greater than that afforded to policemen in the north?
I am nervous about the definition of a terrorist group in the Bill. I do not believe that the people concerned will not form new groups. As regards the fact that a crime will have to be committed before that is recognised, I think that we shall need to examine that aspect. In my view unless a victim can be resurrected, murder is murder. I cannot swallow easily the deal which has been done. Over recent years some former terrorists have worked hard to achieve the agreement. Nevertheless I find it difficult to accept that we have to swallow this step in order to move forward.
I believe this to be a flawed Bill and the timing unhelpful. But however fudged the agreement, the majority of people in Northern Ireland have shown that they want to go forward. They want democracy, not terrorism. I am neither a resident nor a native of Northern Ireland but I am a friend for life. As such, I am keen to see the future of Northern Ireland in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland.
Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the subject. I feel particularly humble to be speaking in such a debate when so many eminent speakers have already spoken, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, for whom I have a great deal of respect, admiration and sympathy. I am ashamed that there are people from the Province where I live who have caused such misery for so many people on this side of the Irish Sea.
I, like many others, realise that if we are to achieve a lasting peace, then unpalatable as it is, convicted terrorists may have to be released on licence earlier than their sentences would previously have permitted. Therefore I would not support an amendment to defeat the Bill as a whole. However, in the later stages I shall support amendments which in my view strengthen the legal requirements, including those relating to decommissioning, which will be necessary prior to early releases of the prisoners.
The greatest threat to the future of the assembly and indeed the peace process at this moment is the question of decommissioning of weapons and the link with prisoner releases. All the parties who are not linked to paramilitaries, including the unionists and the SDLP, have voiced concern at some level, and sympathy with victims' families and law-abiding people.
I live in County Fermanagh which is perhaps the largest mixed community in the Province with an almost 50-50 balance in religious and political mix. The nationalists and unionists work and live together. It is a rural and border county, having the largest border area of any county in the Province. I served in the regular Army in Belfast in the winter of 1976-77. I then served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for 17 years and the amalgamated Royal Irish Regiment for a further two years. I wish to add to what my noble friend Lord Rathcavan has said. I wish to explain why this issue has become such a serious threat to progress within the Province.
We have to understand the kind of people who in many cases carried out these terrorist incidents. Your Lordships should also understand why so many intelligent and normal people right across the political divide feel deep uneasiness about earlier releases without stricter criteria being applied. The Bill concerns the release of prisoners, but we must be in no doubt that these prisoners are terrorists. We must not forget that. Many of them are guilty not just of shooting people or blowing them up from a distance, but of the most repugnant acts of torture and cruelty too. I want to put this into perspective and I make no apology for doing so. At the moment we are in danger of treating these
Let us think for a moment of the two corporals taken from their car in west Belfast. They were taken from their car in the full glare of the media and heli tele in the air. They were tortured and beaten to death when their own weapons were there to kill them in--dare I say it?--a less inhumane way. However, the terrorists did not choose that way; they killed them in the most brutal way by stripping them and beating them. We should remember the mentally retarded woman taken from a club in Belfast and ruthlessly killed a couple of years ago by Protestants. We should remember Captain Robert Nairac and what we believe happened to him.
Eleven soldiers in my company in 4UDR were brutally murdered. My first platoon corporal was murdered delivering vegetables to a Roman Catholic school in Roslea. The police called me out of Omagh market whilst I was selling cattle to tell me of it. Three brothers, all my soldiers, were killed over a period of time. One was killed in front of his family and his wife who was a Roman Catholic and staying with her parents at the time. Another was shot to pieces delivering groceries to a house a mile outside Lisnaskea. He was put down by the first shots but that was not enough. The killers went right up to him and shot him many times in the head. That was not a film but reality. It is impossible to describe the effects of such close range shooting.
The third brother, whom they had failed to kill previously, was killed while driving children to school on a school bus. Having wounded him, they pursued him to the back of the bus and riddled him with shots in front of the young children. The killers drove off cheering and laughing down the main street in Derrylin. They enjoyed what they were doing. We know from intelligence that after many other incidents, terrorists on both sides went to pubs and cheered and relished the brutality they had caused.
Only last year one evening I was travelling home from your Lordships' House. During the flight I read in the evening paper of a girl called Bernadette Martin. Noble Lords may remember that she was shot while sleeping in a house in Aghalee. Even though I did not have a clue as to who she was, I felt numbed by what I read. I decided to call and see the family before I got home. I asked for directions at the local police station in Portadown. I cannot describe what it is like to sit beside the coffin of a pretty young girl who has been riddled with bullets by a psychopathic killer. There were others there who did not know the family either. This was almost certainly done by a Protestant. Is he not guilty of a war crime? If and when he is convicted, does he have a right to early release? In any other country, even if there were a more legitimate type of war, would he not be tried as a war criminal?
I related that event because I wanted to demonstrate that the relatives and close friends of the 3,000 people murdered are not the only people affected by that sort of indiscriminate ethnic cleansing--
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, perhaps the noble Viscount will give way. Has he, and has the House, considered what would happen if, God forbid, a member of the family of any of the victims he has described, on hearing of the release of the killer of their loved one, were to kill that terrorist? Presumably that person would be tried conventionally for murder and sentenced to 30 years, with no early release.
Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, many thousands more people are affected. That is where the danger comes for the assembly. We talk about the victims, and the Bloomfield Report is important in relation to what we should do for them. However, we must not forget that we are not talking merely about the relatives of 3,000 murdered people. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of other people in Northern Ireland who are affected, and whose trust the Government require in order to go forward in the peace process.
By now it should be understood that many of those terrorists must have a serious psychological problem. Enjoying such brutality is not normal. Imagine knee-capping a person. Shooting is one thing, but drilling a person's knee with a Black and Decker must be a traumatic experience for any normal person--but these terrorists are not normal. So why are we considering their early release without removing their primary tools--their weapons?
This morning, through the RUC statistics branch, I learnt something which far exceeded my estimate: 205 children have been killed in terrorist-related incidents since 1969. That is a frightening number. It represents some 7 or 8 per cent. of the total deaths. Can that be considered justifiable in a so-called struggle for freedom? I was horrified, as I am sure your Lordships will be, to learn that fact. I do not have to wonder-- I know--how we treat child killers in the remainder of the United Kingdom.
Does society not have a right to demand decommissioning of weapons? I believe that normal society does have that right. I realise that it has not happened following previous IRA campaigns--for example, the '56 campaign. But it is different this time. The weapons used then were obsolete in a few years--bolt action long-barrelled rifles and gelignite which deteriorated during storage. This time, it is AK 47s, armalites and Semtex, which will be reusable in 20 or 30 years' time, whenever it is so desired.
The matters I have set out are the reasons that so many moderate unionists, or middle-of-the-road SDLP voters, may have worries. Many on the unionist side are not extreme Paisleyites. They simply believe that it is wrong to have early release prior to some decommissioning.
This Bill is to enable the Secretary of State to carry out the early release policy--but she must not act prematurely, regardless of the opinions of the vast majority of moderate people in Northern Ireland. It worries me when the only unequivocal supporters of this legislation are the terrorists and those who have close links with them. It is disturbing that that is the case.
The assembly is very finely balanced even as it stands, given the number of unionists who may not support its staying in place. If there is to be no real attempt at decommissioning, I fear for its future.
Sinn Fein, through its leadership--two members of which are commonly believed to be on the IRA army council--has, or has had, control of terrorists who personally had custody of paramilitary weapons. Sinn Fein leaders state categorically that there will be no decommissioning, and yet they are still in close touch with those terrorists. Are they now to be allowed out of this by saying that they are no longer responsible for the weapons? Is it right that all they have had to do is give their weapons to another of their groups for safe-keeping? That makes a mockery of it all. Handling a murder weapon and/or knowingly being an accessory, would not be treated in that way in Great Britain. Will the Minister tell the House how their commitment to use "any influence" they may have is to be judged in the light of those negative remarks and actions?
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, in addressing your Lordships today, I am wearing a different hat from my usual one. I was for two and a half years the president of the former Greater London area of the Conservative Party--that is, of the voluntary workers of the party. Before that, I was for six years its treasurer and then its chairman. As a result of the long period I spent in those positions I have had, and
In addition, for reasons about which I am too modest to speculate, I am frequently asked to speak at meetings of other associations around the country. That adds to my contacts with a large number of what may be called "ordinary" members of my party. From those very widespread contacts, I can tell the House that I believe ordinary party members take a realistic view of the Good Friday Agreement--that is, the one that was accepted by a majority of voters in the recent referendum. I stress that I refer to the original Good Friday Agreement. They are realistic enough to follow the dictum of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who pointed out that the only people you can make peace with are your enemies. Unless you can utterly defeat your enemies and impose unconditional surrender, making peace involves making compromises on both sides.
Nobody can win an urban guerrilla war, neither the government nor the guerrillas. A guerrilla war is what, to some extent, has been going on in Northern Ireland and the mainland. I say "to some extent" because the so-called paramilitaries, claiming to support either the republican or the loyalist sides, are in reality nothing but gangsters. Their pretended patriotic activities are to disguise their criminal actions in various forms: extortion, bank robbery, drug dealing, counterfeiting, smuggling, confidence trickery on gullible Irish Americans and any other form of racketeering when an opportunity presents itself.
One of the things that is most bothering my colleagues out there in the field, and, indeed, a great part of the British public, is the matter we are discussing today: the early release of these violent prisoners on both sides. I shall not refer to the link to decommissioning of weapons. My noble friend Lord Cope and most other noble Lords who have spoken have already mentioned the matter today.
Considering the pain, hurt and damage that the prisoners have collectively caused, the lives they have taken and the lives they have spoiled, it really goes against the grain to see them walk free, especially if that is accompanied by the disgraceful scenes of triumphalism we saw when the Balcombe Street thugs were temporarily released to attend the Sinn Fein/IRA rally.
Realism extends to understanding that, however distasteful the early release of these prisoners may be, it is one of the compromises that has to be made in the hope of securing the peace that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland passionately want. However, in order to reassure the public, both here and in Northern Ireland, that the Good Friday Agreement will not be watered down, certain basic conditions, I believe, must be imposed. First, the prisoner must, in writing, admit his guilt and acknowledge that his crime was inexcusable. In the present case, we do not want to hear any more talk about the convicts being political prisoners or prisoners of war, which is how the IRA describes its own gaoled
On the other hand, perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to the tragic case of Mr. Patrick Nicholls who was recently released after serving 27 years for murder. His life sentence had a tariff of 13 years, but he was not released because he simply would not admit his guilt of a crime he not only insisted he did not commit but which, it transpired, never actually happened.
Secondly, the prisoner must unequivocally apologise to those he has harmed or their families or those whose property he has destroyed. He must admit some kind of guilt and must have some kind of apology to offer. The Prime Minister has recently expressed a desire to apologise for the potato famine. No one alive today has any responsibility for that. But none of the criminal and violent acts committed by the prisoners who will be released occurred in the dim and distant past. They occurred during the lifetime of your Lordships. More important, the victims or their families are still alive. An apology is the barest minimum to which they are entitled. My noble friend Lord Tebbit mentioned that far more eloquently and passionately than I could.
Thirdly, the prisoners must undertake that they will never again either commit any act of violence themselves or aid, abet or encourage any other person to do so. Fourthly, the prisoner must admit that he signed the document of his own free will. We do not want to have any later recantations on the grounds that he signed under duress.
Fifthly, the Government must make it clear that any released prisoner who commits another act of violence or encourages it will be recalled to serve the rest of his sentence, even if it would have expired by then. This may need an amendment to the present Bill.
Sixthly and lastly, any sentence for a subsequent violent crime should be consecutive to the one for which the prisoner was recalled. In my maiden speech in this House on 23rd November 1993, I asked for a limitation on the use of concurrent sentences. I said:
What is required from the Government is a firm and binding commitment that if prisoners are to be released as part of the price that has to be paid for peace, then those prisoners must admit their guilt and be genuinely contrite. What is also required is that we should be assured that the prisoners will not simply be free to resume their criminal activities with impunity.
Lord Cooke of Islandreagh: My Lords, this is a very important Bill. It is not like other Bills which, after the wording has been discussed and the Bill passed, move away, perhaps to be looked at by lawyers. On this Bill will probably depend the future of the assembly in Northern Ireland. That has already been spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, and latterly by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough.
The early release of prisoners is perhaps the most difficult and burning subject in Northern Ireland. It is burning people up inside. It is not just what they are talking about in the street. I find it difficult to read and think about it clearly because the idea of early release of convicted terrorists is almost impossible. One can just accept that if we had peace and a settlement and the terrorists had stopped, it could be considered. But we are not yet at that stage. This Bill has already had a significant effect on what has happened in Northern Ireland in the past two weeks. Before the referendum, the Prime Minister took particular care to make repeated assurances in Northern Ireland about prisoner releases. I have no doubt that it was considerably due to what he said and the actions he took that a 71 per cent. yes vote was achieved in the referendum.
Then, only days after the referendum, this Bill was published and the four assurances set out in Clause 3(9) were seen to fall far short of those given by the Prime Minister. That was the general view. I dare say that if the technicalities of the words are examined, there may not appear to be much difference but the people in Northern Ireland felt that they had been let down. The Secretary of State has only to take into account the relevant factors when considering early release and all efforts to tighten up the wording were rejected in another place. That was widely reported in Northern Ireland and had a significant effect.
The defects were widely reported. It was no surprise that many of those who voted yes in the referendum voted for "no" candidates in the election which took place on Thursday. It was a very near thing. It now seems that the new assembly will have sufficient "yes" members to make it possible for it to go forward, but only by the narrowest of margins--something which this Bill influenced. I have no doubt that it will also have a considerable effect on how events develop in the assembly. The subject will not go away.
Perhaps we, in Northern Ireland, are simple. We believed that the Prime Minister could deliver what he said he could deliver. However, we are not used to spin-doctoring and ambiguous words. During the run-up to the election last Thursday, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who had accepted the Prime Minister's assurances, had his feet cut from under him, so to speak. He bravely and forcefully continued to promote the assembly as the only way forward. But his party's vote fell away by a substantial amount when many who would normally vote for the Ulster Unionist Party voted for a "no" candidate. The result is that there are almost enough "no" candidates to wreck the assembly, but I hope not enough.
Something needs to be done to help the "yes" members of the assembly. I believe it can be done in two ways. Clause 3 and its various subsections read, to those of us in Northern Ireland, as a possible subject for another fudge. The wording is not positive enough. That is extremely important. For instance, I cannot understand why an amendment, proposed in another place by the Opposition Member responsible for Northern Ireland affairs, was not accepted. He proposed that in Clause 3(9) the words "take into account" should be replaced by "be satisfied". The Bill would thus read,
Something further may be done to help the progress of the assembly. On 20th April the Northern Ireland Office published a statement saying what the British Government would do in respect of prisoners in the context of a peaceful and lasting settlement. We do not yet have a peaceful or lasting settlement; we have only started on the road to normality. Terrorists are still active, as last Wednesday's bomb in Newtownhamilton made clear. No terrorist organisation has yet made an unequivocal rejection of violence. But most people believe that early release is about to begin.
I hope that the Secretary of State will make clear that the conditions which will allow her to consider early release do not yet exist. Without such a statement this Bill, if passed in its present form, will be the cause of disquiet and considerable problems which will affect the assembly. Cannot the Government understand just how abhorrent is the concept of early release of convicted terrorists when little has changed on the ground? It may just be tolerable when normality has returned.
Of course I support the Bill as part of the agreement and the assembly which is to come. The great majority of people in Northern Ireland want it to succeed and it will be intolerable if the wording of this Bill is the cause of its failure. I hope that it can be amended in a careful way so that it makes a positive contribution to peace.
Lord McConnell: My Lords, at this late stage I do not intend to keep your Lordships for any lengthy period. First, let me say that I disapprove of the use of the word "prisoners". Those people are convicted terrorists and to describe them as "prisoners" is to try to put a veneer of respectability on people who do not deserve it.
I should like to refer, as did the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, to a conviction last week of a man who was sentenced to 15 years for his part in the Docklands massacre in which two people were killed. He was sentenced to 15 years and, according to the report in the Daily Telegraph,
I notice that in Clause 3(4) the Bill talks of not being a supporter of a terrorist organisation. It is easy for a terrorist to say, "It was not my organisation; it was a breakaway group". They can keep on changing the name of the group under which they operate and will move away from the one prescribed to some other one. If the Government believe that they will tie them up with those words, they must be rather na˙ve. Also, why do they want to keep their weapons if they have given up terrorism? What use are weapons unless they intend to start over again? I suggest that when people say that they will give up terrorism but want to keep their weapons, we should treat them with caution.
Lord Blease: My Lords, there is every reason that the issue concerning prisoners should feature highly in the present parliamentary programme. It is one of the main parts of the Good Friday Agreement. I compliment the home affairs section on the publication of research paper 98/65 on 15th June, made available by the House of Commons' Library. Some noble Lords may also have copies. I am sure that if other noble Lords had studied that report a number of questions that have been asked today would not have been asked. The report explains the Bill and its background. It is not a Northern Ireland Bill for the future; it is a reserved matter for the United Kingdom Government. The research paper sets out clearly and precisely the detailed history, the legislation, the current arrangements and procedures and the rules governing the release of prisoners in Northern Ireland.
I join with other noble Lords in condemning all those who have planned and perpetrated evil deeds under the guise of promoting the aims, objects and future well-being of the Irish people, especially the citizens of Northern Ireland. Never was anything further from the truth. These people should be utterly condemned by all sides.
I share the many views expressed about the suffering. The report by Sir Ken Bloomfield deserves the careful, thoughtful support of those who have suffered directly through terrorism and violence. It is not something which is simply erected such as a statue or a garden of remembrance. There is much suffering which needs to be helped and Sir Ken is to be praised for the report he has brought forward with such great sensitivity.
As to the Bill, the subjects of prisoner releases and decommissioning are not two inextricably linked parts of a single issue in the context of the agreement. On the 22nd May, 71 per cent. of the voters of Northern Ireland supported the agreement. Much of the debate since that time has centred around the interpretation of the agreement. As with most things in Northern Ireland, interpretation depends upon your political perspective.
On the 25th June, the same day as the Northern Ireland electorate voted, Coopers and Lybrand was commissioned by the BBC to conduct a poll. People were asked to comment on five issues, but I shall refer to only two. They were asked whether they thought weapon decommissioning will have started by June 1999: 36 per cent. of all those questioned said yes and 64 per cent. said no, that weapon decommissioning will not have started. Asked whether prisoner releases will have started, 82 per cent. said yes and 18 per cent. said no. In other words, the electorate have a better knowledge of the procedures that will fall into place than some politicians. Politicians use the situation to stir up, mislead and make aspects of it more hideous than perhaps they are.
The questions asked in the poll were based closely on the peace accord package which underpins the Good Friday Agreement. The outcome of that poll and the outcome of the election clearly demonstrate that the electorate is still saying what it said in the referendum. Instead of the issues of decommissioning, prisoner releases and other matters running in parallel, they must be taken as part of a programme. They do not all have to be resolved at one time in order to make progress. They must be taken in stages as they become manageable and the United Kingdom Government see them as a proper way forward.
There is a view which says that decommissioning must always come before anything; if it cannot be delivered, everything waits. If that view is put into practice there will be no assembly in place and working until all these things are brought together and resolved. That is a topsy-turvy way of putting it to the people.
This Bill is deserving of support. It is manageable, and the United Kingdom Government have the knowledge and the machinery available to deal with it. They do not have the machinery set up to deal with decommissioning, except for the commission that has been set up to look at it.
We are building on the principle of parliamentary democracy in the way the Bill has been presented, both here and in another place. I support it because it is a stepping stone on the road to civilised living and parliamentary democracy in Northern Ireland, a feature we all want to see. It cannot be done by a bolt from the blue from heaven. It must be won by the people and those they have voted into office.
Lord Dunleath: My Lords, I have received a letter this afternoon from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, regretting that he is unable to be with us today and unable to speak. That moves me one position up in the speakers' list. I am conscious of the fact that I am the last man in and following many other distinguished noble Lords who, like me, come from Northern Ireland. At least two distinguished former members of the Northern Ireland Office, the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, and the noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield, have spoken. We have also heard from other noble Lords who have suffered from terrorism. I too remember Brighton and I take great heed of what the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, has said this afternoon. I offer my continuing sympathy both to him and to Lady Tebbit.
I wish to thank the Government Chief Whip, who, with his usual courtesy and good sense, rearranged the timetable so that noble Lords from Northern Ireland who were busy voting early, but I hope not too often, last Thursday could take part in this important debate on the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill today. Indeed, I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Molyneaux and Lord Weatherill for raising the potential clash that might have occurred when your Lordships' House met on 11th June.
However, am I alone in being surprised that there was not a murmur of protest from the usual channels; not a word from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when his Benches contain a number of distinguished noble Lords from Northern Ireland and when he was surely aware that Mr. Andrew Mackay, the main Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland in another place, was about to end the bipartisan approach to the Province's affairs; not a squeak from the Liberal Democrat Benches, when their number includes the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who always speaks so fluently and with such good sense on Northern Ireland matters? I am sorry that he is not here today but he did warn me that he would be preparing for the first meeting of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. I congratulate him most warmly on his election to that body. However, one should perhaps not be too surprised at the lack of comment as one understands that Mr. Ashdown is almost as desperate as Mr. Mandelson to become a member of Mr. Blair's Cabinet; so presumably the Liberal Democrat Benches are not allowed to protest at anything that this Government do.
I thank the Minister for setting out this afternoon's business with the clarity to which one has become accustomed. The election results from last Thursday give us some hope, but there are other things which still give us much cause for concern. The commission on policing is one and it is to be hoped that Mr. Patten and his colleagues will not be seduced into making ill-advised changes when we are so fortunate to be served by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who are without doubt the finest and most courageous police force in the world. Their operational efficiency and capability must not be compromised or diluted at any cost. They deserve the support of all right-minded people, in particular with the marching season that is now upon us; and goodness knows what will happen after the decision of the Parades Commission and the banning of the Orange Order from marching down the Garvaghy Road, which was announced earlier today.
Decommissioning is another cause for concern, although we are beginning to hear encouraging noises from the loyalist paramilitaries at least. Let us hope that the IRA, the INLA and other republican groups will follow suit. However, in a strange way I wonder whether the whole issue of decommissioning is being over-exaggerated. Obviously, such a process will provide comfort. But even if every weapon is decommissioned, it is so easy for anyone with the right contacts and the right money to re-arm from a world arsenal that is awash with weapons.
The third cause for concern is the emotive subject of the release of prisoners. To many, myself included, the early release of prisoners who have committed the most dreadful terrorist crimes is complete anathema. I was in Belfast city centre on that bloody Friday in the summer of 1971. Further examples of terrorist crimes have been graphically and movingly described by my noble kinsman Lord Brookeborough. However, in dealing with the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill, we must put personal feelings firmly to one side. This Bill is being enacted in line with, and to implement a part of, the agreement that was signed in Belfast on Good Friday.
The key is that the Bill can go no further than was agreed and signed up to by all the participating parties at Stormont. In that context, the Government in another place have accepted amendments that are wholly consistent with the agreement. The Official Opposition, in an unholy alliance with the DUP, Mr. McCartney and those Ulster Unionists who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, have sought to bring in a further amendment that would have the effect of tying in the release of prisoners to the progressive decommissioning of weapons.
While I am sure that we all find such a formula attractive, there is no linkage whatever in the agreement between the release of prisoners and decommissioning. It is not hard to envisage what would happen if we now started to cherry pick--I apologise for using those dreadful words--through the agreement. The Government of the United Kingdom would lose all credence; and with that gone their moral authority to prevent any party and, in particular, Mr. Adams and his fellow travellers in Sinn Fein/IRA, from rejecting any elements of the agreement that did not suit them.
Much has been made of what the Prime Minister may or may not have said at Balmoral, at Westminster and elsewhere, but that is totally beside the point and completely irrelevant. However, maybe in future he will think first before he makes his soundbites. He was not a party to the agreement which was signed up to by all those who participated in the talks. I am sure that noble Lords need no reminding that this agreement has subsequently been endorsed by 71 per cent. of the electorate that voted on it. Mr. Peter Robinson has now claimed with regard to the agreement in another place:
I am sorry that he cannot be more positive. Mr. Robinson is my Member of Parliament in East Belfast and he is hard-working, highly effective and very conscientious in his constituency work. I wonder whether he ever reflects on how, if he and his party had not walked out of the talks, they might have influenced the final outcome. I hope that one day he may learn that constructive politics are so much more rewarding than always being in a position of having to say no.
I have been encouraged by press reports indicating that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, thinks that the Official Opposition will not oppose this Bill at Second Reading, in your Lordships' House. I hope, but I am not certain, that that is the case. However, it is perhaps worth remembering that, in the Division in another place on 18th June, the Opposition were not joined by any Northern Ireland MP who is in support of the agreement, be they Ulster Unionist or SDLP.
Last Friday, I was talking to a great friend, Sir John Gorman, who was standing as an Official Unionist candidate in North Down, who, thankfully, has been elected to the assembly. I would reiterate his words when he said that the Opposition's voting against the sentences Bill in the Commons was political opportunism of the worst possible kind. One shudders to think how many votes they delivered to the parties that seek to wreck the assembly.
Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, this has been one of the most sombre and serious debates I have ever heard in this House and those of us who have had the privilege of being here throughout have much to think about.
The people of Northern Ireland have taken major and very brave steps, first, by endorsing the Good Friday Agreement and, on Thursday, voting for members of their own Northern Ireland Assembly. I am sure that everyone in your Lordships' House wishes those members well on Wednesday as they enter a new era of great responsibility. Naturally, there will be difficulties and set-backs, but with good will on all sides, the fruits of their labour could be rich indeed.
The agreement came about after dedicated work in recent years by both my right honourable friend John Major and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew. It has been taken forward by the Government, culminating in the Good Friday declaration. It was supported by all parties to the negotiations. I support it and I want to see it work. I believe that we should do all in our power to see that it does. This is a chance to restore democracy as a result of compromises on all sides. One could say that it is a result that pleases no one, but if it brings to an end the terror and mayhem that has bedevilled Northern Ireland for 25 years, then it is an option that we cannot ignore and must support. As my noble friends Lord Tebbit, Lady Park and Lady Denton of Wakefield have said, it goes against decent instincts to agree to the release of convicted prisoners on both sides who have committed such terrible crimes and show no remorse. Yet we know that without bringing the subject of prisoners into the mainstream equation there would have been no agreement.
However, the subject of decommissioning is equally important to us and, I believe, to the majority of British people. Of course I understand that it is impossible to have a situation where a certain number of guns and a certain amount of ammunition is handed over simultaneously as a prisoner is released. But I believe that it is essential that there must be an absolute and unequivocal commitment to the two processes to proceed hand in hand. It is important for us to keep the fact before us that prisoners will only be released if their particular organisation has given up violence for good. We are not talking about an amnesty. A released prisoner will be on licence so recall is possible if violence erupts again, but, as my noble friend Lord Cope said, if he has not gone to ground.
Decommissioning is a vital issue in the process. We hope to persuade the Government to accept our argument. We believe that it is essential to spell out loud and clear in the legislation that bombs and guns must be handed over to prove the permanent commitment to non-violence. There must be maximum safeguards consistent with the agreement. We understand only too well and share the feelings of victims and their families. We cannot allow such injustice to take place unless there is a real chance of lasting peace.
It is our responsibility to ensure that the Bill leaves your Lordships' House a better, more precise and unambiguous Bill which we hope will be understood and accepted by British people on both sides of the water. To that end important amendments will be tabled by my noble friends. We intend to pursue them strenuously as we move to the next stage of the Bill.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, this has been a thorough, extensive and very moving debate. It is certainly the most moving debate that I have heard, either in this House or in the other place when I had the privilege of serving there. I understand and respect the very strong feelings that have been voiced this afternoon. I acknowledge the strong feelings. I understand the anxieties and concerns to which this legislation gives rise. I well understand that it is the natural human reaction--and I share it--to feel deeply uncomfortable that people who have committed the most appalling crimes--we have had descriptions from some of the victims of those crimes this afternoon--should be released from gaol long before they have served what society would normally demand represents justice.
I also understand that, although many noble Lords wish the Good Friday Agreement to succeed, some of them will find it difficult to support this legislation or will wish significantly to change it. I understand the sentiments which give rise to that.
It seems to me that the Government have a simple choice. There is no other way forward to bring peace to Northern Ireland. If we are right in that--I believe most sincerely that we are--then we have to make very difficult and painful decisions. The prize is peace for the people of Northern Ireland and the end of terrorism in all parts of the United Kingdom. That is the prize. I believe many people will feel it right to make sacrifices for that. But it sits uneasily that some people who have committed the most appalling crimes and not shown any remorse, will be let out early.
It is a major undertaking to make special arrangements for the early release of prisoners convicted of crimes of terrorism. The Government have not entered into it lightly or without good reason. But we are here today debating this Bill because of the other matters which are integral parts of the Good Friday Agreement. That is the only reason we have for bringing the Bill before your Lordships' House.
In drawing up the legislation, we have taken care to ensure that appropriate safeguards are included. This afternoon I have already referred to the conditions that prisoners must satisfy to be released and the terms of
I have a great many points of detail to refer to and I shall try to do that as briefly as possible, but I fear that it will take a little time. Before I do that, perhaps I may make two general points. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Government are as one in their approach to the issues of Northern Ireland. There is nothing useful to be served by trying to find dots or commas to suggest that there are differences within the Government: there are not.
In reply to a comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, the Government's policy is that the future of Northern Ireland will continue to be determined by the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That consent will determine whether at any point in the future there is to be a change in its status. As long as the people of Northern Ireland want it to remain part of the United Kingdom that is what the Government will ensure happens.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page