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Lord Mayhew of Twysden rose to call attention to the value of the Belfast Agreement 1998 (the Good Friday agreement), and to the dangers inherent in failing to secure from all its participants the prompt and complete implementation of all its provisions; and to move for Papers.
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, we all await with fascination and anxiety the unfolding of events in Northern Ireland. There is an argument that when matters are so uncertain, when the stakes are so high and many of the factors so sensitive, Parliament should bide its time and hold its tongue. I acknowledge that argument, but I do not share it. I am delighted to see that at least 16 Members of this House wish to speak in this debate. I am especially delighted that they include my noble friend Lady Park, who is newly restored to us following a serious operation.
We should, of course, be understanding of the restraints that circumstances impose upon Northern Ireland Ministers. We should acknowledge the complexity of the interacting forces and issues with which they have to deal. But I do not think that we are obliged, in order to be responsible, to hold back at this time from comment and serious questioning. After all, for all the progress--and it is great and highly creditable--the scene is deeply fraught with danger and anxiety. Indeed, it may well be a good thing for others
The Belfast agreement was concluded 10 months ago and it dominates the scene today. I have more than once heard the noble Earl, Lord Longford, describe the agreement as the best thing that has happened to the island of Ireland for a very long time indeed. I cannot rival his experience, but with plenty of Irish blood myself as well as English blood, I respectfully agree. It was a great achievement on the part of all the participants. I pay particular tribute to the determined impetus given by the Prime Minister, and by Dr. Mowlam. I also pay tribute to the political courage that has been shown, notably by Mr. Trimble and Mr. Seamus Mallon. Neither has been content to stand in the trenches that are so familiar to their parties.
There are many facets to the value of the agreement, but at the head and forefront I place the fact that, today, all parties agree, and all participants agree, that the future of Northern Ireland will be determined only by the wishes of most of the people who live there--wishes that they are to be able to express freely and with no one leaning on them. That is a great advance from the days when the Irish Government insisted on the claim to the whole island. While that claim pertained, very many unionists only looked across the Border with distrust and indignation. That was in part an explanation, and a wholly understandable one, for a continuing siege mentality, a mentality that was greatly stimulated by the way in which the Anglo-Irish Agreement was negotiated in total secrecy.
There is another plus, and it is again democratic in character. Republicans have traditionally and contemptuously dismissed Northern Ireland as an illegitimate, invalid, failed statelet. But by negotiating the agreement and by participating in the resulting elections, they now accept the validity of a legislative assembly for Northern Ireland. That is so notwithstanding the fact that the Assembly has, and looks like continuing to have, a majority of parties supporting the Union, and that that Assembly will be the basis for an executive committee that will govern Northern Ireland democratically. To have the validity of all that accepted by nationalists, not to mention republicans, is an advance indeed. The agreement will also allow common cause to be made more effectively between North and South on economic, social and other matters that extend across the border; and that is valuable too.
Achieving these changes has made very heavy demands upon the credulity and nerve of all in these islands who cherish the rule of law or who have bitter memories of lawlessness, or who are sceptical of tigers purporting to change their spots. They have had to take on trust Sinn Fein's assertion, as well as the assertions of those loyalist parties affiliated to equally evil paramilitary organisations, that they are now in truth committed to non-violence, and to wholly peaceful and democratic means of pursuing their political objectives.
It was very difficult for people to generate that trust, and it has been harder still to sustain it, in the light of several deeply worrying factors. The first was the failure, by the time of the agreement, to make even a start with the decommissioning of illegally held arms. The independent commission under General de Chastelain was already empowered; but with one welcome but small exception, the LVF, that failure has been maintained.
The next factor was the repeated infliction by paramilitaries on both sides, politically represented in the talks, and in the Assembly, of so-called punishment beatings, better described as hideous mutilations. A revolting example is reported as occurring in Beesbrook, South Armagh, only last night when death threats were carved on the arms and legs of a woman by eight men who had burst into her home. I wonder whether the Minister is yet able to tell the House what group is thought to have been responsible.
The motives for these attacks have generally been no less political than the motives of those who were responsible for the bomb at Canary Wharf or, on the other side, for the massacre that took place in the bar at Grey Steel. Euphemised as "civil administration", their purpose has been to elevate their perpetrators in their own communities above the scrupulously disciplined RUC. There have also been the banishment, or exile, orders issues by both loyalists and republicans. They represent a very serious intrusion and assault as well. It was reported in The Times a couple of days ago that 64 people, including 15 families, were exiled by loyalist and republican paramilitaries in January alone. As many as 18 more have had to leave this month. They are usually given 24 or 72 hours to get out. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm those figures.
It is small wonder then, in the light of those factors, that the agreement's provisions for the early release of prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes were the most difficult of all for people to accept and support; as I did myself, and continue to support. The agreement provides that all those convicted of scheduled offences committed before the date of the agreement and serving sentences of five years or more shall be eligible for early release, provided that the organisation to which they are affiliated has established and is maintaining a complete and unequivocal cease-fire. As your Lordships know, many of those prisoners who in the view of the Government are now eligible under this enacted scheme have been sentenced either to life imprisonment or to very long determinate periods in prison for offences of the utmost gravity. Yet the declared intention and expectation is that all shall be released by next summer.
That was far different in character from a change made by the previous government in the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Bill 1995. That measure merely restored to Northern Ireland the same level of remission, namely 50 per cent., that is the norm in England and Wales. It had no application at all to
However, if the 1995 scheme is seen, as I have heard argued today, nevertheless to have been a concession, it was certainly a concession that bought nothing, because within a few weeks the IRA let off the bomb at Canary Wharf and brought their cease-fire to an end. If there is a lesson there, then so be it.
What is beyond doubt is that the Belfast agreement makes a vastly wider concession, in totally different circumstances. That is doubtless why the Prime Minister, when campaigning in the referendum for a "yes" vote, along with all other party leaders, sought to coat the pill so thickly with reassurances and safeguards.
I acknowledge the reality that without such provision for early release of prisoners it is unlikely that there would have been any agreement at all. But such is the gravity, to say nothing of the potential danger of overriding the sentences of the courts to this extent, that a most rigorous scrutiny surely has to be maintained on what is delivered in return.
The Prime Minister said, during the referendum campaign, that as time went on the test for a complete and unequivocal ceasefire would get more rigorous. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether that has happened, and if so, how. He said, however, that from the outset in making an overall judgment on all the relevant information the Government would look to see whether an organisation was committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to further its objectives.
He also said that account would be taken of whether an organisation had ceased to be involved in any acts of violence, or preparation for violence, and whether it was co-operating with the commission. Violence would have to be seen to have been given up for good. Those safeguards were vital. "We will make them stick", the Prime Minister said. They would be enshrined in legislation.
For my part I do not doubt for one minute that the Prime Minister meant all that completely sincerely, for it was the very least that could justify the drastic measure that had been agreed. We are told that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 now achieves those limitations. We are told that, on that basis, the Government's judgment remains that on all sides a complete and unequivocal ceasefire is indeed being maintained. I hope that the Minister will be able to help as to how that conclusion is reached in the context of what I have described. It is a conclusion that causes me and many others much anxiety.
For my part, I tried to express it in this House in the context of prisoners as long ago as 30th July last year. When I did so, it was not an attack on Ministers but an expression of opinion, just as in our time those noble Lords' belief that the renewal of the anti-terrorist legislation, or some of it, was wrong and unnecessary was no more than an expression of opinion.
I have already referred to the exclusion orders. Does it make a difference that the attacks are on victims within what are called "their own people"? It is hard to see how in those circumstances the maintenance of a complete and unequivocal ceasefire can be discerned. For my part, I should welcome the Minister's assistance on that matter too.
Then there is the very important matter of the decommissioning of arms. With the welcome exception of the LVF, there has been none whatsoever. Yet, if you hold stocks of semtex, for example, how can you claim that you are not involved in acts of preparation for violence, for that can have no possible defensive purpose. I realise that the agreement sets no date by which the decommissioning must begin; nevertheless, is it not inherent in the spirit of the agreement that decommissioning should have proceeded in parallel with the enormous changes that have been initiated in pursuance of the agreement? I think of the inquiry into the future policing of Northern Ireland, the equality commission, the British-Irish Council, and so forth.
What worries people is that it seems so hard to establish with clarity what significance the Government attach to the mutilation assaults and the banishments carried out at the direction of the organisations whose prisoners continue steadily to be released. I suggest that the Government have had from the outset a lever to hand that could well bring about the discontinuance of the outrages that typically have left men and women with shattered legs or emasculated or dead.
That lever is constituted by the power and the entitlement that the Government have under the agreement to discontinue the early release of prisoners until such time as an indication is given that these attacks are finished for good. I submit that to use that lever would have been to apply the agreement, not to walk away from it. I greatly fear that if the Government persist in denying the validity of the lever, then public confidence will slip away just as the lever itself will slip away, with the continued early release of the prisoners.
In conclusion, it is only fair to note from the Belfast Telegraph in recent days that there are welcome signs that the UDA has declared an end to beatings, in north and east Belfast at least, and that the IRA--although they have made no declaration--appear this month to be desisting. If that is true, it is very welcome as far as it goes.
But those who direct the paramilitaries have shown in the past that they can turn them on and off at will. It would help if the Minister would give an indication as to how the Government assess this latest, and, I repeat, welcome development. After all, we are approaching the deadline for the establishment of the executive council.
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