|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is he telling me that the policy enunciated by Mo Mowlam in January 1996 is not the Government's policy and that the Labour Party--I know that the Minister cannot speak for it--will begin to recruit members in Northern Ireland rather than rely on the republican SDLP to represent their case in Northern Ireland?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I have stated the Government's policy. It is that there will be no change in Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom unless a majority of the people there want that to happen. That is the Government's policy and there is no equivocation about it. The Secretary of State has explained that policy on countless occasions. I have heard her myself and I am sure that the noble Lord has also heard that.
As regards the recruitment of Labour Party members in Northern Ireland, I suggest that that is not a subject for deliberation this afternoon, although I shall be happy to debate it with the noble Lord on a future occasion, if he so wishes, and perhaps outside the House.
Perhaps I may refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. No one who heard it could fail to be affected by his strength of feeling. I acknowledge, too, that his remarks were born not only out of his personal experience of terrorism--he indicated very clearly that that was not the reason that he put forward his arguments, although his personal experiences are truly shocking--but out of his strong personal attachment to the Union and his beliefs in justice. I believe that I am being fair in putting the matter in those terms.
However, I ask the noble Lord when reflecting on the Bill to dwell upon the fact that it has its origins in an agreement which had the consent of political parties representing the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland and that it was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, and by both Houses. That agreement was freely and voluntarily negotiated and entered into by the political parties of Northern Ireland--unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican. Therefore, whatever view we may take of the legislation, it will give effect to a scheme which undeniably reflects the views of the parties and which they felt able to support. The agreement was endorsed by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland. I give way again to the noble Lord.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, the Minister is extremely generous and I am most grateful to him. However, he must accept that, although the agreement was, as he said, approved by the people of Northern Ireland, it has an effect on all the people of the United Kingdom because it affects justice, and justice is a matter which affects all of us in this kingdom, and justice must be even-handed on both sides of the water for they are both parts of this kingdom.
Lord Dubs: Yes, my Lords. Of course, justice must be even-handed, but the search for peace affects all parts of the United Kingdom as well and the people of England, Wales and Scotland are as committed to achieving peace in Northern Ireland as are the people of Northern Ireland. Both Houses of Parliament are committed to achieving that peace. It is because of the prize that is at stake--peace for the first time in Northern Ireland for many years--that we have put forward legislation which is controversial and causes some people understandable anxiety. However, peace is the aim and the motive. I suggest to the noble Lord that all the people of the United Kingdom share that aim. If we were to achieve long-lasting peace in Northern Ireland--I believe that for the first time for many years that is within our grasp--I believe that people would say, "Yes, it was difficult, but it was worth while".
Both this Government and their predecessors have spent years encouraging the parties in Northern Ireland--unionist and nationalist--to reach agreement and we must now take that agreement seriously. As I have said, the early release of prisoners is part of that agreement. We, the Government, are trying to give effect to the agreement. It is in that context that we have had this debate.
My noble friend Lord Fitt also spoke with great strength of feeling, which the whole House respected, from his personal experiences not only of threats to him personally, but also in relation to the many people close to him who have been killed or injured over many years. I pay tribute to my noble friend for the way in which he put his position and expressed his doubts and uncertainties; but he also said--I think that I am being fair to my noble friend--that, difficult as it is, he will go along with what we are trying to do because there is a greater purpose to be achieved.
Perhaps I may deal now with some of the very many specific points made about the Bill. I shall do my best to do justice to them, although I may not reply to noble Lords' points in quite the order that they were put to me. The noble Lords, Lord Cope of Berkeley and Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, asked what happens when a prisoner on licence commits an offence but then escapes from Northern Ireland, perhaps to the Republic. They asked how we can get such a person back. When persons are fugitives from justice, the Government are committed to pursuing them and to achieving extradition under international agreements. We have such an agreement with the Irish Government and we intend that that agreement should be used in such instances--
Lord Dubs: My Lords, the noble Lord laughs, but people have been extradited. I believe that the positive atmosphere between the British Government and the government in Dublin will ensure that there will be even better co-operation in the future than there has been in the past in order to achieve effective extradition should such a circumstance arise.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the difference between fixed-term prisoners and prisoners with life sentences as regards the conditions applied to their release. The noble Lord argued that all prisoners should be subject to the condition which applies to life-sentence prisoners that, if released, they would not be a danger to the public--and that this should also be a licence condition.
I understand the arguments that have been made, but there are good reasons not to apply a risk test of this kind to fixed-term prisoners. Under Northern Ireland law, all fixed-term prisoners are released automatically after they have served a given portion of their sentence. There is no requirement that they be subject to a condition that they would not be a danger to the public. This was also the case under the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act introduced by the previous government. Prisoners who were released under the terms of that Act were not subject to a risk test. To impose a condition of this kind would introduce a new concept into the law of Northern Ireland.
It is also important to remember that the primary concern of this Bill is with prisoners who have been convicted of offences related to terrorism. Under the third condition, which applies to fixed-term prisoners as well as lifers, a prisoner may not be released if the commissioners believe he would be likely to become a supporter of a terrorist organisation or to become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland. So if there is a genuine concern that a prisoner may return to violence after release, he may not be granted a declaration by the commissioners. A similar condition is imposed as part of the licence. We do have safeguards, but there is a reason for dealing differently with the two sets of prisoners.
The key point in today's debate has been decommissioning--perhaps I may use that shorthand term--and the need to prove that there is a ceasefire. Numerous noble Lords referred to that. They argued that the test that the Secretary of State must apply in deciding whether an organisation is a terrorist organisation, that is--whether an organisation has established and is maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire--should be supplemented by the requirement that such an organisation has already begun to decommission weapons. I believe that that was the key point in many of the arguments that have been advanced today.
Perhaps I may begin by saying that we are at one in our desire to see the decommissioning of illegal arms. There is no good reason for any organisation that is truly committed to a democratic process to hold on to arms. The agreement explicitly recognises this in the section which deals with decommissioning. But we cannot add or take away from the agreement. We cannot insert a precondition or test which is not there. To do so would be to do exactly what we have told others must not be done. We must implement the agreement as a complete document--a document voted on by the people of Northern Ireland--and remain faithful to its terms. The agreement states:
That does not mean that decommissioning is not important or not relevant. In his Balmoral speech on 14th May, the Prime Minister set out four factors that would be taken into account in deciding whether an organisation had established and was maintaining such a ceasefire. Co-operation with the decommissioning commission to implement the provisions of the agreement was one of those factors. Under the terms of the Bill, the Secretary of State must take account of this and each of the other factors in deciding whether the test is met. But it would not be right for this House to change the status of those factors to make all or any of them into separate tests that must be satisfied. That is not what the agreement says and we must be true to the agreement.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page