HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1082-168

Order for Second Reading read.

3.45 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The aim of the Bill is to bring into effect proposals in the Good Friday agreement dealing with prisoners. Prisoner issues are part of that agreement—he commitment given by both Governments was to put in place mechanisms for an accelerated programme of prisoner release. In our case, that applies to prisoners convicted of scheduled offences—that is, offences connected with paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and those outside Northern Ireland convicted of similar offences. We gave a commitment in the agreement that we would seek to enact the appropriate legislation by the end of June.

The agreement is a package, supported by parties and the people, and it is a whole and not to be cheny-picked. The package won the support of more than 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland on 22 May, in both communities. As we discussed in the House on Monday last week, I know that there is much concern among those who voted yes and those who voted no about the actual details. We have a duty to people to implement the people's wishes, but, at the same time, to do our best to address those concerns.

I believe that the agreement is the best chance that we have to bring an end to the vicious cycle of violence and murder in Northern Ireland and to ensure that new generations do not continue to suffer all the grief and pain of the past.

On 20 April, I placed in the Library of the House a paper that set out in detail how the Government intended to implement our commitment in relation to prisoners. That paper set out the rigorous safeguards for the protection of the public. Those safeguards are now on the face of the Bill. For example, prisoners who support terrorist groups that continue to engage in violence or return to violence will not be released. Prisoners will be released on licence and immediately recalled if they engage in any terrorist activity.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The Bill actually states that prisoners will be released if they are not likely to be concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland. Given the international nature of terrorism—Sean O'Callaghan's recent book shows the links between the IRA and ETA—will the Secretary of State amend the Bill so that it covers, as she just stated, any acts of terrorism, rather than those solely relating to Northern Ireland?

Marjorie Mowlam

I will take note of the hon. Gentleman's point, but the Bill relates specifically to terrorist activity in Northern Ireland. If there is any question about the interpretation, we shall certainly check it with the draftspeople.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

In Scotland, when a prisoner is released under licence, he or she has to be of good behaviour, and can be put back in prison if convicted of a criminal offence. Should not the same hold in these circumstances?

Marjorie Mowlam

It does. Many safeguards are built in and, as we go through the Bill, we will see that it is robust. If released prisoners break the licence in any way, they will be taken back and will serve their full sentence. As a further safeguard, if circumstances deteriorate in Northern Ireland, the programme of release will be stopped and no prisoners will be released.

If an organisation has returned to violence, licensed prisoners who continue to support that organisation can be recalled. The Government's commitments have been made in the context of a lasting peaceful settlement. In his speech at Balmoral on 14 May, during the referendum campaign, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that if parties are to benefit from accelerated release, their commitment to democratic, non-violent means must be established in an objective, meaningful and verifiable way.

The Prime Minister said that in clarifying whether the terms and spirit of the agreement had been met and violence had genuinely been given up for good, a range of factors had to be taken into account: whether an organisation is committed to the use, now and in future, of only democratic and peaceful means of achieving its objectives; whether it has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or preparations for violence and is not directing or promoting such acts committed by other organisations; and whether it is co-operating fully with the decommissioning body. Those factors are all in the Bill.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What was the result of the Prime Minister's representations to my right hon. Friend about the cases of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright? Representations were also made by such careful lawyers as Lord Ackner, who does not make statements wildly.

Marjorie Mowlam

The Prime Minister made a statement to the House, and we have discussed the cases before. At the moment, I am responding to the judicial review of the decision that I took some months ago. When the review is complete, I shall report back to my hon. Friend and to the House. I assure him that 1 am taking the matter seriously and that it will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Would I be wrong in interpreting the Bill to mean that the early release scheme would include members of the armed forces who have been convicted of scheduled offences?

Marjorie Mowlam

Members of the armed forces, if they so choose, can apply as anyone else would.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

The Bill explicitly refers to membership of terrorist organisations and defines such organisations. It has nothing whatever to do with members of the armed services.

Marjorie Mowlam

As I said, it is up to those concerned whether they want to apply. The provisions relate to scheduled offences and, although members of the armed forces, not being part of a terrorist organisation, are not referred to specifically, I presume that, if they want to go to the commission, they can present their case; as the hon. Gentleman suggested, they may not choose to do so. The guardsmen's sentence is up for review before the Life Sentence Review Board in October, and that is the state of play.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

The right hon. Lady mentioned what the Prime Minister said when he was in Northern Ireland. He also said that violence had to be given up and that decommissioning is part of that. Is decommissioning part of her definition of violence being given up—so that these people can be let out of prison?

Marjorie Mowlam

The four factors that the Prime Minister outlined in his speech in Belfast on 14 May are central to deciding whether an organisation is on a ceasefire and committed to establishing and maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. The Prime Minister outlined four criteria covering a commitment to democratic peaceful means; involvement in any acts of violence or preparation of acts of violence; the use of proxy organisations; and full co-operation with the independent body on decommissioning. Those are the criteria on which I will judge whether a group is on a ceasefire.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who has been generous with her time. This issue is particularly important. She talks about the judgment that she must make about terrorist organisations or political parties involved with terrorist organisations and violence. She knows that punishment beatings, and some murders, have continued throughout the process. Two people were kneecapped, an easy term for a brutal event, in west Belfast last week, probably by IRA-linked, Sinn Fein-linked terrorists. In her judgment, will she take that, and punishment beatings by loyalists, into account?

Marjorie Mowlam

It is clear that I will make a judgment on the four factors, in which are included punishment beatings and the instigation of paramilitary activity. That is one of the factors that, in the round, will be part of that judgment. Like the hon. Gentleman, I find punishment beatings obscene. He mentioned two people. The weekend before that, three weeks ago, a 72-year-old man had both his legs taken out. A week ago, a Protestant man was so badly beaten that people were unsure that he would not bleed to death. They are obscene acts which must stop if we are serious about the process moving forward. They went on under all previous Governments. We have reached a new point where we have the consent of the people on the agreement. We should go forward in a positive way to build trust and confidence on both sides so that decommissioning and the other aspects of the agreement can move in parallel.

If the House will permit me, I should like to make some progress. In answer to a question, I listed the four factors that will be taken into account in an overall judgment on whether a complete and unequivocal ceasefire is actually happening.

Early prisoner releases are not new in Northern Ireland. There already exist arrangements for early prisoner release, set up at the end of 1995 by the previous Government. They entitle fixed-sentence prisoners to be released halfway through their sentences. Under those arrangements, approximately 240 prisoners have been released early. Of those, only two have had to be recalled for breach of their licences. The previous Government continued the policy despite the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire between February 1996 and July 1997. Even if there were no change in the law, about half the remaining prisoners covered by the new scheme would be free within the next two years.

There is no doubt that the prisoner issue has long been an important part of the search for peace in Northern Ireland. Successive British Governments have recognised that fact. When passing the legislation that is the forerunner of the Bill in 1995, my predecessor, Lord Mayhew, said: It is desirable that, in the light of the changed situation brought about by the ceasefires, the Government, in this field as in others, should not seem reluctant to respond in a positive manner".—[Official Report, 30 October 1995; Vol. 265, c. 23.] I agree. We supported and aided the swift passage of that legislation because we considered that it was a proportionate response to the ceasefire at the time.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

May I make something clear so that there is no misunderstanding? Completely unintentionally, I think that the right hon. Lady has misled the House. The previous Government's legislation that altered the time at which prisoners were released was merely to bring Northern Ireland back into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, so it would be wrong to define it as early release.

Marjorie Mowlam

In quoting my predecessor, so that I would not mislead the House, I was pointing out that there was an acknowledgement that changes in prison sentencing were needed as part of the overall agreement. As the previous Government tried to move the process forward, even when there was no decommissioning or ceasefire, they kept the scheme in place. I am not attempting to mislead the House in any way. I am trying to say that prisoner releases are not necessarily a terribly new process and that we are continuing some of the procedures that were already in place.

I should like to move on. Some people argue that we should never release any prisoners—under the previous scheme or under this one. I have to say that this is a difficult issue. In the past couple of weeks, I have heard from many people in Northern Ireland, including many families of victims, who have said that they find it deeply difficult and disturbing to cope with what is happening. That is true for them and very, very difficult. It is harder for them because, as we face change, they are worried that the deaths of their loved ones will be forgotten. We have done all that we can to listen to them and take into account their views. Some of them will never be able to come to terms with what is happening.

Other people who have written to me or come to see me say that, yes, they find it difficult, but that if it means that others do not have to go through what they have gone through, they will not come out against what the Government are trying to achieve.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

As one of the Members of Parliament in the Secretary of State's region, may I pay tribute to the work that she has done? One of the worst tragedies on the mainland was the murder some years ago of Special Constable Glen Goodman by the IRA terrorist Paul Magee, who was transferred recently from Full Sutton prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder, not to Northern Ireland but to the Republic of Ireland. I understand that the Bill does not deal with Republic of Ireland prisoners. Nor could it. Can she reassure the North Yorkshire community that someone whom the Home Secretary said ought to serve a minimum of 30 years will not be released? The community has still not come to terms with the atrocity of what happened five years ago, let alone the prospect that Paul Magee could be let out early.

Marjorie Mowlam

Paul Magee was transferred, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, in line with the policy adopted by the Conservative Government and mine that prisoners should be close to their families so that their families can see them, and their children do not suffer unnecessarily. Before the Home Secretary transferred Magee and others, he obtained an agreement from the Minister of Justice in the Republic that the sentence would remain as it was. That commitment was made to the Home Secretary, and I repeat it here for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) has raised an important matter. Would that convicted terrorist be allowed under the Bill and the arrangements to be transferred to a prison in Northern Ireland in order to qualify for release?

Marjorie Mowlam

He is a prisoner in the Republic. He could apply for transfer, but it is unlikely that the movement would take place. We accept transfers on the basis that they bring the prisoner closer to his family. Paul Magee is a prime example of someone whose family is not in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

The Secretary of State will be aware that if a Metropolitan policeman is murdered in the course of a felony, the murderer has to serve a minimum sentence of 26 years. In the Republic of Ireland, someone who murders a Garda Siochana in the same circumstances serves a minimum of 40 years. As 299 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary have been murdered in the course of their duties, can she explain why the Bill should provide for the release of some of the murderers, even within the terms of the 12 to 16 years that murderers commonly serve in Northern Ireland? Will she also confirm—

Madam Speaker

Order. This is an enormously long intervention, and many Members are seeking to catch my eye. I would ask now for a response from the Minister.

Marjorie Mowlam

Cases being considered under this legislation will go to the independent commissioners, who will look at them carefully, assess them in detail and be given additional information. Prisoners will be let out only on licence, and very clear conditions will attach to the releases.

All we are doing is implementing the agreement, which gained the support of 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland in the vote.

Under the Bill, prisoners may apply to the commissioners for a declaration that they are entitled to be released on licence. The Bill sets out criteria that prisoners must satisfy to be eligible for release.

The Bill requires that I appoint commissioners and have regard to the desirability of the commissioners as a group commanding widespread acceptance throughout the community in Northern Ireland. In addition, I am required so far as is reasonably practicable to ensure that at least one commissioner is a lawyer and at least one is a psychiatrist or psychologist.

I would intend to appoint a psychiatrist or psychologist with expertise in risk assessment in criminal cases. In the rules of procedure that I may make under the Bill, I will require that a commissioner with such expertise would sit on panels considering applications from life sentence prisoners.

The commissioners will consider each application on its merits against the criteria set out in the Bill. If those criteria are met, the commissioners will declare that a prisoner is eligible under the scheme. The criteria are as follows: prisoners in Northern Ireland must have been convicted of a scheduled offence committed before 10 April 1998 and sentenced to five years or more or life imprisonment. Only prisoners serving their sentence in Northern Ireland are eligible for release under the Bill.

A prisoner must not be a supporter of a terrorist organisation of the kind specified in the Bill, which means organisations that have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal cease-fire". That test follows directly from the words of the agreement, which exclude prisoners affiliated to such organisations.

This legislation will not remove the ban on organisations that are proscribed under our anti-terrorist laws. The IRA or UDA, for example, will continue to be proscribed, and membership of such organisations will continue to be a criminal offence.

A prisoner may not be declared eligible for early release if the commissioners consider that, if released immediately, he or she would be likely to become a supporter of a terrorist organisation or become concerned in the initiation, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. That means that no prisoner who the commissioners believe will return to violence may be released under the Bill.

Prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment would not be released if they would be considered a danger to the public. That maintains the protection that applies in respect of the release of all life sentence prisoners throughout the UK.

Mr. Dominic Grieve. (Beaconsfield)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

Two other hon. Members have indicated that they wish to intervene, but I want to make a little more progress before giving way.

I shall keep under review the list of organisations identified under the Bill and add or remove organisations as appropriate. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his speech of 14 May, considering whether a ceasefire is being maintained is a judgment which will necessarily become more rigorous over time"— and it will.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that all the lawyers appointed to be commissioners will be United Kingdom lawyers and not those from other jurisdictions?

Marjorie Mowlam

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not want to tie myself down in that way. We want to appoint, as clause 1 of the Bill states, a psychiatrist or psychologist and a lawyer with expertise. It is 99 per cent. likely that a lawyer with expertise in our criminal legal system would be of UK origin, so I can give the hon. Gentleman that much reassurance. However, I am more keen to ensure that we have a balanced, independent body, including a lawyer and a psychiatrist or psychologist, which people can trust and respect. The body has not yet been selected and, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, all the parties in Northern Ireland can submit nominations for bodies of that nature; I look forward to receiving the nominations from his party.

If the commissioners declare that a fixed-term prisoner meets the criteria set out in the legislation, the prisoner will be required to serve one third of his sentence in custody before being released on licence.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

To be fair, I shall take the intervention from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) before that of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson).

Mr. Grieve

I am much obliged to the right hon. Lady. I wanted clarification of a point relating to the transfer of prisoners to the Republic. Some of those transferred to the Republic, such as the Balcombe street gang, had full life tariffs, because it was considered that they were so dangerous that they should never be released. Am I correct in my understanding of the effect of transferring them to the Republic, which is that they escape completely the criteria under the legislation for consideration as to the likely danger they pose to the public, and that they will simply be released in two years' time, pursuant to the agreement?

Marjorie Mowlam

As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), the Republic has its own criteria; however, when the Home Secretary transferred prisoners to the Republic, he made it clear that he would do so only if the Minister of Justice gave an assurance that the full tariffs would be served. That is my understanding of what has happened.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Secretary of State was explaining to the House that a prisoner belonging to a proscribed organisation, for example the Provisional IRA, could openly inform the commission that he or she is a member of the Provisional IRA. However, if the Secretary of State has not listed the Provisional IRA as a terrorist organisation as specified under the legislation, that person will be entitled to release, even though that person is committing an offence by being a member of a terrorist organisation.

Marjorie Mowlam

The important distinction to bear in mind is that the Bill is concerned with organisations that are unequivocally committed to establishing and maintaining a ceasefire and those belonging to such organisations; proscription is concerned with the long-term purpose of an organisation. The emergency provisions Acts will still apply in respect of proscription.

Mr. McNamara

I think that my right hon. Friend may be inadvertently misleading the House. Section 1 of the agreement on prisoners reads: Both Governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners, including transferred prisoners, convicted of scheduled offences in Northern Ireland or, in the case of those sentenced outside Northern Ireland, similar offences (referred to hereafter as qualifying prisoners). Any such arrangements will protect the rights of individual prisoners". The agreement was made after the transfer of the prisoners.

Marjorie Mowlam

If I am in any way misleading the House, I shall clarify the matter in writing to the hon. Members who have asked questions. My understanding, having discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, is that the law was changed in relation to the transfers that were made. For the reasons highlighted by the Opposition, the Home Secretary was concerned that those prisoners should not be let out. He has a commitment from the Republic's Minister of Justice that they will serve their full tariff.

Mr. MacKay


Marjorie Mowlam

This will be the last intervention.

Mr. MacKay

I apologise to the Secretary of State. It is essential that, before the House reaches a conclusion on the Bill, everyone should know the facts. As someone who will vote for the Bill on Second Reading, I want other hon. Members to be absolutely clear.

The Bill states that there will be accelerated release of prisoners who fulfil the criteria that the Secretary of State mentioned. Any prisoner who is transferred to the Republic of Ireland, such as the one whom my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) mentioned, will fulfil those criteria.

The Irish have agreed that the sentence will be the same in Ireland as it is in England. The Bill will change the sentence in England so that the prisoner can be out within two years; therefore it will be possible to release him in Ireland in two years. We should be clear about that.

Marjorie Mowlam

If the situation is different from that which I have described, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I shall correct myself.

I say categorically to the House that the Bill applies to Northern Ireland. It is the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill, and it applies in that jurisdiction only. The Republic has its jurisdiction, and we have a commitment from the Minister of Justice that that is a different jurisdiction and its rules will apply. That is my categorical answer.

Mr. Grieve


Marjorie Mowlam

No, I will take no more interventions. However, I shall make sure that when the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), winds up, he will support the view that I have taken, because I believe that it is right. If I am wrong, I shall fully acknowledge that to the House. I do not think that I am wrong.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)


Marjorie Mowlam:

No, I am sorry. I am trying to be fair. I cannot take any more interventions, or it would be unfair to those whom I have already refused.

The Bill applies to Northern Ireland, not to the Republic, or to Scotland or Wales.

All prisoners released under the Bill will be released on licence. For fixed-sentence prisoners, the licence will continue until their sentence expires. Life sentences do not expire, so prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment who are released under the Bill will remain on licence for the rest of their lives.

Prisoners on licence need to continue to meet the criteria for release set out under the legislation. That means that they must not become a supporter of a terrorist organisation, and that they must not become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism concerned with the affairs of Northern Ireland.

If I consider that those licence conditions are breached in any case, I am empowered to suspend the licence and recall the prisoner to prison. If a licence is suspended, it will then be for the commissioners to decide whether the licence should be revoked.

Mr. Hunter


Marjorie Mowlam

No, I am sorry.

Under the agreement, both Governments gave commitments that should the circumstances allow it, any qualifying prisoners who remained in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme would be released at that point. The Bill provides that prisoners in respect of whom the commissioners have made a declaration, who remain in custody two years from the commencement of the legislation, shall be released at that time.

I am empowered under the Bill to bring that date forward or to put it back, depending, as stated in the paper that I placed in the Library on 20 April, on the circumstances and progress towards the creation of a more peaceful society". In considering whether that progress has been made, I shall take account of matters such as those identified by the Prime Minister and included in the text of the legislation.

As I said, and as is stated in the agreement, the arrangements will apply to prisoners convicted of similar offences committed in Great Britain and transferred to Northern Ireland. Such prisoners are not convicted of scheduled offences, which is a concept unique to Northern Ireland. The Bill gives me an order-making power in respect of transferred prisoners to bring them within the terms of the legislation. In such cases, the Attorney-General or Lord Advocate, as appropriate, will say whether the offence committed would, if committed in Northern Ireland, have been a scheduled offence under the emergency provisions Act.

The British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties have worked for years to bring about agreement on the future for Northern Ireland. We have before us powers to implement one aspect of that agreement. The Bill is the first stage in building what I hope will be a better future for Northern Ireland based on fairness, consent, peace and reconciliation. I commend it to the House.

4.20 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

While we are grateful to the Secretary of State for outlining the main provisions of the Bill before the House and the reasons why it is necessary, I must press her again on a particular matter. I genuinely believe that she has misled the House totally inadvertently and I ask the Minister of State to set the record straight in his winding-up speech. We have absolutely no doubt that anyone who has been convicted of a terrorist offence on the mainland, who has been imprisoned on the mainland and who is then transferred legitimately to Dublin will be eligible under the Act. The authorities in Dublin will have to respond to that.

Mr. McNamara

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay


I thank the Secretary of State sincerely for the way in which she and her officials have co-operated with the Opposition in drafting the legislation. That has been truly appreciated and I think that it has made a difference to the legislation.

Mr. McNamara

How can an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament possibly apply to the Republic of Ireland? The agreement applies to the Republic of Ireland, not the legislation.

sr. MacKay

I shall explain it simply to the hon. Gentleman. As the Secretary of State pointed out, the Minister of Justice in the Republic of Ireland gave assurances to the British Home Secretary that sentences in the Irish Republic would be the same as on the mainland. If the legislation changes sentences on the mainland, the Irish Government will be obliged to observe those changes—whether they like it or not.

Marjorie Mowlam

That reassurance was given before the Bill was drafted when the transfers were made months ago. I have tried to be reasonable and open with the House because this is difficult, detailed and complicated legislation. It applies only to Northern Ireland and the transfers made do not relate to the Bill. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reassure the House because I do not wish that misunderstanding to continue.

Mr. MacKay

We disagree fundamentally and we look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation. It is best to leave the matter at present, as I think that the Minister will have to clarify the situation with his officials.

Mr. Stott

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

No, I must proceed as many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.

The Bill incorporates some, but by no means all, of the safeguards sought by my party. For that reason, we shall not seek to divide the House this evening. However, there remain some areas of deep concern where we believe that the proposed legislation is either too weak or ill defined. I shall refer to those areas—and one in particular—during my speech.

Unlike the Bill giving effect to the referendum, we do not intend to allow this legislation to be fast-tracked through Parliament. It is far too important for that, as I am sure the Secretary of State acknowledges. We intend to examine the Bill thoroughly and subject it to the fullest possible scrutiny as it passes through Committee on the Floor of the House. We shall not shirk from tabling amendments where they are necessary to strengthen the Bill's provisions.

We owe the people of Northern Ireland, especially the victims of terrorist violence, many of whom are understandably hostile to the Bill, to get it right. For many people, myself included, the prospect of prisoners—many of whom have committed unspeakable acts of cold-blooded murder—being released is sickening. They feel that the Bill undermines the rule of law and is a concession to terror. That is not confined to Northern Ireland. In Great Britain, too, we have suffered appalling acts of terrorism. The House will remember former colleagues who have been murdered by republican terrorists.

I do not necessarily agree, especially in the context of an overall political settlement, with those who oppose the Bill. However, I certainly understand and sympathise with their arguments, as I did with the chairman of the Northern Ireland Police Federation a fortnight ago. Many of his members have been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism for nearly 30 years. We must always ensure that the sensitivities of the victims are at the forefront of our minds. I was grateful to the Secretary of State for making that clear.

The Bill is necessary to give effect to the key element of the Belfast agreement, which was reached in the multi-party talks on 10 April. I have no hesitation in repeating the opinion of the Conservative party that the agreement and the results of the referendum on 23 May were truly momentous events. We all hope that they will be seen to have marked a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland when the principles of democracy and consent finally triumphed over violence and terror.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I fully endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said about the agreement. Will he take it on board that the horror that is felt as a result of the crimes and atrocities committed, not only by the IRA but certainly by the IRA and the loyalist murder gangs, is felt throughout the House and is not the monopoly of the present Opposition? We all feel the same about the terrible crimes that have been committed. That is so of our feelings towards the victims and their close relatives. That should always be borne in mind.

Mr. MacKay

I readily acknowledge that and in no sense implied otherwise, as the hon. Gentleman will confirm.

It is surely incumbent on us all, even the members of those parties who campaigned for a no vote in the referendum, to try to build upon what has been achieved and try to make the agreement and the new institutions work.

The people of Northern Ireland have spoken overwhelmingly. More than 71 per cent. of them voted in favour of the agreement.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

No. I think that it is important that we make progress.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are anxious to show their democratic credentials and yearn for a lasting settlement and an end to the troubles. By any reasonable statistical judgment there was a clear yes vote in both communities for the agreement. We must never let critics of the agreement say anything else for that would be a plain untruth.

So a democratic verdict was clear. The prospects of failure now are far too horrific to contemplate. We in the Conservative party share the judgment of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that the agreement strengthens the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is clearly a partitionist settlement. The Act of Union, the bedrock of Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom, remains firmly in place. As a result of the referendum in the Irish Republic, the territorial claim over Northern Ireland has at long last gone, and not a moment too soon.

Mr. Browne

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

No. I have just said that I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

All the parties that signed up to the agreement signed up also to the principle that there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of its people. I believe that these arguments were well understood by the majority of the Unionist community in the referendum campaign. However, many Unionists found harder to accept the provisions of the agreement dealing with prisoner release and decommissioning. That is why the Opposition pressed for substantial decommissioning to take place before the early release of prisoners, and for this to be incorporated in the proposed legislation that is before us.

Those of us who were in the Province campaigning for a yes vote in the final few days of the referendum campaign were left in no doubt that a significant number of moderate people in both communities finally decided to vote yes only when the Prime Minister had given them a clear and unequivocal assurance that decommissioning and the renunciation of violence would be incorporated in the legislation on early prisoner release and the setting up of the assembly.

In the Opposition's view, the Bill goes only some of the way to satisfying those assurances and will, therefore, require amendment in Committee next week. The most serious omission is that it does not establish a clear legislative linkage between some actual decommissioning having taken place and the accelerated release of prisoners.

To put it simply, the Bill merely states that the Secretary of State shall in particular take into account whether an organisation…is co-operating fully with the commission, whereas what the people of Northern Ireland and elsewhere expect is that the Secretary of State should release prisoners early only if such organisations are fully co-operating with the commission.

Incidentally, as the Prime Minister stated in his Balmoral speech on 14 May, such co-operation is implementing provisions within the agreement. Therefore, let us have no talk that amending the Bill will be in breach of the agreement; it strengthens the agreement.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me put to the Secretary of State the words of the Prime Minister's pledge: Violence has to be given up and decommissioning is part of that. As I understand the Bill, those who are eligible for release must declare that violence has been given up. Whether it has been given up or not, or whether they have left the organisation, they must convince the Secretary of State that that is so. But the Bill is in no way linked with decommissioning. The hon. Gentleman is aware that the decommissioning commission has no power to make people decommission; it has power only when people are mutually prepared to decommission their weapons.

Mr. MacKay

The hon. Gentleman makes precisely the point that I am making. The amendment that we shall table next week insists that there is linkage between decommissioning and the earlier release of prisoners.

On precisely that point, I quote an exchange at Prime Minister's Question Time on Wednesday 6 May when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition told the Prime Minister: Opposition Members will argue strongly that the IRA cannot have prisoners released if it does not give up its guns and explosives. The Prime Minister replied: Again, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence. Decommissioning is part of that".—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.]

Mr. Peter Robinson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

No, I am at an important part of my speech. This is the key to ensuring that we get the Bill right.

Those remarks of the Prime Minister neatly summarise why many people in Northern Ireland were finally persuaded to support the agreement in the referendum vote. They must now not be let down by anything less being incorporated in the legislation.

We trust that the Government will be prepared to look again at the wording when we examine the Bill more closely in Committee. I have some confidence that they will because I know from my conversations with the Secretary of State that she is sympathetic to the points that I am making. But there is absolutely no possibility that the people of Northern Ireland who voted in the referendum can now be let down.

That quotation from the Prime Minister that I have just given the House is absolutely clear. It is not open to any possible misinterpretation. It is on the basis of that quotation and other remarks during the referendum campaign, and legitimate spin doctoring in the newspapers of the Province, that a large number of people voted yes. The Opposition intend to make sure that the Government stick to that assurance given by the Prime Minister from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Hunter

Can my hon. Friend not strengthen his argument by pointing to the Prime Minister's letter, which appeared in the Irish News and the News Letter on referendum day when he repeated that pledge in the context of Sinn Fein-IRA participation in the Executive?

Mr. MacKay

My hon. Friend is right. I am giving only one example; fortunately, there are numerous. I am delighted that there are, because the Prime Minister helped to achieve a yes vote with those assurances. We pressed him to give the assurances and we are entirely on his side. We now simply want to ensure that the assurances are implemented. I hope that there is nothing between us and that the Government will accept the amendments which my right hon. Friends and I shall move on Monday.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for members of Sinn Fein to be placed in executive posts in government before the organisation with which they are acknowledged to be inextricably, and therefore inseparably, linked has decommissioned would be a travesty of all principles of democracy?

Mr. MacKay

I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. Once we have before us the legislation setting up the assembly, I shall wish to move similar amendments if need be. The hon. and learned Gentleman and I sincerely trust that we will not need to do so because, if we are successful in having our amendments accepted next week, I hope that those who draft the subsequent Bill will incorporate them straight away. There is no difference between the two Bills, and the Prime Minister's assurances, both on the assembly and Ministers taking their place in the Executive and on the early release of prisoners, were identical. I therefore agree whole-heartedly with the hon. and learned Gentleman.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The hon. Gentleman is trying to take the high moral ground. Can he confirm that the previous Administration put in place legislation, which resulted in the release of a large number of terrorist-related prisoners, and not one ounce of Semtex was handed in, not one bullet was handed in, and not one gun was decommissioned? Can he explain what was happening in his Government at that time if the linkage that he is now trying to establish is such an important and key issue?

Mr. MacKay

I hope that I am not trying to establish a linkage, because the linkage clearly and irrefutably exists, as shown by the Prime Minister's remarks. I believe what the Prime Minister tells us at the Dispatch Box; it is a pity that the Minister does not. I have confidence that the Prime Minister will not let down the people of this country. The simple truth is that there would not have been a substantial yes vote—the sort that the Minister and I wanted, which showed the majority of the Unionist community voting yes as well—had the Prime Minister not given those assurances. Those assurances must now be turned into legislation, and I hope that when the Minister winds up the debate he will confirm that that will happen.

I would be failing in my duty as Opposition spokesman if I did not also mention the cases of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. People will find it hard to understand how the House is considering legislation that allows the early release of terrorist murderers while those two soldiers continue to languish in prison. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was speaking for the British people when he demanded a review of their case last Wednesday. Although we were naturally pleased with the Prime Minister's response that the Secretary of State was carrying out a review, the answer was news to everybody—probably including the Secretary of State.

The House would be interested to know from the Secretary of State when the review started, given that the latest court judgment took place as far back as 22 May.

Marjorie Mowlam

The decision took place on 22 and 23 May. I received the papers on 2 June and have been considering them since. I was aware of the Prime Minister's views.

Mr. MacKay

I am grateful to the Secretary of State. It is most unusual for this spin-doctoring Government not to pass on good news to our friends in the media. It came out only at Prime Minister's Question Time. Naturally, I accept the Secretary of State's response, as I always do.

This Bill is easily the most difficult and controversial of the legislation arising from the Belfast agreement. We cannot afford to get it wrong simply for the sake of speedy passage through the House. There can be no halfway house or fudge between democracy and terrorism, nor can we tolerate a situation whereby republicans or loyalists wield Executive power in one hand and an Armalite in the other. The changes that we want strengthen the commitment to democratic and peaceful methods and establish a clear link between early release and decommissioning. We look to the Government to take them on board.

4.39 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

As hon. Members have said, the Bill gives effect to part of the Stormont agreement. We must take the Stormont agreement as a whole, and should not pick and choose. Although this issue has caused great concern, nevertheless it is part of that agreement.

On that Good Friday afternoon, this aspect of the agreement caused us considerable difficulties. It was clear during the referendum campaign that the concept of early release caused considerable difficulties to the community in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. It is clearly an interference with the normal judicial process for political reasons, so it is, in principle, undesirable. It also appears to many people, with justification, as a concession granted to terrorists, so it is distasteful. It also strikes many people that to approve, tolerate or acquiesce in these arrangements in some way dishonours the memory of those who have suffered as a result of terrorism. There is considerable difficulty with this measure.

People would not find this concept acceptable unless they knew that, as a result of the agreement as a whole, there was to be a genuine ending of violence and a genuine peace. What might be tolerable in the context of a genuine and permanent end to violence would not be tolerable otherwise. That must be understood.

In the discussions that led up to the agreement, when we entered reservations about the concept of early release, people said to us that such measures had been taken after previous emergencies. Indeed, there were releases after the emergencies in Northern Ireland in the 1920s, 1940s and 1960s, when the terrorist campaign had ended. Most of those releases were of persons who had been interned, so the problem of people who had been convicted did not arise. However, a limited number of persons who had been convicted of terrorist offences were released after previous emergencies had ended. In those cases, the releases occurred when it was clear that terrorism had ended and been defeated. That marks a distinction from the present situation. We are asked to approve provisions for release when it is not clear that terrorism has ended or been defeated.

We hope that terrorism will end and that there will be a genuine peace, but, because it is not at this moment absolutely clear that that is the position, it is essential to ensure that the tests and conditions written into the Bill are firm and watertight and are adhered to in practice. Like the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), we shall focus on the tests in the legislation. It is essential that those tests are in a satisfactory form and that we can have some confidence that the Government will stick to them in practice.

The Government will have great difficulty with the people of Northern Ireland on this matter. The Secretary of State will have to establish credibility with the community. That credibility does not at present exist, and she will have to tackle that problem in what she says and in what she does in the coming weeks and months. She will have to create that confidence, so she has an awesome task in front of her.

Will there be a genuine peace? That is the crucial question. The decommissioning of terrorist weapons has been and continues to be an important litmus test of sincerity. It must be dealt with if there is to be genuine peace. No one in his right mind would want those weapons to be left lying around to fall into who knows whose hands and be available for use by who knows who in the future.

Mr. Robert McCartney

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned credibility. Decommissioning is one of the essential features required to give credibility to these pledges. Does he agree that this Government and their predecessors have resiled from all the positions that they have taken on decommissioning, and that that is the basis for the lack of credibility to which he refers?

Mr. Trimble

As I said earlier, there is a lack of confidence in the community on some of these matters. The Government must act in such a way as to give confidence, particularly as the agreement contains a clear provision on the decommissioning of weapons. There is a clear and unequivocal obligation, which has been accepted by all the parties, that decommissioning shall be completed within a two-year period. That is significant progress on the unsatisfactory positions of the past.

It is no coincidence that the two-year period for actual decommissioning to be completed parallels the two-year period under which the early release scheme is to operate. There is a clear link between those two measures in the agreement, and there has to be a similar link in the legislation between the two-year period for early release of prisoners and the two-year period for decommissioning. It is essential that the Government insist on that.

This is not the time to allow any flexibility or fudge, whatever siren voices may be heard from some quarters. If the Government do not insist on that point at this stage, the necessary requirement of decommissioning will never be achieved, and society in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland will be left in a similar situation to that in South Africa, where far too many weapons were left sloshing around, available for any petty crook or organisation to use time and again.

When Mr. de Klerk addressed people in Dublin and in Belfast on this issue, I was struck by what he said. When asked whether he had any regrets about the peace process in South Africa, he identified decommissioning as an issue to which they did not give sufficient attention. Society in that country has suffered a high price as a result. We must ensure that this time decommissioning is carried out.

Reference has been made to the speech that the Prime Minister gave in Balmoral in Belfast during the referendum campaign. I believe that his speech had a crucial effect on public opinion. He spelled out certain criteria. I am glad that clause 3(9) includes those criteria, because they are essential. However, it is a little disappointing that the speech was more emphatic than the legislation. We must examine these criteria.

The first criterion that the Prime Minister mentioned was an end to violence for good". He referred to a commitment that the so-called war is finished, done with, gone". He used clear, emphatic language, but the legislation refers to whether an organisation is committed to the use now and in the future of peaceful means. It has lost a little in the translation.

More has been lost in the translation of the next requirement. The Bill refers to whether an organisation has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence". In the Balmoral speech, the Prime Minister was much more precise. He talked about an end to bombings, killings and beatings…an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence". It might be argued that the term "acts of violence" includes beatings, and I hope that the Secretary of State will interpret and apply it in that way. The Prime Minister's speech, however, refers to the progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures". That must take place. If there is to be a genuine commitment to peaceful means and a permanent renunciation of violence, there can be no reason for the retention of private armies.

Mr. Hunter

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one dimension is missing in the Bill? It makes no reference to racketeering, profiteering and other quasi-economic fundraising activities of terrorism. Should not those activities also be proscribed in relation to early release?

Mr. Trimble

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. Such organised crime has indeed been a feature of parallel terrorism, and there is reason to believe that quite a few of those who have been involved in terrorism in the past will now move into racketeering. I believe it has been said that the Mafia began, many centuries ago, as a so-called liberation movement. That is very much in our minds at present.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

The right hon. Gentleman has spoken movingly about the circumstances governing the Bill. I commend him on all the work that he has done in seeking to establish peace in the Province, but is he not now setting the conditions a little too high?

We know that there is not a complete end to terrorism. Every society has some murderous elements, and some organisations, such as the Irish National Liberation Army and the Loyalist Volunteer Force, may still be interested in continuing a terrorist war. An end to all terrorism is a condition that we know has not yet been met. What we want to do is remove a large number of the components of terrorism, and I think that the Bill goes a long way toward doing that.

Mr. Trimble

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Life is not as cut and dried as we would like it to be, in many respects. I return, however, to my earlier point. There must be a clear insistence on a commitment to peaceful means, properly meant and carried out in practice, along with a clear change in the nature of the organisations with which we are dealing. Of course there will be splinter groups, but we are not focusing on splinter groups here; we are focusing on mainstream organisations that must change. If we do not insist on that now, the opportunity to bring about change will be lost. Weakness at this stage will result in more problems in the future. I am sure that that is not what the hon. Gentleman intends.

Let me return to my comparison between the Balmoral criteria and those in the Bill. The third Balmoral criterion appears as the fourth in the Bill, and refers to co-operating fully with any Commission of the kind referred to in…the…Decommissioning Act". The Balmoral speech refers to full co-operation with the Independent Commission on decommissioning, to implement the provisions of the Agreement. The phrase to implement the provisions of the Agreement is missing from the Bill—the "provisions" being for actual decommissioning within a specific period.

We need to know how the Secretary of State interprets the phrase "co-operating fully". Regrettably, we did not hear that in her opening speech, so we look to the Minister of State to make clear what is meant by the phrase when he winds up the debate. We also look to him to make clear what is meant by "take into account". We need to know that the criteria spelled out by the Prime Minister, and referred to in the Bill, will be applied in practice and that there will be no slippage. It is essential for the Government to carry with them conviction and credibility.

We must also focus on the provision for accelerated release at a point in the future, which the Bill currently specifies as two years hence. We need to know that that is linked to the implementation of the agreement, particularly with regard to decommissioning. We should look closely at clause 10(7), which gives the Secretary of State power to vary the accelerated release date. I think that it may be necessary for the Secretary of State to be able to vary it with regard to particular organisations, rather than generally.

I raised that point when I was consulted on the Bill by officials. I thank the Secretary of State for that consultation, and for the opportunity to discuss these matters. It was pointed out to me that the objective could be achieved in a roundabout way, in that the criteria in clause 3(8) and (9) could be used to remove organisations from the list. Power would then exist, under clause 8, to revoke declarations that had been made. If we are to proceed in that roundabout way, however, clause 8 needs to be strengthened. In particular, an obligation should be imposed to seek revocation if the conditions in clause 3(8) have not been satisfied. Moreover, the commissioners should have a duty to revoke declarations if the conditions in clause 3 are no longer met. We shall want to pursue that point.

There are other problems. I am concerned about what has been said about transferred prisoners. It is a complex matter; I am inclined to agree with what was said by the hon. Member for Bracknell, and I am keen to hear what the Minister of State says. If the provisions for early release apply to people who are transferred from England to Northern Ireland, it is difficult to argue that, when sentences imposed in England are varied by virtue of the legislation, the Irish Government must continue to be bound by undertakings given before the agreement and before the legislation. We need to hear more about that. We need to know what undertakings the Irish Government have given since the agreement, and what discussions have taken place with the Irish Government since then.

If the position is as the Secretary of State has said, that will give us concern, just as the statements made by the Irish Government about those who murdered Garda McCabe have given us concern. If the official view of the Irish and British Governments is that the murder of policemen outside Northern Ireland is quite different from the murder of policemen inside Northern Ireland, and that the lives of Northern Ireland policemen are not valued in the same way as the lives of policemen in North Yorkshire or Limerick, that is deeply offensive to society in Northern Ireland as a whole, particularly to the families of policemen who have been murdered in Northern Ireland. It is a very sensitive issue.

We shall need to focus on the period in respect of which the legislation operates, and how it applies to persons who have not been convicted before 10 April or who are charged subsequently. I see that there is an express provision with regard to accelerated release, but I see no equivalent provision with regard to declarations for early release in the earlier clauses. I should have thought that it would be best to apply the legislation simply to those who have been charged before 10 April—that would be a clean cut-off—but we shall want to examine the issue closely in Committee.

Finally, I should like to return to decommissioning and to draw attention to an interesting expression of opinion on the issue that reinforces the need for insistence on this matter. It also shows the way in which opinion elsewhere has changed. The opinion is contained in a recent editorial in The Washington Post which, I think, was written to time with the arrival in Washington of the person who was returned to serve as the Member for Belfast, West. The editorial stated: It was always evident that decommissioning…would be the toughest issues of peace to enforce. Optimists…have suggested relying on a strategy of 'trust and rust'…counting on the gunmen simply to throw their weapons into a bog. But this is not what the agreement said. It promised not only the security flowing from disarmament but the confidence flowing from the spectacle of orderly, verified disarmament. The editorial concluded: Any hints of a departure from its specific terms, especially on the 'indispensable' issue of disarming, can bring no good. I have expressed that opinion in more robust terms. It is significant that opinion elsewhere, and particularly what seems to be a change of opinion elsewhere on this matter, shows the Government the international support that there will be if they robustly insist on all terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland demonstrating clearly and unequivocally that the war is over and stating that they must be irrevocably committed to peaceful means before they can benefit from early releases or from other aspects of the agreement.

5.1 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

The legislation is unique. One could search the record books to find legislation to do what this Bill does and have little success. It is unique because it deals with a unique agreement that was reached to deal with unique circumstances that have culminated in 28 years of almost unremitting violence. There can be no perfect legislation in relation to that because it is not a legislative matter: it is a political matter. At the heart of the argument is the fact that the legislation, with its legalities and legislative quirks, is political. We should not lose sight of the fact that it is designed for a political agreement that will help to bring about circumstances that nothing else has been able to achieve over almost 30 years. We should consistently measure that political element against our views of bits and pieces of the legislation.

What is the political element? The accelerated release of prisoners is a cold, harsh fact for all of us in the north of Ireland, but it is an inevitable and inescapable necessity for a lasting agreement. It rankles with me, with Opposition Members and with people throughout the north of Ireland, but we cannot escape the fact that that is the Bill's political content. It is inevitable and inescapable if we are to make the Good Friday agreement work and build permanent peace. It could enable us to achieve the almost impossible, which is to bind the deep wounds of a community that have been caused by violence on both sides and heal the bitterness and hatred.

I ask right hon. and hon. Members to measure the legalistic niceties of parts of the Bill against the political imperative that we all face and knew that we faced when we signed the Good Friday agreement. It is ironic that from that agreement the bitter pill comes first because the first legislative element of the agreement has to do with the release of prisoners. The community's first experience of the agreement will be the legislation for that necessary process. I know that that is in the minds of people throughout the north of Ireland. I ask people to understand that we are dealing not just with sensitivity in the Unionist community. There is sensitivity throughout the community, not just in relation to prisoners but in relation to victims.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that successive Governments have said that there are no political prisoners in Northern Ireland or, indeed, in any part of the United Kingdom, but that only those who have been convicted after due process and beyond any reasonable doubt of crimes that are viewed as such in any civilised society are in gaol. I am sure he will agree that the real issue is the early release not of prisoners but of duly convicted criminals, many of them of the worst conceivable kind.

Mr. Mallon

I note what the hon. and learned Gentleman says. I wish that I had the luxury of the pedantry of judging everything in the terms that he uses. I do not have the luxury of measuring these matters in legalistic terms: I leave that to those who have. I do not engage in the luxury of trying to create arguments that can be won and lost on both sides. The political dimension could evaporate and we could lose all in the process. The hon. and learned Gentleman should realise that, to win an argument, one must convince people of the rightness of what one is doing. I do not question the legal expertise that the hon. and learned Gentleman brought to his intervention and that he will bring to this and other debates. However, I question his political awareness.

Political reality has conditioned the community in the north of Ireland to acceptance of the fact that early release is part of the solution to the problem. It is a unique act of good faith by people in the north of Ireland, in Britain and in the Republic of Ireland. However introverted we may be in the north of Ireland, we should remember that it is mostly three groups of people who suffer from the violence. They are the people of this country, those of the Republic of Ireland and those in the north of Ireland. Through their Governments and their representatives, those people will make that act of faith when they pass the legislation. It is, indeed, an act of generosity and of vision. That vision will carry us through the most difficult parts of the post-agreement period—and difficult they will be. It is an experience. Indeed, I would go further and call it an act of compassion. For many, perhaps, it is even an act of forgiveness, which, at some time or other, must be faced in life in the north of Ireland.

By a quirk of history, our generation must undergo this experience so that our children and other generations will not have to do so. It is part of our custodianship of the agreement that we signed that we see it through in respect of its integrity and in the terms in which it was written.

The Bill will be very difficult for many in the House. I do not confine that remark to representatives of the Unionist community. I gently remind the House that, following the referendum, when we talk about the people of the north of Ireland, we are surely talking about all the people of the north of Ireland. The community that my party and I represent comprises 42 per cent. and more of the people of the north of Ireland. Let us not get into a habit of dismissing a sizeable section of the community. That will not happen; those days are over. Indeed, with all due respect, we will not let it happen. That is what partnership is about.

When talking about yes votes and no votes, to which reference has been made, let us not forget the section of the community that, by and large, voted yes. Let us not forget as well the people of the Republic of Ireland, who took an enormous step in amending their constitution to ensure that it would not be perceived as presenting a threat either to the people of the north of Ireland or to peace.

In dealing with such legislation, we are treading on eggs; there is no question or doubt about that. It will be easy for people to win a little battle on a small legalistic point, but it will be much more difficult to achieve the totality of requirement through the Bill and other factors, and to gauge and view things in terms of that totality, which will have to be done.

I repeat, I understand the feelings of people here. I repeat, I sat in talks for two years in rooms with people who had murdered a close colleague of mine and had served their sentence for it. I live in the north of Ireland; I always have. Since 1985—I cannot be precise about the figure—between 400 and 500 terrorists' sentences have been reviewed. Those people are walking on the streets of the north of Ireland as a result of a review procedure that is similar to the one in the Bill. I hope that that process will add to the potential success of the agreement.

More than anything else, the Bill places a debt of honour on the shoulders of all organisations that are connected to paramilitary activity. It takes the initiative, it puts them in a position where they owe it to the communities in the north and south of Ireland, the people living here, the two Governments who signed the agreement and all political parties, to ensure that there are no tricks, no games, no strokes. We are playing for the future, and that debt of honour will have to be honoured.

In just the same way, we must honour our own word. This legislation represents the first part of the agreement to go through the House. We must remember that the agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland—north and south. This debate has particular significance. It is essential that we send the strongest signal to everyone of our determination to implement the agreement completely and in strict conformity with its terms. In passing this Bill, we will place a debt of honour on parties connected with paramilitary organisations. This Government, the Irish Government, my party and the other political parties signed the agreement, and we must honour our word not just to the House or our parties but to the people who gave their mandate in the referendum. None of us can break our word to the people of the north of Ireland who gave theirs so readily in the referendum. We cannot take the little bits that we do not like and try to change them to what we would prefer. If the terms of the agreement are altered in any significant way, the faith of all those who voted for the agreement will be breached.

Creating peace is one of the great challenges. There has been a remarkable prisoner culture in Ireland down through the centuries. One of the elements of hope, which I think the Secretary of State has recognised on several occasions, is the development of thinking in the—now—political parties which stemmed from inside the prisons. We should recognise that. I speak as someone who has no prisoners, no guns and no Semtex and who does not threaten people or violence. I gently remind everyone that that does not mean either that the integrity of arguments does not stand up or that those arguments can be ignored.

I appreciate everything that the Prime Minister has done in trying to ensure the endorsement of the agreement in the referendum. I again ask that we always remember that there are two sections of the community. Both want peace; both want—and have said so—the agreement to work. Let us do what we did in reaching the agreement. As people of honour, we signed it; as people of honour, we should deliver it.

I ask that the agreement be adhered to. My party will insist that it will be. There can be no question of introducing new elements or of imposing preconditions which were considered and rejected during negotiation between the parties and the Governments. It is also important that implementation of the legislation takes fully into account the context in which the agreement was negotiated and the timetable on which its various aspects must be implemented. That especially applies to clause 3(9)(d), to which reference has been made. Subsections (9) and (8) must not be used as a means to rewrite any party's understanding of what constitutes a "complete and unequivocal" ceasefire.

It is worth remembering that, on 5 March, both the British and Irish Governments recognised that a complete, unqualified and unequivocal IRA ceasefire was being fully and continuously observed. The definition of ceasefire applying in that statement cannot now be changed to suit the changing mood in any section of the community. If the definition applies, we should proceed on that basis. If it does not, let the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State come to the House and tell us how it has changed. If we proceed on that basis, we can proceed honourably in implementing that which was honourably signed on Good Friday.

One of the strengths of the north of Ireland has been the generosity, humanity and spirit of those who have been victims. I have often questioned my own capacity, if any of my family had been killed or seriously injured, to show the generosity and magnanimity demonstrated by those who have been victims.

When we pass the Bill, we should therefore not engage in an emotional binge on the suffering of victims and their bereaved. We should remember their compassion and generosity in supporting the agreement. They are making a major sacrifice in overcoming their prejudices. We should approach passing the Bill in the same manner. If we do, we will be able to make a unique piece of legislation into something that is crucial for the future.

If we niggle at the Bill—going for little victories over a word or two, and the little legalisms—when we know that we are taking a political decision, we will only be adding fuel to the fire of controversy and bitterness, of which we already have plenty.

Surely our job as legislators, and as people who are trying to lead in the north of Ireland, is to say again to people, "Good Friday was a good Friday. The referendum result was your decision. Now we assume our responsibilities and implement your wishes in full and in their complete integrity."

5.22 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

On behalf of Liberal Democrat Members, I thank the Secretary of State and her officials for welcoming us, helping us to understand the Bill, and consulting us fully on it. We are very grateful to her for that.

It is now exactly two months since Good Friday and the historic agreement in Belfast. In those two months, we have witnessed a hard-fought referendum campaign, and, in referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic, overwhelming support for the settlement. We are now well on the way to the first elections to the new assembly.

Liberal Democrat Members whole-heartedly support the agreement, and we will be whole-heartedly supporting the legislation. It is as simple as that. Some hon. Members may suggest that the Bill has been born of compromised principles. Liberal Democrats say that the overall agreement is a principled compromise, and that the legislation flows straight out of the agreement. We cannot have the agreement without the legislation. If one picks and chooses which parts of the agreement are implemented and which are ignored, the agreement would not have been worth making with that person in the first place.

We should do well to consider the legislation in context—the context not only of the agreement signed in Belfast, but of earlier legislation. The Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act 1995, which was initiated by the previous Government, set a precedent on the issue. We must recognise and accept that precedent.

The 1995 Act was passed by Parliament only a few months after the first republican and loyalist ceasefire, and increased from one third to one half the amount of remission that prisoners convicted of scheduled offences could expect. The Act has led to about 240 prisoners being released on licence earlier than they otherwise would have been. Subsequently, only two of those prisoners' licences have been revoked. The House united behind the pioneering 1995 legislation, and I hope that it will today unite behind the Act's successor.

The Bill, if closely considered, suggests that it will affect a similar number of prisoners as the 1995 Act. The effect of the legislation will be that about four out of every five prisoners currently serving a sentence for scheduled offences will be released within two years. However, even without the legislation, about 45 per cent. of those prisoners would have been released within two years. Putting together those two facts, and applying some elementary arithmetic, the fact emerges that most of the prisoners who will be released on licence because of the Bill would, without it, have been set free entirely.

The legislation is not—as some people would have us believe—a swinging open of the prison doors, allowing a flood of prisoners to run amok, but a jarring open of those doors, little by little, so that inmates might smell the fresh breath of a society at peace, which we hope will stay at peace. The Bill will allow them to come out of prison on a very tight and secure leash.

Such legislation must, of course, have some very carefully constructed safeguards. Perhaps some of the most important safeguards are stated in clause 9, which deals with the terms of the licence under which prisoners will be released. If the terms are broken, prisoners can again be locked up, and their sentences can be reimposed. We have to recognise that provision. If we put ourselves in the position of the prisoners, we might realise how strongly that provision will act to deter reoffending.

Liberal Democrat Members welcome the independent element in the process that will be provided by the sentence review board, and we welcome specifically the independent commissioners. I hope that their independence will give the process added credibility, and ensure that not only the spirit of the Good Friday agreement but its detail—which is embodied in the legislation's detail—are put into practice.

We welcome the fact that all prisoners will have to have served a certain amount of their sentence, depending on the length of their sentence. Anyone who thought that the Bill was a "get out of gaol free" card will be disappointed.

We welcome also the flexibility inherent in the legislation. The anticipated two-year time frame is amendable. Clause 14 allows the Secretary of State to suspend and revive the entire process, depending on how well the agreement is working.

Despite the legislation's virtues, it has some flaws of omission—the most important of which centres on the issue of victim notification. In the light of the comprehensive Bloomfield report on the victims of the violence of the past 30 years, it is important that victims are not overlooked in the legislation. Victims are as essential as prisoners to the process working.

I ask the House to imagine how upset victims would be if confronted unexpectedly by the person who harmed them or killed their relative. A victim may have spent years trying to put behind them their horrible and painful memories, only to have those memories ripped open by a chance encounter. If anyone thinks that such chance encounters are unlikely, think of those who might go out of their way to make them happen—such as tabloid journalists; the agreement's opponents; or anyone who might wish simply to rekindle the troubles.

There are victims not only in Northern Ireland. Victims on the mainland will have to be protected, and their feelings considered.

Mr. Hunter

I take exception to a comment made by the hon. Gentleman. To oppose the agreement is not to want a return to violence; many people genuinely and sincerely believe that the agreement is flawed. May I invite him to reconsider those words?

Mr. Willis

I am more than pleased not only to reconsider those words, but to make it absolutely clear—as I did last week, in a question to the Secretary of State—that, after speaking at a meeting in Londonderry, to people from both north and south of the border who had voted no in the referendum, I share that concern. It was certainly a concern of our party that we should not make the mistake of thinking that people who voted no in the referendum wanted a continuation of the warfare that has gone on in Northern Ireland. I accept the hon. Gentleman's rebuke, and am glad to put the matter straight.

The deep concern of families in Northern Ireland is mirrored in my area of North Yorkshire by that of the family of Special Constable Glen Goodman, who was shot when he and his fellow officer Sandy Kelly stopped a car carrying the IRA killer Paul Magee in June 1992. It will be difficult to persuade the parents, friends and colleagues of Special Constable Goodman that Paul Magee should be released from prison without serving 30 years, which is why the recognition of the position of victims and the need to support them through this process must be one of the most important components of the Bill.

The provision should include prisoners who have been transferred to prisons in the Republic of Ireland. When we get a definitive answer from the Secretary of State, which I am sure we will in due course, it is also important that she deals with whether the Government of the Republic of Ireland are contemplating similar legislation. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) is right to say that we cannot pass legislation in a British Parliament that would be binding on the Republic, but there is nothing to stop the Republic passing similar legislation to mirror the agreement.

Mr. McNamara

May I repeat what is contained within the agreement under the heading, "Prisoners"? It states: 1. Both Governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners, including transferred prisoners, convicted of scheduled offences in Northern Ireland or, in the case of those sentenced outside Northern Ireland"— which would include the Republic of Ireland as well as this island— similar offences (referred to hereafter as qualifying prisoners).

Mr. Willis

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out. That is at the heart of the confusion. Clearly the agreement intends that arrangements will be made in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. This Bill refers to the arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney


Mr. Willis

I will certainly give way when I have finished this point.

The reality—this is why I mentioned Special Constable Goodman and his family—is that their relationship as victims is to a prisoner who is now held in a Republic of Ireland gaol. When the legislation—or arrangements—is produced, it is imperative on our Government to ensure that we use our best offices with the Republic of Ireland Government to see that similar support is given, irrespective of whether the prisoner is released in the south or the north, whatever the arrangements. That is the heart of the confusion, which I have no doubt will be sorted out.

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. His subsequent remarks have clarified the point that I was about to make. However, do I understand him correctly to be saying that he feels that, if qualified prisoners are released in Northern Ireland, someone who has committed a crime on the United Kingdom mainland and has been transferred to the Republic of Ireland should have the benefit of exactly similar provisions and should be released in exactly the same way? In other words, Mr. Magee would be entitled to be released within a similar two-year scheme, as the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) properly and correctly pointed out.

Mr. Willis

My understanding from the terms of the agreement is that that will be the case. That is the difficulty that the family, friends and colleagues of Special Constable Goodman have, and it is a problem that all victims will have when a prisoner is released, no matter what the sentence. Clearly, that problem must be dealt with. Our plea from the Liberal Democrat Benches is that the legislation should support the victims, and we shall table an amendment to that effect in Committee.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Does the hon. Gentleman not consider it an insult to the relatives of those who have been murdered to let the person who committed the crime out, and then express regret to the relative that they have been let out?

Mr. Willis

If I have in any way given that impression—indeed, if the Secretary of State or any other hon. Member has done so—it would be wholly wrong. Such an arrangement would be incomprehensible in a civilised society. Clearly, whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with the principle behind the Bill and embedded in the Belfast agreement that the release of prisoners is an essential part of the peace process is up to him to decide.

I am arguing that the needs of victims have to be taken into consideration. We also argue that, before any prisoner is released—rather than after release—we should deal with the victim in the most sympathetic manner. Without a basic provision to safeguard the dignity of victims, this legislation would be a lopsided enactment of the Good Friday agreement, giving prisoners their due while snubbing their victims, and perhaps even making victims suffer twice.

The Northern Ireland Office, or, indeed, the partners in the peace process, may well be powerless to act, but scenes of triumphal behaviour by released prisoners could do more to destabilise the process than almost anything else, and we have to work to avoid it. We must continue to emphasise that the only winner in this process must be peace for all the people of Northern Ireland. This Bill is before Parliament for them, and it is for a lasting peace that the victims have made such huge sacrifices, which we must not forget.

I understand that our sister party, the Alliance party, in Northern Ireland has led the way in that area, making victim notification a central part of its post-agreement platform. Just as the views of nationalists and Unionists need to be reconciled, so too do the differences between prisoners and their victims. Victims and their families deserve recognition and respect. Unlike prisoners, victims have no political wing. We all have a responsibility to ensure that they are not ignored in the process.

The simplest remedy to the problem is a basic courtesy. Victims of terrorist acts should be notified when the perpetrator of an act from which they have suffered is released. Victims should have the right not to be informed—some may want to put the whole business behind them, and that should be their right. Other victims may be difficult to identify, but every effort should be made to trace them. As the Bloomfield report has made clear, difficulty in tracing victims should not be used to justify the legislation being enacted unamended. If it is not amended, we will consider it a lopsided enactment of the agreement, honouring commitments to prisoners but not to victims.

Therefore, will the Government amend the legislation before it reaches Committee, to ensure that victims are notified of the release of prisoners who made them victims? The Secretary of State or the Minister will undoubtedly respond to that question in winding up.

One omission that probably does not require an amendment to the legislation—a ministerial assurance will suffice—is: when is a ceasefire not a ceasefire? The political process that led to the Good Friday agreement was littered with a wonderland of semantics. Some phrases were used by different people to mean totally different things, and some phrases were even used by the same people to mean different things. When I heard some of the language, I wondered whether we were at a mad hatter's tea party, and I am glad to see that we are finally climbing out of the rabbit hole. The tightening of what constitutes a ceasefire is welcome, and absolutely necessary.

I am glad that persisting with punishment beatings now constitutes an infringement of the ceasefire, and that the notion of an acceptable level of violence has gone the way of the no campaign in last month's referendum. Will the Secretary of State assure us that she will consult the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding before deciding whether the ceasefire has been broken, or whether it remains worthy of the name and the entitlement that that name bestows? I am sure that she would hold such consultations as a matter of course, but it would good to hear an assurance in the House.

The greatest impact of the legislation will be on those organisations to be listed under the definitions in clause 3(8)—terrorist organisations that have not enacted a ceasefire. Because of the legislation, any prisoner belonging to those organisations will plead for a ceasefire to be declared. Because of the agreement, and the fact that most paramilitary groups seem to be abiding by it, those organisations will feel the strength of the security forces concentrated against them; and because of the referendum, in which 71 per cent. voted for the agreement, there will be nothing to gain and everything to lose by pursuing an armed struggle.

The legislation will be a vital element in bringing lasting peace in Northern Ireland, and the Liberal Democrats will support it tonight.

5.40 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I welcome the speed with which the Government have introduced this difficult, sensitive and emotional piece of legislation. It is difficult for all parties in the House and for all the people of these islands, because we rightly speak of the pain suffered by the people in Northern Ireland—although the worst atrocity was perpetrated in the Republic of Ireland—but many people here in Britain have also suffered the pain and anger that flow from terrorist violence. People have been victims of loyalist as well as republican violence, and have also suffered at the hands of the security forces, even if the pain was sometimes inflicted inadvertently.

The Bill is important and necessary, and we must be very careful indeed with it. We must reject all calls for amendments that introduce new preconditions to the agreement and seek to rewrite it.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does the hon. Gentleman consider any of the undertakings given by the Prime Minister in the referendum campaign to amount to what he describes as new preconditions?

Mr. McNamara

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the statements from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are built into the Bill, and do not necessarily amount to any rewriting of the agreement.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has shown considerable courage and skill. She is right to say that the Bill applies only to prisoners in Northern Ireland: it is a Northern Irish Bill. What applies in the Republic of Ireland depends on what the Government there do to implement the agreement, to which they have also put their hand. I presume that people in the Northern Ireland Office will hear from people in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin precisely what is happening there, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give that information to the House later today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) made a point that was echoed by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), but if they read the Bill carefully, they will see that the Scots Guardsmen are covered by it, and that it is up to them whether they want to take advantage of it. One does not have to be a member of a paramilitary organisation to be eligible for early release under the Bill; one need only have been accused and convicted of a scheduled offence.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I believe that the hon. Gentleman's interpretation is correct, but the point was that an accelerated release was being contended for for the two Scots Guardsmen, rather than an application under the Bill, and therein lies the difference between the two cases.

Mr. McNamara

Given the time scale that is being considered, the legislation could be on the stocks before the consultations on the case have been concluded.

Dr. Godman

Whatever the merits of the case for the early release of the two Scots Guardsmen, as a west of Scotland Member I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that rarely does a surgery go by without someone coming along to say that the lads deserve a break. I have mixed feelings on the matter, but I make the point because, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) could not be described as a west of Scotland Member, I would bet my bottom dollar that he receives similar representations at his surgeries.

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend is right. When the soldier from Yorkshire was in a similar situation, we also received such representations. In all the cases, the soldiers had been found guilty, and had, on occasions, concocted stories that the courts were not prepared to accept and that tended to cloud any claims of innocence that they might have made. I make no stronger point than that.

Mr. Robathan

It is true that, in the case of Private Clegg, a story was concocted, but Guardsmen Fisher and Wright throughout told precisely what they believed to be the truth. In my view, they committed a grievous error that led to a fatality. I make no criticism of the court, but they did not concoct a story. Perhaps the most iniquitous aspect of the matter is that they are serving their sentence whereas people who deliberately set out to commit murder are to be released.

Mr. McNamara

As the hon. Gentleman said, they committed a grievous offence, and they are therefore covered by the Bill. The previous Government, whom he supported, failed lamentably to find a suitable offence, less than murder but more than mere manslaughter, to cover members of the security forces in that position, despite the fact that the then Opposition made many efforts to get them to consider the matter seriously.

My next point concerns the sentence review commissioners, one of whom "shall be appointed chairman". The relevant clause refers to people commanding widespread acceptance throughout the community in Northern Ireland. There were unhappy words and experiences between representatives of the two communities over appointment of members of Mr. Patten's commission on the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I hope that that can be avoided this time and that there will be more careful consideration of community recommendations, so that the commissioners will be seen to have widespread support in all sections of the community.

I now turn to the main burden of my speech. The South African experience shows that, in the search for truth and reconciliation, the healing process for individuals and their communities requires considerable long-term care and attention, but that the release of prisoners is also an essential ingredient of conflict resolution. It is right that the matter should be tackled early, so that deeper sources of pain and hurt can be addressed.

The Bill provides for the inclusion of all prisoners whose convictions are conflict-related. That would include members of the armed forces. It would also include individuals who are, or who may claim to be, victims of miscarriages of justice. Some prisoners on paramilitary wings may have chosen to remain silent about their wrongful convictions. Some who have protested their innocence may have associated with paramilitary prisoners; others will not have.

I should like the Minister of State to say that the access of prisoners to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and their right of appeal in either jurisdiction will not be limited or forfeited as a result of their transfer to another jurisdiction or by accelerated release. People who fulfil the criteria and obtain accelerated release but who claim to have been victims of miscarriages of justice, or who have had their cases referred to the CCRC, should not have their position prejudiced by applying for early release.

I should also like the Minister to say that, where prisoners have declared and maintained their innocence, it will not be held against them, as it is in some cases in the rest of the United Kingdom when prisoners appeal for parole: because they claim that they never committed the offence in the first place, they have to stay in prison because they are not showing remorse.

The next matter to which I wish to refer is the integration of former prisoners. Prisoners have played a key role in this peace process. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State showed when she visited the Maze prison at Christmas, it was essential that the prisoners understood the Government's intentions and what their representatives outside were seeking to achieve. The prisoners who have been released and those who are still inside will be critical in making all aspects of the agreement work and in helping the search for reconciliation.

I therefore welcome the specific commitment by the Government in the agreement, to which the parties participating have signed up: The Governments continue to recognise the importance of measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunities, re-training and/or re-skilling, and further education. The prisoners' organisations must be recognised as part of the consultative process in trying to achieve that, as must the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and appropriate voluntary agencies, to develop proper resettlement and retraining plans for each prisoner.

We do not know precisely how many prisoners are involved. In answering a written question, my hon. Friend the Minister of State could not give me the number of people who regard themselves as politically motivated and who have been through the system. The figure may be around 10,000, although republicans claim that it may be as high as 20,000. If there are that many people, making a new start for them will be difficult.

All prisoners, whatever plaudits they receive at their party conferences, have disadvantages, and some will face discrimination in gaining employment. In the light of the agreement and optimism for the future, we should consider how long people released from prison after serving time for scheduled offences should keep criminal records.

A criminal record can bar someone from entering professions. It bars entry to the law, social work, teaching, banking, insurance, policing and the civil service. It may affect a person's ability to apply for a licence to drive a public carriage vehicle or taxi. It may affect access to education and eligibility for grants and other forms of assistance. Security vetting can affect great areas of employment. The operation of section 42 of the Fair Employment Act, which the Government are reviewing, may discourage companies from employing former prisoners.

There are different aspects to the problem, and different ways have been sought to deal with it. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposed an indemnification Bill to expunge the records of political prisoners. In Canada, where there were problems in the Yukon with reintegrating the disproportionate number of former prisoners from the indigenous native American population, there is a specific clause in the Bill of Rights preventing discrimination on grounds of a criminal record. I know that the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights is examining that, but reintegration of prisoners into the community merits careful consideration.

Prison officers also face an uncertain future. The inevitable reorganisation of the Northern Ireland Prison Service is likely to result in the permanent closure of the Maze prison. That will have consequences for job security and career development among the officers and staff of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. That must be carefully addressed. They will lose their jobs, when they have long served the community and been exposed to dangerous positions. How do we protect and compensate them, and give them retraining and resettlement? Downsizing will follow naturally from this legislation, and we cannot ignore our responsibilities to former prison officers.

The closures will affect local communities and their economies. I am happy to say that the Government have started such a dialogue with the Northern Ireland Prison Officers Association and the people involved. That is welcome, because, unless we start creating some confidence, we could have prison incidents, unacceptable risks might be taken, and we could get political flashpoints.

If we are making changes in preparation for prisoners going out into the free world, it would be well also to consider how prison regimes might be altered so that matters such as grounds for compassionate leave, parole and weekend leave can be handled more quickly, effectively and efficiently. I suggest that we should consider carefully whether strip searching, especially of women prisoners, cannot be brought to an end.

The major point made by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) was on whether there should be some tightening up in the legislation, or whether prisoner release should be directly associated with decommissioning in one way or another. I would reject associating releases with decommissioning. I believe that the terms suggested by the hon. Gentleman would constitute a rewriting of the terms of the Good Friday agreement. He was trying to revisit matters raised during the negotiations and rejected. It was an attempt to rewrite something that the parties to the negotiations accepted could not be done in that particular way. I believe, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), in the integrity of the agreement.

I draw the attention of the House to a letter that some may have received from the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, an organisation with considerable experience in dealing with released prisoners from both sides of the community who have been sentenced for scheduled offences. NIACRO said: An essential part of that Agreement was the commitment that the majority of politically motivated prisoners would, if the peace held, be released within two years. It is our view, based on our experience and knowledge of prisoners, their organisations and the communities from which they come, that, if the commitment to release is altered, or if new conditions are put upon it, the Agreement will fail and large scale violence will return. I ask people who seek to alter the agreement to listen to that letter. The organisation is experienced in this matter. It would be wrong for Members of Parliament not to hear the expression of the opinion of experienced people, no matter how unpalatable it may be to them.

NIACRO continues: Specifically—if a new condition is laid down in legislation, that decommissioning of weapons must occur before, or in some other way be concretely linked to, prisoner release, that would represent a breach of the terms of the Agreement and would be seen as the failure of peaceful means and a reason for a return to violence. That is not my opinion, or what I want to see. It is the considered judgment of what will happen if the agreement is altered.

NIACRO goes on: The Draft Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill provides that the Secretary of State shall take into account whether an organisation is fully co-operating with the Decommissioning Body in assessing the state of their ceasefire … That, in itself, represents an interpretation of the Agreement rather than its actual words; to go any further could be disastrous. Those are NIACRO's words, not mine. I ask the House to bear that opinion carefully in mind.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that implicit in that statement is the threat of renewed violence, and that organisations are not really committed to peaceful and democratic means but are engaged in a tactical ceasefire, and will revert to violence if they do not get their way? Is he aware of another memorandum circulated by NIACRO to its staff officers, which says that the next argument to be pursued is that for an amnesty for those terrorists who have not yet been brought to justice for offences that they have committed? Does he agree with NIACRO that it should pursue such an amnesty? What does that say about NIACRO?

Mr. McNamara

On the first point, there is a real chance of an increase in violence if the terms of the agreement are not honoured and if people seek to change it. That does not mean that I approve of an increase in violence or want it. God knows, I have seen enough of terrorism. It has touched people in our families just as much as it has touched other people's. We know what it is about. I do not want to see an increase in violence. I am telling hon. Members what an organisation supported by the Government and working specifically to resettle prisoners of all sorts feels about the situation.

On the second point, about an amnesty, I have not seen the memorandum. Until I have seen its contents, I will not make a judgment on it, but it seems to me that, in whatever scheme is created, offences committed before the declaration of the second ceasefire and the signing of the agreement are a different kettle of fish from offences committed after the ceasefire and the signing of the agreement.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the terms of the agreement are what all the parties have agreed to and that they cannot be altered, amended or varied by any party, including the Government. Is it not the case that the Prime Minister has led other participants in the negotiations and those who voted yes in the referendum to believe that the agreement could be altered by legislation passed in this House to meet some of the points that would certainly have caused them to vote no had he not given those pledges?

Mr. McNamara

I do not accept that. I do not find anything contained in the agreement, on decommissioning or other matters such as the membership of the Executive, that goes beyond what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. What my right hon. Friend said is contained in the agreement. I believe that he acquitted himself well on the issue, and that he and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State deserve merit for their sterling work to ensure that an agreement was reached by which so many of the parties could feel themselves bound.

Mr. Grieve

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the wording of clause 3(9)(b)— has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence"— means that preparation for violence and a failure to decommission must go hand in hand? If there is no decommissioning, under the terms of the agreement that must amount to a preparation for the renewal of violence.

Mr. McNamara

That is not so. Her Majesty's Government have an Army, a Navy and an Air Force. They are not preparing for aggression: they are at peace. If someone has a gun at home—that is allowed in Northern Ireland—that does not necessarily mean that he will go out and kill people with it. If I am asked whether there should be immediate decommissioning and whether all illegal arms should be surrendered, I answer yes. But if I am asked whether I think that will happen, I answer no.

I agreed strongly with the point about victims stressed by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Whether this is a matter for the legislation is a point that can be considered when we see the hon. Gentleman's amendment. It was the Bloomfield report which dealt humanely and compassionately with the victims of violence. What matters more than the legislation is that the spirit of Bloomfield's recommendations should be put into operation.

This is an important Bill. The House is perhaps unhappy with it because of what it implies and what it means. It is nevertheless significant, and it should go through the House without alteration.

6.11 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I shall begin with an historical footnote. In 1996, after the IRA abandoned the first so-called ceasefire, there was an appreciable apprehension that the loyalist terrorist organisations might resume full-scale violence. I was a fringe participant in a number of meetings and discussions with Ministers at which, among other things, the option of early release for terrorist prisoners was considered as an inducement to prevent loyalist terrorists from returning to violence. Although I had some misgivings, I thought that the option should at least be considered seriously and purposefully. Indeed, I wrote a paper suggesting certain mechanisms and procedures that would allow the early release of loyalist terrorist prisoners to be implemented. My suggestions were not entirely dissimilar to some aspects of the Bill.

My proposals were warmly received in Dublin because the Irish Government were anxious for any movement on the prisoner issue; but the Secretary of State rejected them out of hand. He argued strongly against the details of my proposals and against any further relaxation of the sentences of loyalist prisoners.

In the course of the subsequent discussions I became increasingly aware of the terrifying implications of going down the road that has ultimately led us to the early release provisions of the Belfast agreement and of this Bill. For the time being my view may be a minority and unpopular one, but I shall state it nevertheless. I oppose the Bill in absolute terms as a matter of principle, and on pragmatic grounds as well.

I oppose the Bill in principle because there is no moral justification for the early release of prisoners. When we pursue policies in a moral vacuum, we run the risk of courting trouble. I do not accept that crimes of violence are less serious, or that their perpetrators can be treated more leniently, if they have been committed for political motives. The Bill therefore sets a dangerous precedent. It is incompatible with the rule of law; it marks the triumph of terror. The argument is morally wrong, and if we give the Bill a Second Reading tonight we shall be deeply mistaken.

The early release of prisoners is a scandalous affront to the victims of terror. Justice for them should not be cast aside lightly in the pursuit of political expediency. Early release is an intolerable pay-off for the bravery and sacrifices of the security forces—not least the past and present officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, 300 of whom have lost their lives and many more of whom have suffered dreadful injuries while protecting their fellow citizens from the monstrous evil of terrorist violence.

Many people voted yes in the referendum in the hope of a better future for themselves and their children. But let us consider the sort of values on which this new Northern Ireland is to be built. The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) has made the point eloquently; I hope that he will forgive me for quoting him: It will be a society which bends morality and justice for political expediency…a society governed by those whose supporters elevate killers into media celebrities…and homicidal maniacs into heroes and role models". This is not the way to build a just and stable society in Northern Ireland. I oppose the early release of terrorist prisoners on those absolute grounds.

There is another reason why I dislike the Bill. Unless it is amended in Committee, it will be an abiding monument to a broken promise. Many Unionists voted yes in the referendum because they understood that the Prime Minister had promised a direct link in legislation between decommissioning and Sinn Fein's participation in the Executive, and between decommissioning and the early release of terrorist prisoners—what the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) has called the precondition of actual and on-going decommissioning.

Unionists believed that the Prime Minister had made that promise because the media told them that he had. The media had also told them that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and others had welcomed the fact that the Prime Minister made that promise. The Northern Ireland Office will have known of those media reports; to the best of my knowledge it issued no correction or denial. We can therefore assume that the reports were accurate. They were, after all, consistent with what the Prime Minister told the House on 6 May, which was that decommissioning was part of the giving up of violence essential for the early release of prisoners. He repeated the pledge in respect of Sinn Fein's participation in government in his referendum day letter, which appeared in the Irish News and News Letter: Representatives of parties linked to paramilitary groups can only be in a future Northern Ireland Government if it is clear that there is to be no more violence and the threat of violence has gone. That doesn't mean just decommissioning". There followed the catalogue of other measures that we have heard a number of times.

On the release of prisoners, as the Bill stands and unless it is amended, the Prime Minister has broken his promise and the people of Northern Ireland will know it. The Bill contains no direct linkage between the actual and on-going decommissioning and early release. The relevant requirement, stated in clause 3(9)(d), is that an organisation is co-operating fully with any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. Nothing in that Act or in the Bill demands actual and on-going decommissioning as a precondition for early release, or for participation in the government of Northern Ireland. The Bill as it stands points to a Prime Minister who has gone back on his word and taken the people of Northern Ireland for a ride. He duped many Unionists into voting yes with a promise that he has not fulfilled.

If one promise has been broken, how can the people of Northern Ireland be sure that others will not be broken? What about the promises of a secure future for the RUC and about terrorists not becoming members of a new police force? Those count for nothing, especially now that we know of the Secretary of State's private dealings with the IRA on those matters. Unless the Bill is amended, the issue of early release will prove to be another obscene landmark on what was intended to be a peace process, but which, in reality, long ago became a shameful process of appeasement.

6.21 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I reject utterly the observations made by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter). Far from being an obscenity, the Bill is a political inevitability, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said in his quite remarkable speech.

I hesitate to involve myself in debates of this sort because I do not live in Northern Ireland, although I am a frequent visitor and like to think of myself as a friend of Northern Ireland. Many of the Northern Ireland Members sitting opposite know my constituency well—especially the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). When we speak of violence and of the victims of violence and their families, we in Scotland know that we have been enormously lucky because, over the past 30 years, there has been only a handful of violence incidents. For some strange pan-Celtic reason, the General Army Council of the Provisional IRA decided not to extend its so-called military campaign to Scotland. I recall—I was teaching in Edinburgh at the time—a bomb being detonated in the ladies lavatory in Edinburgh castle in 1971 and the father of the infamous Jason Campbell bombing a Catholic pub in Glasgow not far from where my wife was born and raised, but such isolated incidents apart we in Scotland have been lucky.

However, we have lost constituents who, when serving with the security forces, have been murdered in Northern Ireland. I remember a young lad from Port Glasgow—a married man with a very young family—being murdered while out on patrol in Northern Ireland. Only two months ago, I was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh and saw teenage soldiers, members of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, on patrol. As an ex-service man, I had the good sense not to go over and ask, "Which constituency are you from?" I left them to their military activities, but I would have bet my last pound that one or two members of that patrol were constituents of mine, because the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders recruit widely in the west of Scotland. Nevertheless, as an individual, 1 am nothing more and nothing less than a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Winnick

Speaking of atrocities, 25 people were butchered on 21 November 1974 in Birmingham, very near my constituency; we are never likely to forget that, or all the other atrocities. Regarding the unfortunate and negative speech made by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), does my hon. Friend recall the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act 1995, which was introduced by the previous Government and in effect stated, on the basis of an IRA ceasefire, that prisoners would be released without any qualification whatsoever? We are to a large extent following what the previous Government did in this respect; moreover, we are laying down qualifications, which are stated in the Bill.

Dr. Godman

I recall that legislation going through the House, but I do not recall the hon. Member for Basingstoke offering the observation that it was obscene.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

When the hon. Gentleman said that he was an infrequent participant in debates on Northern Ireland I was rather amazed, because we welcome his participation and the records of the House show that he has, quite rightly, participated well. We recognise the sacrifice of people from Great Britain—soldiers and civilians—resulting from the IRA campaign. That is in part why we are concerned that there has not been the mettle in this place to face down terrorism instead of encourage it.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. There is a tangled historical relationship between Scotland and Ireland and I am proud to participate in debates such as this, but I have not experienced the violence at first hand and nor has any member of my family. I believe that the Bill, along with other measures taken by the Labour Government, will lead to those young soldier constituents of mine either coming home or serving elsewhere, perhaps as United Nations peacekeepers.

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend welcomed the statement made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), but I am sure that he does not accept the last sentence; that the House has encouraged terrorism and has not had the mettle to face up to it.

Dr. Godman

My honourable and old Friend's attention must have lapsed for a second. I did not say that I welcomed the statement made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South; I said that I welcomed what he said about my involvement in debates. The hon. Gentleman knows only too well where I stand vis-a-vis his perspective on these issues.

I should like to put the Bill in the context of what was recently described to me as the "constitutional helter-skelter" in which we are involved. This has been a remarkable year for Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and Northern Ireland Ministers have played a remarkable role. In particular, I congratulate the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), on being in the Chamber this afternoon when both of us would have liked to see the Scotland-Brazil game. I blame the usual channels for not putting the debate back a day, or for not postponing the opening of the World cup until tomorrow.

There have been remarkable developments. As one who has been involved with the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday, I think that the decision to initiate a commission of inquiry into that dreadful affair is a courageous one for the Government, especially my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, to take. Looking across at Northern Ireland over the years, I never thought that within my time in Parliament we would get as far as the Belfast agreement takes us. We in Scotland got a superb result in our referendum and a similarly dramatic result was achieved in the Northern Ireland referendum. Now, Northern Ireland is to hold elections to an assembly, although I happen to think that they are being held too early and that a period of reflection is needed—[Interruption.] I thought that that remark would get a reaction from Northern Ireland Members. I base my remarks on my experience of Scotland's preparations for our elections, although the Scottish National party might thank us for being so deliberate. The Bill is part of the overall change that is taking place under the Government's direction. I am not an uncritical supporter of the Government on these matters and I shall make one or two comments to which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister of State will respond.

I share the repugnance felt by many over the early release of people who have committed violent crimes. Just before and after I entered the House, I was part of the Parole Board system in Scotland. I had to interview many men who had committed dreadful crimes and who were being assessed for release under licence—murderers and others, some of whom had been caught up in the troubles in Northern Ireland. I remember over a period of six months interviewing three men who had received heavy sentences for running arms and explosives to paramilitary loyalist groups. It was my task to interview them and express an opinion as to whether they should be released under licence, so I have some experience at the coal face.

I reject the argument, advanced by some on the left, that such people have been engaged in some kind of military campaign. It is absurd and obscene to speak of people waging a military campaign in a mature parliamentary democracy. They have committed acts of terrorism. They are not military campaigners in my view. My sympathy, along with everyone else's, is with the families of those who have been murdered and with those who have suffered severe, crippling injuries.

At the same time, I share the view of Dave Wall, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, who stated in a letter that many of us have received: Prisoner release is not an easy matter for the people of Northern Ireland or of Britain. That is an understatement. The letter continues: It does involve recognising that the violence of the past thirty years was politically motivated, however repugnant that violence was…It is, however, a necessary part of a negotiated political settlement to the violent conflict. That was the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh in his eloquent speech. ' We know that this is a political Bill, but the circumstances demand such a response from the Government.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that morality, justice and the rule of law can be sacrificed because it is politically expedient to reach some sort of agreement and that the emphasis on the word political cures all? Does he believe that this is a political expedient, so all the principles on which a civilised democracy is based can be set aside to deliver what expediency requires?

Dr. Godman

On political morality, I think that I can stand shoulder to shoulder with the hon. and learned Gentleman. There are moments when unpalatable decisions must be made in the interests of the greater good of communities that we in this place seek to represent.

Mr. McCartney

indicated dissent.

Dr. Godman

The hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head. We part company on most issues. On the rule of law, he is a lawyer and a Queen's Counsel. I am not a lawyer. I have an interest in Scots law, but I am not sure that my knowledge would get me past the first year of an undergraduate course.

In terms of the sociology of law and law making, mature parliamentary democracies must enact laws that some people find difficult to stomach—such as the hon. Member for Basingstoke and, presumably, the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). The circumstances demand that we respond in the way that the Government have responded, no matter how great our sense of repugnance at the acts of some people.

When I interviewed prisoners for possible release under licence, I thought that some of them should stay in those prisons—Edinburgh, Peterhead, Shotts and elsewhere— for the rest of their natural lives, but we had to consider whether such people could, after a period in prison, serve useful lives in the community. As I said earlier, I understand some of the serious reservations that Opposition Members hold, but to earn the trust of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland the Bill is inevitable and necessary, even though, as has been acknowledged, it is a political Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) asked about prisoners in the Irish Republic. In my view it is almost inevitable that the Dail will pass legislation that will make the procedures compatible. We are fellow member states of the Council of Europe and I cannot see that a discrepancy in procedures could continue for long.

I have some questions about specific details of the Bill, to which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister of State will respond in his winding-up speech.

Mr. William Ross

The hon. Gentleman referred to changes in the law that he believes will be necessary in the Irish Republic. Does he think that the Dail will pass legislation that would release the murderer of Garda McCabe within two years?

Dr. Godman

I need hardly remind the hon. Gentleman that under the agreement such developments will take place. What the Deputies in the Dail choose to do is a matter for them, but whatever they do must take cognisance of the terms of the agreement.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the possible engagement of a psychiatrist or psychologist. My hon. Friend the Minister may consider this an esoteric point, but I suggest that it might be more useful to employ the services of a consultant psychiatrist who has experience of forensic psychiatry, rather than a psychologist. When referring to a psychologist, does the Secretary of State mean a clinical psychologist with experience in the Prison Service? I do not wish to diminish the talents of psychologists in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, but in the circumstances, serious consideration should be given to my suggestion, offered immodestly, that a consultant psychiatrist with forensic psychiatric experience should be appointed, rather than a clinical or other psychologist.

It is proposed in clause 1(2)(a) that one of the commissioners should be a lawyer. I believe that that lawyer, male or female, should have practised in Northern Ireland. Similarly, I think that civic society should be represented in the ranks of the commissioners—I am not sure how many there will be. I suggest—with my characteristic modesty—that perhaps a senior academic specialising in conflict resolution or an academic with considerable and recent experience of analysing the communities and recent developments in Northern Ireland should be appointed. I support whole heartedly clause 1(3), which states: In making appointments the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of the Commissioners, as a group, commanding widespread acceptance throughout the community in Northern Ireland. That is a categorical imperative.

I must offer a word or two on the subject of Scots Guardsmen Wright and Fisher. Several hon. Members have referred to their case and one said that they had committed a grievous error. In my view they committed a grievous offence for which they were convicted in a court of law. Nevertheless, I believe that after five or six years in prison they should be given some sympathetic consideration. I suggested in an earlier debate that it might help them and their families if they were transferred to a prison in Scotland, but I understand that they have made no such request. It might be in their best interests to remain within the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland—I know that there have been no complaints recently about their treatment.

I reject what the hon. Member for Basingstoke said about the Bill. His remarks were disgraceful and inflammatory, but utterly typical of him. The Bill must be supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House—I know that Liberal Democrat Members will and I hope that many Conservative Members, after examining it, will do likewise. It is a political Bill, but I believe that it is necessary in terms of the agreement and the expectations, needs and concerns of the people of Northern Ireland.

6.42 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

We are discussing a proposition that one would have thought would never be discussed in the House—the mother of Parliaments and the defender of democracy and law and order. It seems amazing that we are considering how we can let out of prison people who have committed the vilest and most terrible atrocities. It is right to say that all parties to the agreement accepted that.

It is also correct to say that I cannot find in the agreement any linkage between prisoner releases and decommissioning or anything else. I have read the agreement many times—I have analysed it—but I cannot find a rule that decommissioning must occur in 24 months. People should not try, for their own ends, to read into the agreement what is not there.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) accused the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) of making an inflammatory speech. I assure him that people in Northern Ireland feel deeply about this matter. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), talked forcefully and with passion about what happened in his area. That feeling is multiplied thousands of times in Northern Ireland. We cannot expect people simply to stand by as if this were an unimportant matter about which they have no feelings.

Feelings in Northern Ireland run very deep. People claim that they will approach these matters with great sensitivity, but the victims of violence whom I know resent that. They say, "They tell us that they will approach these matters sensitively, but how can they say that when I will receive a letter announcing that the person who murdered my father has been released when he should have been incarcerated for another 10 or 15 years?"

The people who say how deeply they feel, how much they weep and how sensitive they are should stop, because that is much resented by those who have suffered the most. I have attended more funerals—on both sides of the divide—than any other Northern Ireland Member, and I know how people feel. I make it absolutely clear to the House that people's feelings are not alleviated by the promises made by anyone in high places.

The Secretary of State has argued—I have listened to her on television and in this place—that there is a package and that, although people may not like the prisoner releases, we must take the whole package. Why is there a package? There is a package because the IRA had a gun and that gun was pointed at the two Governments and at those who were prepared to bow their knee to it. This House has debated before a treaty for peace: the famous treaty between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The House was told then that if it decided to accept the treaty, all would be well: everything would be normal, the gun would be out of Irish politics and it would be wonderful. Northern Ireland's founding father, Lord Carson, speaking in a debate in the House of Lords on that occasion, said: One thing the noble Marquess entirely forgot to tell us was how the Government came to the conclusion that these Articles of Treaty were so much for the benefit of the country. The difficulty I have in commenting upon them at all is that, unless as a matter of mere pretence, when we are seeming to be very dignified and concerned, there is not a noble Lord in this House who believes for a moment that these terms were passed upon the merits. Not at all. They were passed with a revolver pointed at your head. And you know it. You know you passed them because you were beaten. You know you passed them because Sinn Fein with its Army in Ireland has beaten you. Why do you not say so? The House should acknowledge tonight that the IRA beat the Governments and beat into submission those who were foolish enough to put their hands to this document. Lord Carson continued: ought Unionist leaders to have been parties to that—Unionist leaders who had undertaken to defend Unionist policy? … the truth of the matter is that if you go on like this, if you have men in high positions stating today that A is white, and tomorrow arguing that it is certainly black, you will destroy the confidence of the democracy of this country in its rulers and in its institutions."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 December 1921; Vol. 48, c. 40–43.] We have heard and had surprising things happen in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister came to Northern Ireland three times, and on each occasion he was giving undertaking after undertaking. One of his undertakings—I have already mentioned this in the debate to the Secretary of State and the Opposition spokesman—was reported widely in the Northern Ireland press. The right hon. Gentleman said that violence had to be given up, and that decommissioning was part of that. That was a clear statement. If violence is to be given up—one of the terms of the Bill is that violence must have been given up—how is that to happen if the second part of the approach is not applied?

Right hon. and hon. Members have been frank and said that the Prime Minister swayed many people. No doubt he did. He came to Northern Ireland and gave us many promises. The right hon. Gentleman promised that the IRA would never be in government until it had decommissioned. There is nothing in the agreement to that effect.

We heard a moving speech from the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), but he went on to tell us that we have a debt of honour to put the Bill through the House. I have no debt of honour to men—

Mr. Mallon

I must accept that the hon. Gentleman did not hear clearly what I said. I said that the Bill places a debt of honour on the shoulders of those parties associated with paramilitary groupings never again to threaten or use violence. That is the debt of honour to which I referred.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am sorry. I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. He knows that. I accept what he says, and withdraw what I said.

I am saying that we in Northern Ireland have a debt of honour not to the paramilitarists but to their victims, including the people they killed. I believe that there is forgiveness, but not until there is repentance. I have never heard an IRA paramilitarist express remorse for his deeds. I have listened carefully, and when paramilitarists have been pushed on television and radio, or in a public place, not one of them has ever expressed remorse. Not one of them has said, "I regret that I did that act." There is no forgiveness until there is repentance. If someone expresses remorse, we may challenge his motives, but we cannot challenge the fact that that is what he has said.

I am hearing only more and more threats from the IRA. Undertakings were given by the Prime Minister and we were told that when legislation was introduced those undertakings would be incorporated within it. That has not happened. Indeed, the argument advanced from the Government Benches is that that should not happen. It is argued that the Prime Minister was not saying, when he did say, that decommissioning was an essential part of the end of violence.

Who in Northern Ireland believes that there is an end of it? Who believes that violence has ended? I have the statistics for the first quarter of this year. They relate to the operation of the prevention of terrorism legislation and of the emergency provisions Acts. Anyone reading these statistics would not think there was any peace in the country. They tell us that 177 persons were detained in Northern Ireland under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989. There were 48 applications for extension of detention, all of which were granted. Those applications related to 37 individuals, 11 being subject to more than one extension. No exclusion orders were made. In addition, 125 persons were detained for 48 hours or less, 52 for more than 48 hours. Apparently, 36 persons were charged with 62 offences, including 12 of murder and 19 firearm offences—and so on.

With these statistics, can we really say that peace has broken out? Go to Royal avenue and tell the business community that an incendiary bombing was peace. Go to those people whom the Secretary of State rightly described as having their kneecaps shot off in obscene circumstances. Go to the families that have come under terrible attack in the past days. Against that background, how can it be said that there is peace?

If that is the basis for peace, what is the peace? If the Bill passes through the House tonight and subsequently passes through the other place, and the circumstances in Northern Ireland remain the same, will the Secretary of State tell me that there is a state of peace and she can continue releasing prisoners? There is no state of peace at present.

We have heard from the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) about the activities of a certain organisation that helps prisoners. However, we have only to note what such people have said in the past and what they will continue to say. To say that the House should realise that there will be serious and terrible trouble if this matter is proceeded with is, of course, a threat.

We know that the Bill will be enacted. We know from the Conservative spokesman that the Opposition will not go too tough at the Bill. They will vote for it, and give it its first blessing. When it comes to consideration in Committee, they will find some excuse not to press amendments hard. We know what happened with the Police Bill, as it was then was, and other Bills. We know that the Bill will pass through the House.

Mr. MacKay

I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we shall be tabling amendments tomorrow for the Committee stage of the Bill. They will be exactly along the lines that I set out earlier. If the amendments are not accepted by the Government or if the Government do not come up with suitable options, we shall most certainly be pressing them to Divisions. We shall be expecting the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to join us in supporting our amendments.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I invite the hon. Gentleman to join me in the Division Lobby tonight to vote against the Bill. This is a bad Bill and it should not be before us. The hon. Member for Basingstoke is right. However, the Tory party has told us what it will do, and it will do it. The Bill will become law. There will be no change in terms of decommissioning. Similarly, there will be no change in terms of terrorists getting into government. The Bill will go through and everybody knows it. The Secretary of State and the Minister of State know that that is the position. I have been long enough in the House to know whether a Bill will be rejected. The Bill will sail through the House.

However, at the end of the day, it will not be Members who represent constituencies outwith Northern Ireland who will be suffering. The ordinary people on the streets of Northern Ireland will suffer. It is wrong to suggest that the overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland are in favour of the Bill. Let me disillusion those who say that. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh told us that more than 42 per cent. of those who voted in the referendum were nationalists and republicans. I think I have quoted the hon. Gentleman correctly this time. If that is so, that is more than half of the 71 per cent. Who were the other people who voted?

There are people in Northern Ireland who said no because they have convictions about the future. Others said yes because they were foolish enough to believe the Prime Minister; foolish enough to believe that all his promises would be honoured. His promises cannot be honoured, for the simple reason that the agreement must be taken as it is—all of it. If one wants to change the agreement, one does not do so here. One changes it by recalling the talks so that everyone who agreed it will have a say. That is the only way in which it can be changed, so the House is held captive to the agreement.

The legislation will go through, and the people of Northern Ireland will have sad and terrible happenings coming to them. Think of the gunmen released on the streets and the caches of arms still available for them to use. Think of the police force that there will be moves to disarm—

Marjorie Mowlam


Rev. Ian Paisley

Well, the right hon. Lady should read the agreement. Perhaps she has not read that part of the agreement. It refers to working towards the disarming of the police.

Marjorie Mowlam


Rev. Ian Paisley

That will happen within a certain period and will start within a year. We could have police disarming, gunmen on the streets with caches of arms available to them, and the gun at our head again. If the IRA then says that something more has to be done, we will bow to it again. Those are the facts which the people of Northern Ireland face.

The good thing is that we are having an election, and that people have time to reflect. A lot of people who voted yes have reflected and they are no longer saying yes. When we have the results of the election, and when we see the real representation of the people reflected in the assembly, what will the House do? Will it want to change the rules and say that it no longer goes by consensus?

First, we were told that we had to have a majority of the Unionist people and a majority of the nationalist people before there could be an agreement. When we mentioned that during the referendum, the Government hit the ceiling and said that it should be 50 per cent. plus one. There was no consensus in regard to that. With 50 per cent. plus one, we could be taken into a united Ireland.

What will happen when we have an assembly representing the real ideas? There will be no Prime Minister writing graffiti on the wall and saying, "Here are my pledges." We will vote on the issue. The Government are out of it. The big money that so liberally flowed to condition people, with the spin doctors working overtime and being well paid for it, will go, and we will have an ordinary Ulster election. What will happen then? If there are 30 Unionists, they might claim to have a strong voice. The percentage was to help the nationalists, but it will help the Unionists.

I was rather surprised, yet I should not be, that the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) said that if, in the assembly, the republicans fail to deliver decommissioning, as is required—according to my reading of the document, it is not required, but the right hon. Gentleman says that it is—the Unionists will exercise their majority position to end the assembly. He went on to say—this makes me laugh—that the world will support the Unionists and reject the republicans. That is utter nonsense. I have heard it all before.

I was told by the Prime Minister that if the ceasefire was ever broken the IRA would be wiped out. What happened? Within a few hours of Canary Wharf being blown up, the Government were talking to the IRA. That will be tested now. The Prime Minister and the Government will be tested. Will they change? Can these changes be made? If not, what will happen when we have an assembly which mirrors the real views of the people of Northern Ireland?

The debate is not over; it is only starting. All I can say is that it is sad that, when we have so many other pressing issues to take care of, we are discussing how to let felons, criminals and murderers out of prison before they have served the time that was given to them in a court of law acting according to the laws of the United Kingdom.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should say that the debate so far has been characterised by extremely long speeches. Many hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and, unless contributions are shorter, many hon. Members will be disappointed.

7.5 pm

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

I shall attempt to be brief. I support the Bill and add my congratulations to all those who were involved in the Northern Ireland agreement. As many hon. Members have said, this is an extraordinary and historic Bill. It is the first piece of legislation after the historic agreement and the overwhelming yes vote in Northern Ireland.

Listening to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), I almost felt that the Northern Ireland agreement and the overwhelming yes vote—the voice of the people of Northern Ireland—had not happened. It appears that some hon. Members—we hope this is not translated into the New Northern Ireland Assembly—wish to rewrite history at every turn. As a new hon. Member, while acknowledging that I do not have the length and depth of experience on Northern Ireland issues that others may have, I simply say to those hon. Members who constantly seek to rewrite history that that has got us nowhere, but we are now making progress, so please take that progress and let us move on.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the overwhelming euphoria after the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland to vote yes to the Good Friday agreement. But after every good party comes the hangover—in the case of that particular party, the pause for thought. It was inevitable that the first decision after the yes vote would be the tough one which would implement the agreement and translate it into effective legislation. The toughest one is inevitably the decision concerning the early release of prisoners. That was an inevitable decision which everyone who signed the agreement and everyone in the House recognised was the linchpin of the agreement and any future peace deal for Northern Ireland. It was always going to be a fraught and sensitive decision.

In making our decisions tonight, it is important that we commend the courage of all those who were involved in taking the political risk that was involved in the Northern Ireland agreement—the risk for peace which entailed taking the decisions that we are translating into legislation tonight.

It is important, too, that we all retain the courage, when tough decisions such as this are being made, to follow them through and not attempt to rewrite them when the going gets rough. The going will get rough, as we know from our postbags and from the media's translation of the decisions we will be making tonight. It is important that we stand firm and retain our courage, knowing that what we are doing is delivering the decision democratically made by the people of Northern Ireland—their long-held desire for peace.

It is also important to emphasise that the criteria in the Bill are tough. Contrary to the assertions of some hon. Members, they unequivocally translate and incorporate the Prime Minister's words into legislation. There can be no doubt whatever that the Prime Minister's commitment to end violence is translated into the Bill. I refer hon. Members to clause 3. To ensure that there is no doubt about that, will my hon. Friend the Minister of State tell the House when he replies to the debate why, under clause 3(5), the third condition that the commissioners will apply is relevant only to someone who would be released immediately, and not to prisoners who might not be released for some time? It is important that the House hears the strength of that criterion.

As other hon. Members have emphasised, this is not a pick-and-mix package. One cannot pull out the sweeties and throw away the liquorice. We must take tough decisions now if we are to have peace in Northern Ireland. It is important to remember the strength of the yes vote: 71 per cent. in agreement; and, significantly, 75 per cent. of women in Northern Ireland voting for peace and an end to the boys with toys and the men with guns—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] It is far from nonsense. It is a democratic decision and it shows that the old politics of Northern Ireland—predominantly male politics—are long overdue for change. I hope that we shall see that change in the new assembly.

All parties who signed up to the Northern Ireland agreement knew at the outset that compromises would have to be made. They also knew that the Bill was of fundamental importance to the political settlement and that prisoners would have an important influence on the outcome of the agreement.

As I said earlier, I do not have the experience of other hon. Members in respect of prisoners' issues. However, I remember a poignant visit which I and other new Members made soon after the election last May to discuss the Northern Ireland peace process with all political parties and a number of relatives' organisations. The memory that will stay with me is of a meeting with former prisoners who, for a long time, had been at the forefront of discussions about peace. Their burning ambition to see an end to violence and a successful conclusion to the agreement was overwhelming. We shall do those prisoners an honour in ensuring that we not only pass the Bill but recognise the need to deal with issues in respect of their victims.

Other hon. Members have also emphasised the importance, in passing the Bill, of acknowledging the suffering of victims. That is not to say that we should trade suffering—far from it. I welcome the measures that I understand will be taken to address victims' needs. I hope that considerable measures will be taken in future legislation or elsewhere to deal with victims' on-going needs.

We must also ensure that victims are notified of the release of prisoners. Although it may not be appropriate to encompass that in the Bill, it is a significant issue for victims. They must at least be allowed the courtesy of knowing when the prisoner relevant to their experience is to be released. That request has been made by the Northern Ireland Victim Support group, and I hope that the Secretary of State and her team will take it on board.

It is important that steps are taken to reintegrate prisoners into the community. For good or ill, throughout the process prisoners have had a significant influence on the outcome, and they will continue to have a significant influence on the sustaining of peace in Northern Ireland. Prisoners must be afforded opportunities that will enable them to play a positive role in long-term peace in their communities.

It ill behoves Members to attempt to whip up hysteria with headlines about murderers being released and prisoners being given the key to prison doors. That is not what the Bill is about, and it does not help to secure long-term and sustainable peace in Northern Ireland. I remind hon. Members that this is not a new scheme. The House will recall the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Bill introduced in 1995 by the previous Government. That Bill made possible the early release of prisoners in Northern Ireland, in response to the IRA ceasefire at that time. The House may also recall that the programme of early releases, which, unlike this Bill, set no licence conditions on those released, continued against a background of on-going IRA violence, with the bombing of Canary Wharf and the Lisburn barracks, despite the fact that no arms were surrendered. The early release of prisoners has been part of the response of successive Governments—Conservative and Labour—to positive developments in Northern Ireland, which is why the Bill must be seen in that context.

The Bill is a linchpin. It is an historical and important part of translating the positive decision of the people of Northern Ireland into practice, and I commend it to the House.

7.16 pm
Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

For me, this is a night of regret. The hon. Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran) talked about hysteria. I live in Northern Ireland and my family has suffered at the hands of terrorists. I have watched hysteria in England recently when paedophiles and child murderers have been released into the community: I have seen people riot and destroy property. There has not been a single riot in Northern Ireland as a result of this Bill. There is no hysteria. People very much regret the Bill because they do not like the fact that prisoners and murderers will be released—so let us not talk about hysteria. People object to the Bill on a point of principle, not because they want to whip up hysteria.

Those who oppose the Bill—I am one of them—want to see justice done in Northern Ireland. We want justice for the victims of terrorism. If the Home Secretary announced today the release of Myra Hindley, I wonder how many hon. Members would stand up and welcome it—yet they welcome the release of people who have committed far more serious crimes, perhaps multiple murders. It is another case of double standards being applied to Northern Ireland.

May I quote the words of resident magistrate Mr. Tom Travers, who was a victim of terrorism and whose daughter Mary was murdered by the IRA? He said: Almost 3,000 persons, men, women and children, have been murdered by terrorist criminals. If we remind ourselves of the circumstances surrounding any one of these deaths we will, if we have even a shred of morality or compassion, shudder in horror at the special treatment now proposed for them. The Bill differentiates between terrorist murderers and so-called ordinary criminals. What is the difference between the value of the life of an RUC constable and the value of the life of a woman who has been murdered by her husband? What difference in the value of the life of that police officer warrants the release of the person who murdered him, while the husband who murdered his wife stays in prison? What does the Bill do for the value of the lives of the victims of violence?

The Bill concedes the status of political prisoner to members of terrorist organisations. It differentiates between the crimes committed by a terrorist in Northern Ireland and the crimes committed by so-called ordinary criminals, and accords to those terrorist crimes a different status. It accords them the very status that the terrorist organisations have been seeking for years: political status. The Bill creates a dangerous precedent. Terrorism is still with us in Northern Ireland. The threat of terrorist violence remains. If we concede a special status to the crimes committed by those terrorists, we shall create a precedent that will haunt us in years to come.

One of the conditions to be met by a prisoner seeking release under this scheme is that he

is not a supporter of a terrorist organisation. I have been inside the Maze prison and have seen the regime there. The terrorist organisations in the Maze prison are grouped together by the prison authorities in different H blocks and are given status as terrorist organisations.

Under the Bill, to qualify for early release, a prisoner is required not to be a supporter of a terrorist organisation. The Bill defines a terrorist organisation. That is interesting, because part I of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 contains provisions on proscribed organisations and also defines a terrorist organisation. It states: The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument … add to Schedule 1 to this Act any organisation that appears to him to be concerned in, or in promoting or encouraging, terrorism occurring in the United Kingdom and connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland". That definition is repeated almost word for word in the Bill before us.

The Secretary of State told us that she will not be removing the IRA, the UVF and the UDA from the list of proscribed organisations because she still regards them as terrorist organisations. Yet members of those organisations who are prisoners and who apply for release under this scheme will no longer be deemed to be members of a terrorist organisation. How can that be? Surely the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 conflict with those in the Bill. When is a terrorist organisation not a terrorist organisation? We need to know the answers to those questions, but the Secretary of State's remarks were unconvincing.

A member of the IRA may come before the courts charged with membership of the IRA, as it is a proscribed organisation. He will be able to argue that the provisions of the Bill that allow members of the IRA to be released from prison as they are not deemed to be members of a terrorist organisation conflict with the provisions in the 1989 Act. The Secretary of State must consider carefully the implications and impact of this legislation. The IRA and other organisations will want the Secretary of State to remove them from the list of proscribed organisations if she deems them no longer to be terrorist organisations for the purposes of the release of prisoners. If my reading of the Bill is correct, how can a person be a terrorist inside the Maze prison and a member of the IRA, and not be a terrorist outside the Maze prison and a member of the IRA? That requires clarification.

Mr. McWalter

Nelson Mandela was once deemed to be a terrorist and is now honoured as the President of South Africa. People may have one status at one time and a different status at another.

Mr. Donaldson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I accept that terrorists can reform, but that is not my point. How can someone be a terrorist inside the Maze prison and not be a terrorist the minute he steps outside the door of the prison? How can it be illegal for someone to be a member of the IRA when he is inside the Maze prison, if, the minute he steps outside as a freed prisoner, he is no longer committing an offence even though he is still a member of the IRA?

Mr. William Ross

As my hon. Friend has explained so clearly to the House, surely the implication of the Bill is that the Secretary of State intends to remove all these terrorist organisations from the proscribed list. It cannot be otherwise.

Mr. Donaldson

I am grateful for that intervention. That is what I need to know, and it is what the people of Northern Ireland want to know. If the officer commanding the Provisional IRA in the Maze prison is released from prison and is still a member of the IRA, how can he no longer be a terrorist when his colleagues in the IRA outside the prison are deemed to be terrorists under the 1989 Act? Many people in Northern Ireland will want to know the answers to those questions.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Hysteria and misunderstanding have been referred to this evening. Journalists, who wrote objectively in the national papers at the weekend, touched on that point and suggested that in two years' time the IRA will be like the Salvation Army and the Boys Brigade. I raised that issue with people at a Boys Brigade function on Saturday and they said that it would be a wonderful tribute if that were to happen—although none of us think it will.

Mr. Donaldson

I am grateful for that intervention, which brings me on to the issue of decommissioning. Under the Bill, decommissioning is only one of a range of factors that the Secretary of State will take into account in determining whether a terrorist organisation is no longer a terrorist organisation. There is considerable ambiguity in the wording of the provision. What does the Bill mean by "co-operating fully" with the commission? Is there a requirement for actual and on-going decommissioning by the terrorist organisations? If not, can we have that spelt out please?

I intend to table amendments in Committee to require actual and on-going decommissioning of paramilitary weapons by terrorist organisations, because I believe that such a test is necessary to show their commitment to the democratic process. I do not see such a provision in the Bill.

Mr. Mallon

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that was the previous Government's policy—known as Washington 3—and that they were glad to drop it when the report of the international commission was produced? Will he also confirm that the issue that he has declared he will table as an amendment was debated at length in the talks process and was not included in the agreement? Is he saying that he will table amendments contrary to the terms of the agreement that his party has signed?

Mr. Donaldson

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the agreement talks about full decommissioning of terrorist weapons within two years. How else will we get decommissioning if we do not require the terrorist organisations to decommission? That is the reality. I need to know, and the House is entitled to know, how the Secretary of State will interpret the provision that refers to organisations' fully co-operating with the decommissioning body. Will the right hon. Lady interpret it as a requirement for actual and on-going decommissioning? If "co-operating fully" merely means that those concerned will go and talk to the body without delivering any guns, I think that that constitutes a breach of the agreement.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the hon. Gentleman correct in asserting that the agreement provides for full decommissioning within two years? Is it not more correct to say that the agreement suggests that parties fronting paramilitary organisations retaining weapons will use such influence as they may have to persuade them to decommission within two years, although there is neither a sanction nor a requirement in that regard?

Mr. Donaldson

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right. That is one of the reasons why I voted against the agreement: I did not think that it required the terrorist organisations to deliver on decommissioning. We heard from the IRA, in its statement following the agreement, that it would not decommission its weapons. I think it was one Danny Morrison who said recently, "We won't even decommission the rust, never mind the rifles." The House is entitled to know whether the Government will hold the terrorist organisations to their requirements. Will the Prime Minister deliver on the pledge that he gave the people of Northern Ireland that he would require the decommissioning of terrorist weapons? If he does not, he will have broken that pledge to the people of Northern Ireland.

Another question arising from the Bill is that of the extradition of fugitives from justice. I wonder whether the Secretary of State has engaged in discussions with the Irish Government about extradition procedures in the event of a released prisoner's breaching the terms of his licence under the legislation, and seeking refuge in the Irish Republic. If a prisoner who is released breaches his licence and seeks refuge in the Republic, will we be faced with the same old charade of having to wait two or three years for the Irish courts to decide that he committed a political offence and that he will not be extradited, or will the Government seek a commitment from the Irish Government that, if such prisoners breach their licences and seek refuge in the Irish Republic, they will be returned forthwith to the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom to complete their full sentence? I hope that the Government will seek and obtain such an assurance from the Irish Government, in the spirit of the new co-operation that is breaking out under the agreement between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Will the Secretary of State seek an assurance from the Irish Government that they will introduce an effective fast-track procedure to deal with the extradition of such individuals? Will she give us an assurance that the Government will pursue the extradition of fugitives from justice who currently reside in both the United States and the Irish Republic? Among their number, of course, are some of the terrorists who escaped from the Maze prison in the early 1980s. I think the people of Northern Ireland will want an assurance that the Government will continue to press for their extradition, and that they will not qualify for the early release provisions in the Bill for as long as they are outside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I am sorry to interrupt again, but my intervention relates to that very point. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) suggested that there should be an amnesty for those whose offences were committed before the signing of the agreement. Is that already happening? Is it the case that recently a fugitive from justice in Northern Ireland, one Owen Carron, was stopped in County Fermanagh, and that, after he had telephoned someone—in this wonderful age of the mobile phone—the patrol that had stopped him was ordered to release him?

Mr. Donaldson

I understand that nowadays all leading members of Sinn Fein have a direct line to the Secretary of State. I understand that, when they are stopped by the security forces, they simply make a telephone call, following which they are speedily sent on their way.

Many of the provisions in the Bill relate to powers given to the Secretary of State. If the House passes the legislation, it will be placing considerable trust in the Secretary of State and her successors. Many people will be watching the Secretary of State: they will be watching to see how she implements the Bill, and, in particular, how she intends to implement the provisions that make her responsible for determining whether a terrorist organisation is a terrorist organisation for the purposes of the release of prisoners.

Many victims of violence will also be watching the Secretary of State. They will want to know whether she will hold the terrorists to account. The Secretary of State must ensure that the terrorists deliver, and end the violence—which includes the decommissioning of weapons. Otherwise, the prisoners should stay in prison. I think that that is the message that the victims of violence would want to give the Secretary of State. Many will doubt her determination. If she fails to hold the terrorists to account, she will have failed the victims of violence and their families.

Let me again quote the words of Tom Travers: As a victim of terrorism the provisions for the release of those qualifying prisoners underlines something of which I have been aware for a very long time, namely, that society in general, and the Government in particular, does not cherish victims at all. The Secretary of State has a responsibility to prove that the feeling that Tom Travers and many other victims have is wrong. She has a responsibility to ensure that the Government deliver on the commitments that have been given, and to hold terrorist organisations to account by ensuring that they deliver an end to violence and decommission their weapons. If they do not, the prisoners should stay where they belong: in prison. Justice must be seen to be done.

7.36 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

When we debate the release, or early release, of prisoners, we must be aware that we are touching every nerve and every emotion of those who have been victims of violence for the past 30 years or so. We must be conscious of the hurt that we can so easily cause such people through unwarranted and inappropriate remarks.

That struck me as an aspect of the referendum campaign. The "no" campaign cleverly latched on to the three emotive issues in the agreement: prisoner release, decommissioning and policing. By the very nature of the subject matter, some of the issues are transient—for instance, the issue of prisoners, whom time or the law will release in one way or another. The general debate failed to focus on the permanency of the core issues—issues of the institutions that were established, or could be established, by the agreement. It is a pity that the debate has not focused on that.

I agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) in one respect. He said that a letter sent to victims announcing the release of a prisoner connected with their sorrow would not greatly ameliorate their suffering. I accept that. Contrary to the experiences of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), many of my constituents who are victims—nationalists, Unionists or members of no party—have sent me the most generous messages that I have ever received. I am talking about those who have experienced a tragic death in their families, who have themselves been maimed or have been victims of some other atrocity. I was humbled by the generosity and, if you like, the Christianity, of the sentiments that were expressed, and I resented the fact that, during political campaigns, those people's emotions were played on and used in a political way.

On 18 June 1994, within 10 miles of where I live, seven men, ranging from a 17-year-old boy to an 84-year-old man, were gunned down in a pub, slaughtered while they were watching a football match. Two months later a reserve constable was gunned down while serving customers in his shop. Presumably, the first killings were carried out by the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the second was carried out by the IRA. On 31 August 1994, on the eve of the ceasefire, my home town was subjected to a massive mortar attack that was aimed at the police station. The trajectory was over a children's playground and on that fine summer night the children were out enjoying their playtime. Just 10 months ago in July, a young person who lives near me was brutally murdered, presumably by the LVF, and his body was grossly and horribly mutilated and buried in a pit under cattle.

Those four incidents have one thing in common, apart from the fact that they all occurred in my locality: not one person has been made amenable to the law. That means that the people who perpetrated those atrocities and carried out horrible acts on a body are somewhere in the community, either in my area or in the neighbouring area, and are walking about to this day.

To play on people's fears about the release of those who have been brought to justice, found guilty and sentenced to a fixed term in prison or to a life sentence is to miss the point altogether. We are engaged in implementing one of the processes in an historic agreement which, as many hon. Members have said, has been endorsed by the vast majority of people in the north of Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. The Bill is part of that agreement, and I resent being accused by hon. Members, some of whom are not in their places, of somehow lacking morality and principle because I support the legislation. We have put together a delicate package with inevitable pros and cons—some of it I do not like and some of it my political opponents do not like. But together we have forged a sensitive agreement and—more important—it has been endorsed by the people of the north of Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland.

The hon. Member for North Antrim, who is not now in his place, quoted at length from what Lord Carson said some 80 years ago. Time has passed; our society has evolved. Politics has moved a million miles since that time, and this is our opportunity to lay to rest once and for all the violence in Irish politics. There is no guarantee that we will do so, but we have an opportunity to reach the holy grail that has evaded us not just for decades but for centuries.

I ask those who oppose the legislation—and especially those who do not live in my community and who have not suffered as my people, whether Unionist or nationalist, have suffered over the years—to try to understand that we are trying to put together an acceptable arrangement. It is not perfect by any means and it requires some matters to be dealt with in a way that will enable the agreement to get widespread support, and that is what the legislation is about. I shall not debate the nuts and bolts and the paragraphs in the Bill. I simply say that those who oppose it oppose the will of the people of Northern Ireland, and that is fundamentally undemocratic.

7.44 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I shall try to be brief. No doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will remind me if I am still speaking at the end of 10 minutes.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that we should look to the future and not to the past. It is distressing that Irish politics is so often discussed in terms of the past. I do not feel responsible for the potato famine, but it is often brought up by Irish nationalists when they discuss the relationship between the United Kingdom and the south of Ireland.

I shall deal first with the case of Guardsman Fisher and Guardsman Wright to which hon. Members referred. Those two young men committed a grievous error. They were found guilty of murder and, technically, I am sure that that was right. However, they were sent to Northern Ireland by this United Kingdom Parliament—by the British state, as I am sure the IRA would say—not to do their own will but to do their duty in preserving public order in Northern Ireland. As I said, they made a grievous error which resulted in a regrettable death and they were found guilty of murder.

To compare two young men who went out to do their duty to this country with some of the people whose release from prison we are discussing is quite wrong. As every hon. Member knows, some of those people were guilty of the most unspeakable acts of barbarism and torture in both communities. We should view the case of Fisher and Wright with a great deal more sympathy than has been shown so far. I was first contacted about the case about four years ago during the judicial process. Four years later, they are still in gaol, and most hon. Members and the Government would agree that they should be released forthwith or as soon as possible.

The Bill as a whole is rotten, but I am not minded to oppose it. It is about freeing people who have been involved in all sorts of barbaric acts. As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) rightly said, those people are not political prisoners: they have all been convicted of crimes. I do not live in Northern Ireland, but I spent a long time there. Too many of my Northern Ireland friends have died and I have been to too many funerals not to feel strongly about this issue. However, we must put aside our personal feelings and look to the future. I should like to quote a resolution with which I am entirely in agreement: Conference believes that progress can only be made towards a lasting political solution in Northern Ireland when the gun has been removed completely from Irish politics. That is a sensible resolution, because a political solution must have no reference to the gun. That resolution was passed by the Labour party at its annual conference in 1994.

Getting rid of the gun and agreeing to the Bill are part of the peace process. However, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, there is not yet peace in Northern Ireland. There are punishment beatings: there were two last week in west Belfast. The punishments involve knee-cappings and weapons and they are extremely bloody affairs. A Mr. Knocker was murdered recently in Fermanagh, and the perpetrators were almost certainly people who were connected to the IRA. There were murders by the IRA and, I think, the UVF before Christmas. They happened during the peace process and people were briefly removed from the talks, but those organisations may be given legitimacy in the assembly.

Has the Minister or the RUC any information or intelligence to the effect that the Sinn Fein information centre in west Belfast has been co-ordinating some of the intimidation, threats and punishment beatings? My intelligence is that the Sinn Fein information centre has been responsible for warnings that were given to people to leave the Province. That has been going on for years.

As the Prime Minister said, the release of prisoners must be linked to decommissioning. I was not present to hear him say so, and cannot therefore comment on the exact words. However, nobody has denied them and what he said appears to be so. In 1996, when giving the John Smith memorial lecture in Antrim, the present Secretary of State said: These fears can only be addressed, to my mind, by all parties signing up to the six Mitchell principles—which includes a commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations". I agree with her entirely.

In April, the Prime Minister said: We said that we want the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations … Meanwhile, it would obviously be a travesty of democracy if parties associated with paramilitary organisations held Executive office in the assembly while they continued to be engaged in or to threaten terrorism."—[Official Report, 22 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 811–12.] In 1993, the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), said that "all" weapons must be handed in before talks could go on. Later, as an article of good faith, that demand was reduced to "some" weapons.

I should like to quote from the Mitchell principles, because some people may have forgotten them. The document states: parties to such negotiations affirm their total and absolute commitment: To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations; To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission; To renounce unto themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force … To urge that 'punishment' killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions. We have had negotiations, the agreement, the referendum and now this Bill, but there has been no decommissioning of weapons and punishment beatings and violence continue. What does this peace mean? Does it mean merely a ceasefire, which may be temporary, like others? The Bill assumes lasting peace. I fully understand that prisoner releases are of enormous importance to both sides of the peace process, but so is decommissioning. The two must be clearly linked. Sinn Fein will be standing in the assembly elections and thinks that it can be part of the process, yet it is inextricably linked to the IRA, which has said, no, it will not decommission its weapons.

All hon. Members understand that, to achieve peace, there must be compromise. Many compromises have been unpalatable to people on all sides of the argument. I have seen this Government, the previous Government and the Unionists make compromises, but I have yet to see the IRA make any compromise at all.

The Secretary of State said that she wanted to see decommissioning, as do we all. She also said that, as the Bill states, prisoners would not be released if they were found to be supporters of terrorist organisations. If Sinn Fein is inextricably linked to the IRA, which is not laying down weapons and is to remain a proscribed organisation, how can IRA prisoners be released and Sinn Fein take part in the peace process? That does not add up. The time for compromise and fudge is past.

Under the Bill, prisoners will not be released until their parent organisation is "co-operating fully" with the decommissioning body. The problem is that we do not know enough about that body. We do not know its terms of reference, powers or responsibilities. More than anything else, we do not know what "co-operating fully" means. That leaves a sense of fudge, misrepresentation and misunderstanding, which gives a very dangerous impression and may be regarded as the first step toward betrayal of the undertakings so clearly given by the Prime Minister in the lead-up to the referendum. The Bill must define clearly, explicitly and beyond any reasonable doubt exactly what "co-operating fully" means.

I should like to pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. There is already a fear of gangster war and of turf wars in Northern Ireland. There is a huge stock of weapons, and there are many people who are able to use such weapons. A front organisation for the IRA, Direct Action Against Drugs, has been carrying out barbarous attacks on people in west Belfast. There was the death of Mr. Knocker, who was alleged to have been—I have no idea whether it is true—a drugs dealer. I understand that IRA terrorists have done rather well out of this conflict, and that some of them used to retire to villas on the Costa del Sol.

I am concerned that, given the large stock of weapons in circulation, a Russian-style Mafia will develop. If those weapons are not removed, there will be no real peace in the Province. The Government must ensure decommissioning; the release of prisoners must be the best lever by which to achieve that. The requirement of decommissioning should be stated clearly in the Bill, and I hope that it will be by Third Reading.

At the moment, the Bill is a mess; there is too much fudge in it. As I have said before, lasting peace in Northern Ireland cannot be built on sand or fudge. It must be achieved on the understanding and with the backing of everybody. The referendum result went the way that I wished, but, if the Bill is not clear and unequivocal, stating that prisoners are released only when decommissioning has taken place, it is unlikely that it will achieve lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

7.55 pm
Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this very important debate. Although I was present for the beginning of the debate, I apologise to right hon. and hon. Members for not having heard all the speeches. I think that I missed only two or three.

I have listened with care to the speeches of those who oppose the Bill. Although I respect the honesty and sincerity of their contributions, I cannot help but comment that those who are fundamentally opposed to the release of prisoners are failing to listen to what the people of Northern Ireland are telling them. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and others. Undoubtedly, the decision taken by the people in the referendum on 22 May was overwhelmingly in favour of the Good Friday agreement.

In the presence of Unionist Members of Parliament, I feel, strangely, that I have somehow to justify my contribution to Northern Ireland debates by establishing my credentials; otherwise, as I have heard in sedentary remarks, one's comments are merely dismissed as if they are uninformed.

Since I was elected last year, I have spent some considerable time acquainting myself with the politics and the people of Northern Ireland, although, before that, I knew them well because my mother was born in Northern Ireland and I spent a great deal of my childhood there—quite apart from time spent there as an adult with my family and extended family. I know the problems well. I have made a point of spending time speaking to the people of Northern Ireland, particularly through these important times. I have also been a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.

From recent contact with people in Northern Ireland and discussion about politics, it is clear to me that those who voted for the agreement did not seek to pick and choose which parts to support—nor should politicians. The Northern Ireland electorate are sophisticated; they understand the issues involved in their politics. They recognise that parts of the agreement could be interpreted as perpetrating injustices on either community, or, indeed, parts of communities, but they bravely chose the agreement as the only way forward.

An essential part of the agreement is the early release of the majority of politically motivated prisoners, against certain conditions. The agreement requires the British and Irish Governments to put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of qualifying prisoners. It goes on to express the intention that all such prisoners will be released, should circumstances allow it, within two years of the programme coming into effect. The Bill is designed to fulfil that requirement on the part of the British Government. I am clear in my mind that that part of the agreement is supported by a large majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and therefore feel obliged to support the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) is entirely correct: any transferred prisoners who are serving their sentences in the Republic of Ireland are subject to the jurisdiction of that country. That is why, on the prisoners' transfer, it was necessary for an undertaking to be given ensuring that their tariffs would he served. They were to be subject to the jurisdiction of that country, and control of their release could not be determined by this country.

Paragraph 1 of the agreement's provisions on prisoners requires the Government of the Republic of Ireland to establish in that country a mechanism for the accelerated release of prisoners. Accordingly, one should expect that, eventually, all qualifying prisoners imprisoned in the Republic of Ireland will qualify for accelerated release under the Republic of Ireland's programme. Under the agreement, it is appropriate that they should be so released. Had they not been transferred, this legislation would have covered them, and they would have qualified for accelerated release under its mechanisms.

There is therefore no injustice, or distortion of justice, in the agreement. Had those prisoners who have been mentioned in this debate remained in prisons in the United Kingdom, they would have qualified for release under mechanisms provided in the Bill.

Throughout the past decade, as peace has been discussed in Northern Ireland, it has always been clearly understood that prisoners were a central issue in the peace process. That fact has been conceded in this debate by right hon. and hon. Members, not least by the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). It has been understood also that prisoners' early release would be crucial to the success of any agreement. Any peace process in Northern Ireland is likely to be successful only if it commands the respect and support of more than only the broad middle ground of society.

It has been estimated—I have recently re-read the estimates, to refresh my memory—that there are more than 10,000 former prisoners in Northern Ireland, many of whom have been convicted of politically motivated crime. If that statistic is true, the extended families of former prisoners must amount to at least 50,000 people, which is a significant proportion of Northern Ireland's total population. No all-inclusive peace process could ignore those people. No all-inclusive process could not deal with the prisoner issue.

It was therefore inevitable that, in settling the prisoner issue, many people would find the solution distasteful and unpalatable. It was also inevitable that, if there were to be a peace process, the issue had to be addressed at some stage.

I realise that application of the amnesty to perpetrators of the awful crimes that have been committed in the past three decades in Northern Ireland is a price that many—but not all—victims and families of victims think is not worth paying. I have heard expressed, and understand, the feelings of some victims and their families. However, in the circumstances, I do not agree with them. I do not want to be mealy-mouthed about that.

Although a society that is emerging from violent conflict should not forget the appalling cost of the intervening years, the needless and senseless loss of life, the pain and suffering of families or the devastation of communities, the only true insurance against further decades of such senseless and needless violence is a strong and lasting peace process that looks forward. That cannot be achieved without the commitment of the communities that bred and nurtured the perpetrators of that violence in the first place. Dealing with the prisoner issue is the key to such a commitment.

Those who oppose the Bill describe the future of society in Northern Ireland as "polluted by freed terrorists". The hon. Member for Blaby suggested that there would be a Russian-style Mafia. The Bill's opponents describe a society dominated by terrorists who make important political decisions while continuing their trade of violence. However, in so doing, they ignore the realities of the immediate history of Northern Ireland. Since 1985, 438 republican, loyalist and other lifers have been freed. Of that total, only 18 former prisoners have had their licence revoked and been recalled to prison, and only two—one from each faction—have been reconvicted of terrorist offences. Moreover, former prisoners and internees have already played a remarkable role in rebuilding the peace process. Others—too numerous to mention—have distinguished themselves as community leaders and visionary politicians in Northern Ireland.

Under the normal remission tariffs which already apply, the great majority of prisoners serving fixed sentences would be free by the agreement's July 2000 deadline. Today, I read statistics suggesting that there were 340 qualifying prisoners, of whom 269—leaving only 71—would be released under current remission tariffs. The legislation will enable about half the prisoners to win accelerated release in coming months, once the new sentence review commissioners get down to considering individual cases. The other half of the prisoners will be released sooner than was scheduled. Those statistics are neither remarkable nor earth shattering.

The number of people who will be affected by the Bill and the agreement is small compared with the numbers who have already been released from prisons in Northern Ireland—most of whom have not reoffended, and the vast majority of whom are playing a major contributory role in society.

Clause 10(7) allows the Secretary of State to vary by order the two-year release period. I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to tell the House in what circumstances the Secretary of State would consider it to be justified to vary the release period.

I should like also to mention a larger issue—with which I trust that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), will deal in his reply. About three times in this debate, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) refused to allow me to intervene in his speech—although perhaps, having heard the sedentary remarks that were made, I understand why he did not allow me to do so. I now ask the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire to answer the question that I tried to ask earlier. How can the hon. Member for Bracknell commend the agreement—which he described as "truly momentous", for which, as he told the House, he campaigned, and which he was "delighted" had obtained a yes vote—but describe the Bill as undermining the rule of law? The Bill attempts only to enact in the United Kingdom the Government's commitment, made in an agreement for which he himself had campaigned.

I perceive that, as an hon. Member, it is my duty to respect the will of the people of Northern Ireland, as expressed in their resounding yes in a referendum on the Good Friday agreement. The Bill reflects the agreement, as accepted by the people of Northern Ireland. Accordingly, I commend it to the House.

8.6 pm

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

There seems to be a suggestion in the House that those who oppose the agreement and the Bill are somehow wreckers and opponents of peace. All such suggestions are quite untrue. The 275,000 people who voted against the agreement are all in favour of peace. I am certain that all of them desire a permanent end to violence. All of them wish for a secure future for their children.

Mr. Browne

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. McCartney


Perhaps, like myself, those people feel that a peace or future that is allegedly based on the good will of terrorists is a very poor foundation for the future of their children. They perhaps also fear that an agreement that appears to ignore—because it is not politically expedient to do otherwise—the principles of the rule of law, of morality and of justice does not offer a secure basis for a future permanent and lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

I opposed the agreement, and I oppose the Bill, because I believe in and desire peace. I wish to have a permanent end to violence, and to ensure a secure future for the young people of Northern Ireland. However, I am equally convinced that this agreement will not offer any of those things. Why do I say that? Because the peace process out of which it has been produced was based on terror—it was based on violence and the threat of further violence, if those who had the weapons of violence were not appeased and their desires were not propitiated.

That is exactly what happened in this agreement. It is totally and completely based on the appeasement of terrorism. The Bill, which purports to release the perpetrators of the most horrific and violent crimes back into society, is but one instalment in an on-going process of terrorist appeasement.

History records no example of a minority group using political violence to achieve its purposes which has ceased to use violence while it has continued to be successful in achieving its purposes, until it has either achieved its ultimate aims or been defeated by democracy. Those who have used political violence successfully do not stop using it unless they are defeated by the forces of the rule of law, by morality and the principles of democracy. Sinn Fein-IRA will be no exception to that historical principle.

I say Sinn Fein-IRA, because the Secretary of State on Monday last week and the Prime Minister last Wednesday both confirmed that those two groupings were inextricably linked, which means that they are incapable of being separated. So we have Sinn Fein protesting its democratic potential, and the IRA, with which it is inextricably linked, saying that it will never decommission until its ultimate political aims and ambitions have been achieved.

Where does that leave this much-vaunted agreement and process? At the Sinn Fein Ard Feis, when politically endorsing the Belfast agreement, speaker after speaker stated, to acclamation, that they would continue to adhere to their traditional policies of military violence and political advancement—the twin-track approach. Where does that leave this agreement?

We have heard much about the agreement and how it is the product of the democratic voice of the people of Northern Ireland, but perhaps the House should have some insight into how it was achieved—by subjecting the Northern Ireland electorate to a massive propaganda campaign, the like of which has never been equalled in British constitutional history. Absolutely no stone went unturned. There was an endless stream of the politically famous from all parties and a collection of celebrities, from Richard Branson to Bono of U2, to you name it. All of them afforded compliant media with opportunities for an orgy of publicity for a pro-agreement vote. It was a disgusting exhibition of Government power.

The late Isaiah Berlin wrote 40 years ago that few Governments have much difficulty persuading the people to do what that Government wish. In the 40 intervening years, the techniques of persuasion and the technology for so doing have increased one hundredfold, and every one of them was employed during the agreement.

Furthermore, two weeks into the agreement, I discovered that the Government were paying for detailed focus group reports and private polls at substantial expense, and that they were providing that information to the parties known to be in the yes camp. Only when I threatened to take the matter to court because the information was being produced with public funding, was it handed over to parties in the no camp.

The last lot of opinion polls on the Wednesday before the agreement showed that, if the don't knows had continued to transfer to the noes at the rate that they were doing, the result would have been about 60:40, or perhaps even better than 40 per cent. for the no camp. At that point, when the yes campaign was terrified of the result, Downing street took over, the Prime Minister appeared again in Northern Ireland, and the pledges were given.

I give that background because those pledges are reckoned by all the pollsters to have been central and significant in the result that was ultimately obtained on Friday 22 May—absolutely central. At this point I must say that I entirely agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). The agreement is a multi-party agreement. It was entered into by all the parties and the two Governments, and it cannot be altered, amended or varied except with the agreement of all the parties to it.

What happened was that the Prime Minister realised in the final week of the referendum campaign that the pro-Union electorate were totally unhappy about two things—the release of prisoners and the fact that, under the terms of the agreement, there was no clear direction that decommissioning would have to take place before representatives of Sinn Fein could take Executive office. On that basis, the Prime Minister attempted to reassure the pro-Union electorate with his pledges, which were all understood in Northern Ireland to mean that there would be decommissioning, and that it would have to take place before Sinn Fein representatives could take their places in any Executive.

Sinn Fein, Mr. Gerry Adams and Mr. McGuinness have repeatedly reasserted—the hon. Member for Hull, North was correct—that this is an agreement and that they are going to hold the Government to its terms. They are going to insist that, if members of their party are returned in sufficient numbers to allow them to have two members in ministerial posts in a Northern Ireland Executive, under the D'Hondt principles they will be entitled to them without that being in any way connected with any obligation to decommission.

The truth is that, because of the desperate circumstances that faced the Prime Minister and the yes vote in the final weeks, he has entered into a truly Faustian bargain. Sinn Fein-IRA will not let him out of that bargain, but he will be called on by the pro-Union community to go back on it, in the form of legislation. That is the crux of the Bill.

I could never understand the position of the Conservative Opposition or that of some Ulster Unionist Members who kept saying that things could be put right by the legislation, because I have never believed that, under the terms of the multi-party agreement, any party, including the British Government, could alter it unilaterally by legislation without the agreement of all the other parties.

The Government will escape from that dilemma by means of deception, fraud and fudge. The Bill is as full of political fudge as a village fete is of the real stuff, but it will have to be dissected and cleared up, because, sooner or later, the people of Northern Ireland, who, we have been told, are athirst for peace, will call on the Prime Minister to fulfil his pledges.

The claims made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) about there being no new preconditions, such as linking the Bill to decommissioning, were never made loudly and clearly by his party in the referendum campaign, because that would have blown the whistle on the true situation: that such preconditions could not be secured. The Government are not, and should not be, in a position to link decommissioning with the agreement, which stands on its own feet, but I take issue with the hon. Gentleman, because that was not made abundantly clear in the referendum campaign, as it is now.

Mr. Mallon

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. McCartney

I will in just a moment.

In furtherance of the plot, the SDLP ran two separate pieces of election propaganda: one, for the soft Unionists, who it hoped would vote yes, was in completely muted colours and talked about partnerships, sharing and all the things that we can do together; the other was a much tougher piece of straightforward nationalist propaganda, talking of the achievements of the SDLP, from 1981 and the totality of relationships up to its final achievement of the agreement en route to its goal of a united Ireland.

When we speak of the democratic views of the people of Northern Ireland, we should bear it in mind that they have yet to make a decision on the promises and assurances that were given to them about what would happen if they voted yes.

Mr. Mallon

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way now?

Mr. McCartney

Not just at the moment. I want to talk about the release of prisoners, which is related to decommissioning. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] I do not intend to give way.

Mr. McNamara

You said that you would.

Mr. McCartney

I said that I would, in due time, and I have not yet finished my point.

Several hon. Members have spoken about the victims. There have been victims in Northern Ireland since 1969, and there are now more than 3,000, but until it became necessary to secure their agreement to, or at least acquiescence in, the release of convicted criminals, their feelings were not even considered.

The victims were ignored for the best part of 30 years, but, when it became necessary to assuage their rightful indignation and anger and that of their relatives, suddenly Sir Kenneth Bloomfield was called into operation, and a physical memorial in Londonderry was proposed. Victims became the focus of Government attention only when their good will—and the good will of the community that supported them—was needed to allow convicted criminals and terrorists to be set free.

There has been a great deal of talk about those gentlemen being released and how money should be spent on reintegrating them into the community, and we have heard at length about what NIACRO and others have to say about them. When the Secretary of State went to persuade those people that they should support the ceasefire, the television cameras followed her into the so-called loyalist compound, and some of them were filmed against graffiti and murals. Michael Stone, who is about to be released even though he murdered five people and injured many others, was filmed against a mural that said, "Yabbadabbadoo, any Fenian will do" and, "Kill them all, let God sort them out".

I am speaking about so-called loyalist terrorists, because I want to make it abundantly clear that I despise, loathe and detest terrorists of any kind, serving any claimed cause, be they green, orange or multi-coloured. They are loathsome, despicable people, who should be dealt with regardless of whom they claim to represent.

We are told that, if those people are to be released back into society, they will be required to give up associations with the organisations that spawned them. When the Balcombe street murderers were released from prisons in the Republic to attend the Ard Feis, they arrived as absolute heroes and were given an enormous welcome, because they were seen as violent terrorists, exercising the military strategy of Sinn Fein, which is inextricably linked with them, as they are the cutting edge of its organisation.

Mr. Mallon

I agree with the Prime Minister about new preconditions. A press release on the Bill said: As the Prime Minister said during the Referendum campaign, the following factors will be taken into account. They are not new preconditions but are essential to help us to reach an overall judgement". My party opposed the Washington 3 precondition. We oppose it now. We are going to insist that everyone abides by the agreement that we have reached.

On our two sets of literature, there was only one set during the referendum. One person became a little urgent about fighting the assembly election, and that is why our election manifesto went out on the last Sunday. I am not sure that that is a hanging offence.

Mr. McCartney

I never suggested that it was a hanging offence. The two sets of election literature were clearly aimed at two different sets of people, and had two different purposes.

On the release of convicted criminals, the term "prisoner" has overtones of prisoners of war or people fighting according to the rules of the Geneva convention. Let me say something about the connection between these freedom fighters, these released prisoners and what they actually do.

Sinn Fein has 38 candidates for the assembly elections, of whom more than half have criminal convictions of a fairly serious nature. The Sinn Fein candidate in East Londonderry killed three soldiers. Mr. Paul Butler, the Sinn Fein candidate for Lagan Valley, shot a 50-year-old RUC reserve constable in the back of the head. Joe Cahill, aged 78, was once sentenced to death for murder. Gerry Kelly, its representative in Belfast, North, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the Old Bailey bomb, as a result of which one person was killed and 250 injured. In his escape from the Maze, he shot a prison warder in the head.

When I hear hon. Members talk of all the democracy, benefits and peace that the agreement is going to pour forth upon the people of Northern Ireland, I am reminded of a single instance that sums it all up.

My party's candidate in the election in Belfast, North served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for seven years. He have will have among his opponents the following: John White of the Ulster Democratic party, who hacked to death Senator Paddy Wilson and his girl friend, stabbing each of them 54 times; the aforesaid Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein, who injured 250 people and killed one at the Old Bailey; and another loyalist, Mr. Billy Hutchinson, one of these Progressive Unionists, the radical politicians we heard about earlier. He was involved in the casual killing from a car of two Catholics.

That is the democracy that results from the agreement—three candidates who between them have murdered six people. Is that what democracy and this agreement are about? Is that the true basis upon which there will be lasting peace in Northern Ireland? Those who believe that should buy a few volumes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

8.33 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I have one slight correction for the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). The Sinn Fein member who is standing in East Londonderry, or at least one of them, Mr. O'Kane, is a fairly near neighbour of mine. He did not kill three soldiers, but three RAF mechanics. At his trial, he said that, if he got the chance, he would do it all over again. That puts the matter in clear context.

As time is moving on and several hon. Members wish to speak, I shall try to be briefer than usual.

There have been several claims about the number of persons who will be released early under this legislation. The standard excuse, which has been made by many, including some members of my party, is that many of those prisoners would be out in two years in any case. That is true, but it is also a fact that the prisoners are already the beneficiaries of a generous shortening of their sentences. That said, 79 of those who will be out in two years would have had very long periods of imprisonment ahead of them but for the Bill.

I will not weary the House with the details this evening, but they are set out in Hansard in response to questions that I have tabled in recent weeks. There is one person whose release date in Great Britain was 2019. Several others would have served nine or 10 years into the next century. They will all be out in a couple of years. Those who are to be transferred to the Irish Republic will no doubt be even more generously treated, unless they happen to have shot a Garda officer in the Republic, in which case they will do their 40 years.

Such people will be released only if the organisation to which they belong is committed to purely peaceful and democratic action. We suffer from a barrage of voices telling us that that is the case with regard to the IRA and the other terrorist groups. In fact, there is a scarcely a day, or more accurately a night, on which acts of violence are not committed by members of those organisations or by their subcontractors to ensure their continuing dominance in some areas of Northern Ireland. That violence has been calmly ignored by the Government and all those who laud the agreement. Given that that is the case, I have no confidence that this Secretary of State will specify any of those organisations as terrorist.

The Bill will impact on existing legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) considered in some depth which organisations are terrorist. It seems to me that, if the terrorist organisations simply say the correct soothing words, they will no longer be illegal bodies, and there will be no prosecutions for membership.

That leads to the question of extraditions from the Irish Republic and elsewhere of people sought by the RUC in connection with terrorist acts. I am pleased that the Secretary of State is here, because one example is Rita O'Hare, one of the wanted terrorists with whom she is on speaking terms. I admit that the relationship appears to reach the huggy-feely stage only when they are in the Irish Republic, because the woman concerned is a bail absconder in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State no doubt knows that the woman went on the run after recovering from her bullet wounds sufficiently to travel. The wounds were sustained while she was attempting to murder soldiers in Northern Ireland. She did not repent of her activities. Indeed, she continued with them, because she later served three years in the Republic for trying to smuggle explosives inside her body into Portlaoise prison.

Rita O'Hare's defence against extradition to Northern Ireland was upheld by the Irish courts on the ground that the attempted murder charge was a political offence, thereby illustrating the great difficulty of getting an extradition from the Irish Republic. Her very defence goes a long way to proving that she was guilty of the charge brought against her. Clearly she is ideally qualified to advise the Secretary of State on extradition matters, and will not, I am sure, be slow to offer such advice.

However, I remind the right hon. Lady of section 18 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989, which states: A person is guilty of an offence if he has information which he knows or believes might be of material assistance … in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of any other person for an offence involving the commission, preparation or instigation of such an act, and fails without reasonable excuse to disclose that information as soon as reasonably practicable … in Northern Ireland, to a constable or member of Her Majesty's Forces. I should be interested to hear whether the Secretary of State has complied with that section with regard to her contacts with the loathsome woman with whom she seems to find so much in common. The Secretary of State should also look up the penalties, which I think she will find of interest.

Of course, what applies to the case of Rita O'Hare also applies to the other assorted thugs and murderers who will be released under the provisions of the Bill. We can also expect reoffenders to leave the United Kingdom jurisdiction, and they will never be extradited for trial for any offences.

The Bill also raises concerns about the position of those awaiting trial and sentence, and those who may yet be charged with murders or other crimes committed long ago. Some other neighbours of mine are in the courts in Belfast this week for attempted murder of members of the RUC in Dungiven.

When all has been said and done—a lot has been said today—the bottom line is that a large number of persons who have been found guilty and sentenced for very terrible acts will be out of prison early, long before their sentences would normally be completed. That is nothing short of a blatant corruption and interference with the judicial process, the concept of punishment for crime and the rehabilitation and reform of prisoners.

The passing and application of the Bill will confirm the IRA's claim, certainly in the minds of its members and supporters, that it is engaged in a just war, and that those convicted are not only prisoners of war but political prisoners rather than murderers and thugs. That is a psychological thing with the IRA, its supporters and other terrorist organisations, which so few people in this place seem to understand.

I believe that the consequences of accepting the IRA view of its terrorist campaign are vast, and can only intensify the deep and real contempt felt by many of the law-abiding citizens for those who have conceived and are carrying into effect this policy of abject surrender to the diktats of murderers. That is what the Bill is really about. It is an abject surrender to the diktats of murderers, and we had better realise exactly what we are putting our hand and our votes to.

8.41 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

I rise partly because a large number of those who have spoken are well qualified to speak on these matters, whereas I feel very under-qualified as I have lived all my life in England and my association with Ireland is through my family—but perhaps someone who is not so well qualified has a role to play in the debate, which is often characterised too much by certainty and not enough by probability, uncertainty and a feeling of trying to tease out new solutions rather than being convinced that one has the solution all along and that all that needs to happen is for everyone else to agree.

Some material points have been made—I think particularly about decommissioning—but I am not sure whether the appropriate place to put firm assurances about decommissioning is in the Bill or in a translation of what is clearly in the Bill into the political process through the good offices of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McWalter

In a moment. I certainly agree that we have to ensure that the conditions spelt out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others are secured by the time we come to release from custody anyone who is guilty of terrible offences.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman has answered the question that I was about to ask. I infer from what he says that his reading of the text of the agreement, which I submit is the critical issue, is as one with the Prime Minister's, as expressed to the House in his answers in Prime Minister's questions on 6 May.

Mr. McWalter

Indeed, but I submit to the hon. Gentleman and others that it is not clear whether we need to incorporate those ideas and commitment into statute, or whether the Bill will in the end provide us with a facility for ensuring that those commitments are honoured in the deed.

My feeling of under-qualification for the debate extends to other things, but my experience of Northern Ireland—or as some would call it, the north of Ireland—is characterised by an extraordinary gulf between what I have found there and what I have found in my own England. Although we have heard stirring speeches from, among others, the United Kingdom Unionist Member, the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), the fact is that there is a great gulf.

For example, there are not many places in England where there is a huge gap between people in how they describe a town. If I say that I am driving to Londonderry, I seem to be on one side of the fence. If I say that I am driving to Derry, I am on the other side of the fence. I had better make sure which I say when I am in the Shankill road or the Falls road. It is strange for those of us who are English that so much should ride on a word—even our life if we get it wrong in the wrong circumstances.

When I have been to Northern Ireland, I have often encountered phenomena that English people find perplexing. I have been on a bus that never reached Oxford Street bus station because a bomb went off 10 minutes before. I have been in a pub in Castlewellan that had no windows because it had been blown apart by a bomb. However, one of the things that I have not experienced—I understand that this makes a great difference—is how it feels to have a member of my family blown up by a bomb. My uncle lived in Castlewellan, but he was not a victim.

I understand that the passion in the debate about victims is vital. I resent the suggestion, made by the hon. and learned Member for North Down, that victims come into the process right at the end. One of the extraordinary things about the debate is that so many of the victims have been prepared to construct a testimonial to their murdered loved ones. They say that there could be no better testament than for them to work in the memory of their loved ones to construct a lasting peace. That is something with which those of us who are debating these matters and who support the agreement must work constructively.

We have in Northern Ireland a society in which many of us have aspirations for radical change because we want our fellow countrymen and British islanders to enjoy a life that the rest of us in these islands usually enjoy.

By way of illustration of the problems in Northern Ireland, I offer the following story. I went for a job at the university of Ulster in Coleraine. Some hon. Members may think that the selection board was wise not to select me. In any case, from a shortlist of three I somehow managed not to get the job—

Mr. William Ross

Two did not.

Mr. McWalter

The hon. Gentleman's pals were probably on the panel.

Mr. Ross

No, they were not.

Mr. McWalter

When I walked into the hotel, a policeman asked me if he could check my bag. Being English and having a strong respect for policemen, I of course agreed. He removed the contents of my bag—Marks and Spencer shirts, and so on. He also asked if he could inspect my toilet bag. It contained razors and a tube of Colgate toothpaste, which the policeman squeezed out to make sure that it was not Semtex. A society in which that can happen is a society in need of radical change. Since 1972, when that incident took place, that society has been at war.

Some people have argued that the answer to war is to strengthen the rule of law. I understand that point of view, but it has not worked—because enough people in Northern Ireland feel alienated from the law and from the Government. At last, with this agreement, we have managed to marginalise a large number of people who still believe in the bullet and the bomb. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was right to say that peace must be a precondition of any change. Admittedly there is still no peace; there are still what he called marginal elements who can kill. Some places are still unsafe and the marginal elements still have the capacity to murder people, but thanks to the agreement they no longer constitute a large minority: they are a shattered and fragmented rump.

I began by saying that I am unqualified to serve on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, although I do. I do however have one vital qualification: I have seen the future. There is in my constituency a church called St. Paul's, in Highfield. It is shared by Catholics and Anglicans. At 8.30 on Sunday mornings there is a Protestant service conducted by a woman minister, and at 11 o'clock there is a Catholic mass. Such a thing is almost unheard of in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney

The idea that the two communities in Northern Ireland are at daggers drawn is erroneous. I have attended every sort of Catholic service, from nuptial mass to benediction, in almost every Catholic church in Belfast and in many churches in Rome—and I have no hang-ups at all.

Mr. McWalter

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I did not say that the communities were at daggers drawn. I said that a significant minority felt so alienated that they did not recognise what the hon. and learned Gentleman would call the rule of law. Of course, in my parish there are also a few people who do not respect the rule of law, but where such people form a significant minority the law has to be reconstructed so as to attract their assent.

Mr. Mallon

I was intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's experience with the toothpaste. It is true that we are different, but we are the product of our environment. We have been governed by this Parliament since the Act of Union of 1800. I suggest that that has something to do with our conditioning—that the diversity in the north of Ireland may stem partly from that.

Mr. McWalter

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. It is extraordinary that a tube of toothpaste can be regarded as a venomous item over the water. I was unfazed by the incident, but I can imagine members of the minority community in Northern Ireland feeling threatened, intimidated and resentful in such circumstances. We in England are used to working constructively with the police authorities.

What we need to foster, following the agreement, is the spirit of St. Paul's church in Highfield. Its experience needs to be etched on the life of Northern Ireland. From now on no one, republican or Unionist, should regard it as strange to work with members of the other community in a spirit of mutual understanding and multicultural exchange.

8.57 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

There has at least been an acceptance by many who have spoken today that while the roots of the Bill can be found in the Belfast agreement, that agreement has been given significant support by the undertakings, promises and pledges offered by the Prime Minister during the referendum campaign.

I recognise that 71 per cent. of those who voted in the referendum voted in favour of the agreement, but I do not accept the contention that that represents a majority of both our communities. It is clear that a majority of the Unionist community voted against the agreement—[Interruption.] The giggling hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) should take into account some simple statistics: 71 per cent. voted yes; according to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), 42 per cent. of those were nationalists but, accepting that perhaps 5 per cent. of the nationalist community voted no—although the exit polls did not show that to be the case—that would represent about 2 per cent. of the overall community, thereby reducing the figure back down to 40 per cent.; about 8 per cent. of the votes in Northern Ireland come from what are described as others, such as the Alliance party, the Women's Coalition, Labour and other bits and pieces, which gives us 48 per cent.

Mr. Winnick

What a way to describe such groups.

Mr. Robinson

The hon. Gentleman would never identify with Labour in Northern Ireland—it is an entirely different species there. That gives 48 per cent., leaving only 23 per cent. who voted yes from the Unionist community, as opposed to 29 per cent. who voted no from the Unionist community. Therefore, the clear majority of the Unionist community voted against the agreement.

The Government know that; their own polls show that that was the case. Indeed, those polls so alarmed them that they sent the Prime Minister post haste to Northern Ireland to do whatever he could to turn the tide of events. To that end, he gave a series of commitments which, in my view, are as crucial to the future of the Bill as is the agreement. People in Northern Ireland voted not simply on their reading of the Belfast agreement, but on the interpretation of that agreement given by the Prime Minister. When the Prime Minister indicated clearly that there would be a direct linkage between actual decommissioning and any prisoners being released, people were prepared to believe it.

In the House, the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister: Does he agree that prisoners should not be released early until the organisations to which they belong have substantially decommissioned their weapons? The Prime Minister replied: It is essential that any agreement is signed up to in full."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.] He said that the answer to the question was yes. He said a lot of other things, but he answered yes to the question, put directly to him by the Leader of the Opposition, which asked for decommissioning prior to any releases taking place. The Prime Minister made a further comment on 13 May: Especially after the events at the weekend, it must be clear and demonstrated … that if people are to take their places on the Northern Ireland Executive and participate in the provisions on prisoner release, we must be sure that violence is given up for good. We must demonstrate that clearly."—[Official Report, 13 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 365.] Neither of those pledges has been fulfilled in the Bill. There is no direct linkage between decommissioning and the release of prisoners, nor is there any requirement for decommissioning prior to prisoners being released. All the Bill says is that that is one of the issues that the Secretary of State will take into account, but she is not required to do so even if she finds out that decommissioning has not taken place. There is no requirement in the Bill for decommissioning to have been signed up to, or to have taken place, before prisoners start to be released.

There is no requirement for violence to have ended for good, even though the Bill talks about a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. Those are strange words to use because we had a complete ceasefire announced by the Provisional IRA. But it was broken by the Provisional IRA when it bombed Canary Wharf. A complete ceasefire is not a permanent end to violence, nor does it mean giving up violence for good. That pledge is broken in the Bill—the Prime Minister did not live up to his words.

The Prime Minister came over to Northern Ireland campaigning and gave a further pledge, which was published in the Belfast News Letter of Thursday 14 May. He said People need to know that if they are sitting down in the room of the executive of the Northern Ireland assembly with other people then they are not sitting there with the guns under the table, outside the door and all the rest of it. That can't happen and we must make it absolutely clear that that can't happen. Why is it that we in Northern Ireland are not to see the settlement Bill before people go to the polls on 25 June? One would have thought it might be appropriate for that Bill to be published before 25 June so that we could see whether the Prime Minister was keeping his pledges. I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to put right any impression that the people of Northern Ireland might have that the Prime Minister will welsh on those commitments, as he welshed on the commitments on decommissioning and the release of prisoners.

In his last bid, the Prime Minister made a dramatic statement and personally signed his five pledges to the people of Northern Ireland, which were displayed on a large billboard. The same pledge as previously was made on prison releases. Pledge No. 5 stated: Prisoners kept in unless violence is given up for good. That is clearly a requirement for a permanent end to violence—not a tactical cessation of violence, not a pause in violence, not simply giving up violence for a few years, but giving up violence for good.

How is that to be demonstrated? The Prime Minister said in his Balmoral speech that it would be demonstrated by an end to punishment beatings and by standing down the organisation and dismantling it. Those are the key issues, along with decommissioning, that show that violence is being given up for good.

The Prime Minister did not keep his word to the people of Northern Ireland. The pledges are not kept in the Bill. If he broke those pledges, the people of Northern Ireland can be certain that the other four pledges that he signed in Coleraine are unlikely to be kept when the settlement Bill is eventually published.

I agree with the hon. Members for Newry and Armagh and for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) that this Bill probably keeps to the lines of the agreement. It does not keep to the basis of the Prime Minister's pledges, but it is in line with the agreement, because the agreement, as we argued during the campaign, did not require decommissioning. It required only that certain individuals should use their best endeavours and influence to bring about decommissioning. The agreement made it clear that within two years, all the prisoners would get out.

One Labour Back Bencher made the remarkable statement that the Bill is not about letting murderers out on to the streets. What is it about then? Of course it is about letting murderers out on to the streets. That is its whole purpose. The Minister gave figures to journalists to show how many murderers would be allowed out on to the streets.

As soon as the Bill is passed, a contradiction in law will be created. I agree that there is no doubt that the Bill will be passed, given the size of the Labour majority.

Under one piece of legislation, the IRA and other terrorist organisations are proscribed, but when the Secretary of State is asked to make a determination under clause 3(8) on whether various organisations are terrorist organisations, she will undoubtedly come to the conclusion that the IRA is, for the purposes of the Bill, not a terrorist organisation.

So certain was I that the Secretary of State would come to that conclusion that I was prepared to stake my political career on it. After 19 years in the House, I made it clear that if the Secretary of State was prepared to come out publicly before last Monday and make a statement giving a clear undertaking that she would list the Provisional IRA as a terrorist organisation under that clause, I would be happy to withdraw. I thought that, offered such a carrot, the Secretary of State, keen to get rid of me, would jump at the opportunity, but she did not take it. I even made sure that she was aware of it by speaking to her private secretary, to ensure that she knew the great possibilities that lay before her.

The Secretary of State could not give such an undertaking publicly because she has no intention of determining that, for the purposes of the Bill, the Provisional IRA is a terrorist organisation. She will determine that it is not.

By doing that, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be saying, "You can hold on to 100 tonnes of weapons and enough explosives and guns to carry on waging war for another 20 years, but I will not determine that you are a terrorist organisation." She will say, "You can have all the plans to wreck and ruin the Province, but I will not determine that you are a terrorist organisation. You can have a structure and a terrorist network throughout the Province, but I will not determine that you are a terrorist organisation." That is how Mad Hattered the Bill is. Even though the IRA is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by an Act of Parliament, the Secretary of State has determined that it should not be included in a specified list of terrorist organisations. She will do the same to other terrorist organisations as well.

We also have the nonsense—emphasised by the Secretary of State in her remarks—that it is an offence to be a member of a proscribed terrorist organisation. An IRA man in the Maze prison can declare that he is a member of the Provisional IRA—which is a proscribed organisation—and the Secretary of State may release him from prison because she does not determine that that proscribed organisation should be included in the list of terrorist organisations. That man will be allowed on to the street even though he has admitted that he is a member of an organisation that everyone knows is a terrorist organisation and which is legally proscribed as such by an Act of Parliament. That is an absolute absurdity.

Other factors must be taken into account in terms of the prisoners. I do not think that it is sufficient to allow convicted prisoners to leave gaol if they have not repented or expressed regret for their crimes. Prisoners can get out of gaol without renouncing violence because they will get out on the basis of their organisation's status. However, when those people are out on licence, they will not be put back into prison on the basis of their organisation's status. If their organisation returns to violence, they will still be free because it is their individual behaviour that matters to the Secretary of State and to the commission. That is entirely wrong and the provision must clearly be amended in Committee.

I do not believe that the Bill's criteria for determining a terrorist organisation are sufficient. Clearly, we must take account—we shall seek to amend the Bill to this effect—of the views of the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who must believe that an organisation is no longer a threat to the people of Northern Ireland. Such a provision must be inserted into the Bill so that we can hear an independent and impartial view rather than the political views being expressed in the House tonight.

It is probably fairly obvious that I intend to vote against the Bill. I will do so on principle. I believe that sentences may be reduced by a very narrow margin in certain circumstances—on the ground of good behaviour, for example. The review bodies examine a series of factors, such as the likelihood of a prisoner reoffending, but that applies to only a small part of a sentence. The Bill introduces an amnesty in everything but name. The Government know it, and they think that, by calling it something else, they will fool the people. They will not. When the gates open, the prisoners will start to leave. Hundreds of prisoners will get out in that two-year period, and most of them will be murderers.

I shall vote against the Bill on principle. We accept the fact that the Government will pursue the Bill and that it will pass, but we shall seek to amend it in Committee. I know that the Government will not accept the substantial amendments that we shall propose, as they will be contrary to the Government's deal with Sinn Fein-IRA.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that, when the commission is established, in deciding its composition, she will not feel that it is necessary to telephone an on-the-run terrorist, such as Rita O'Hare, or a former leader of the Provisional IRA and Army Council member, such as Martin McGuinness, seeking their approval? When she establishes the commission, whose advice will the Secretary of State take on the issue of prisoner releases? Will she again have to secure the approval of Sinn Fein-IRA representatives?

9.14 pm
Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

It will be no surprise to the House when I say that I was opposed to the agreement and recommended the people of Northern Ireland to vote no in the referendum. As the Bill is a result of that agreement, it will come as no surprise that I am opposed to it.

For 25 years, we have had violence in Northern Ireland with terrorists at their work. We have seen murder and mayhem on many occasions. We have heard many announcements from Governments that they will defeat terrorism. They have said that the terrorists will not get what they want. However, the reality is that, because of American influence, European influence, southern Irish influence and influence from the civil servants in the Foreign Office and the Northern Ireland Office, the British Government never had the guts to beat terrorism.

If we do not beat terrorism, in the end we negotiate with the terrorists and appease them. The agreement that has been signed is not a peace agreement but an appeasement agreement. We can see the result of that in the Bill. It represents appeasement to terrorism. The terrorists were there to make a deal, and their condition was that they had to get their prisoners out. That applied both to Sinn Fein and to the terrorists from the nationalist side as well as the terrorist organisations from the Unionist side. That was the price that they demanded for the agreement—or part of the price—and, so that the agreement could be reached, they got it. They wanted to get their prisoners out.

The Bill acknowledges something that has always been denied, which is that there were political prisoners in Northern Ireland. They may not have been called political prisoners—they may have been termed special status prisoners—but in reality they have been political prisoners. Men and women who have been involved in terrorism are now to be treated differently from every other criminal who is in prison in Northern Ireland. That is immoral and it discriminates against the ordinary criminal who has to do his full term in prison, even though the offences that he has committed may be much less than some of the terrorist crimes that have been committed by others.

Mr. Winnick

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the leader and deputy leader of his party have come to a very different conclusion from him about the negotiated agreement? Why has the majority of the governing part of his organisation also decided to back the agreement?

Mr. Thompson

I did not hear exactly all that the hon. Gentleman said, but I know that many parties accept the agreement. Indeed, my own party has accepted it. I accept that. I accept also that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland have accepted it. However, that does not mean that I must accept it. I believe that it is wrong. As I believe that it is wrong, I therefore believe that I have the right to oppose it as it continues to come into development in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Winnick

I was really asking why the hon. Gentleman believes—of course, he has a perfect right to oppose the Bill in a free House of Commons—that the leader and deputy leader of his party, as well as the majority of the governing part of his organisation, take a very different view from him over the negotiated agreement.

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman asks a question to which I really do not know the answer. I ask him to ask those to whom he refers why they reached such a decision. It is certainly not one with which I agree.

The Bill is a betrayal of all the good men and women from the security forces who gave their lives in the pursuit of the defeat of terrorism. Many of them spent nights patrolling the roads trying to defend the ordinary people of Northern Ireland in order to defeat terrorism. They died in vain, because terrorism has not been defeated. Terrorism is succeeding still in Northern Ireland.

The so-called safeguards in the Bill are meaningless. Many people in Northern Ireland were persuaded to vote yes by the promises given by the Prime Minister when he came to Northern Ireland on three occasions. When they saw him on television, they took him at his word. I tried to persuade them that what he signed and said was meaningless, but they would not believe that. Now, in the Bill, we discover that what I believed has come true. The Prime Minister's promises have not been fulfilled in the Bill.

Time is of the essence, so I conclude by saying that this is a bad Bill. It is a sad day for the House of Commons when it considers a Bill to release murderers. Therefore, I shall oppose it.

9.20 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I shall be brief and I apologise, therefore, if I cannot develop one or two of my arguments as much as I would have wished.

I was happy to support the agreement when it came before the House. Various things have been said about it in this debate, and I find myself as unable to agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) as I am with the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter).

Ultimately, Northern Ireland is a civil society. It enjoys, in substantial areas, a great measure of peace, but we belittle the people of Northern Ireland if we attribute to them a state of wardom such that we have to extend or change the law to accommodate their circumstances. It is a bad precedent.

That having been said, the agreement implies on our part an act of hard-headed faith. I have never had any doubt in my mind that if violence comes to an end, that of itself is a good precondition for looking at the case of each individual convicted for an act of violence. If the violence has ceased, it is a good reason for releasing them as soon as possible. That would have applied whether or not the agreement had come into being.

Therefore, if we are approaching a situation where peace will come to Northern Ireland, there are sound reasons for looking to release prisoners as expeditiously as possible, as long as we do not release into the community those who will resume violence.

There are matters connected with the agreement which have given me cause for concern. Applying my mind as a lawyer, I read the agreement carefully and I concluded that what the Prime Minister had to say on 6 May about the linkage between the release of prisoners and the cessation of violence and decommissioning was, on a reading of the agreement, correct. I hope that it is, because I am concerned not about whether other parties to the agreement may come to a different interpretation but to know the Government's interpretation of the agreement.

Listening to the debate, there has been enough casuistry from supporters of the Government to suggest that there are those who read into the agreement some very different things from others about the linkage of decommissioning with the cessation of violence.

As I said earlier in an intervention, I have no doubt that the agreement can be construed—it is reflected in the legislation—as meaning that an act of preparation for violence would be the failure within the two-year period to achieve the substantial decommissioning that is envisaged in the agreement.

If that is not the case, the sooner the Government say so, the better. There is a tendency in circumstances of this kind to have a hope and a prayer, and sometimes to go beyond what is realistic. It is important that people know where they stand. Obfuscation may be a Government art form, but it will do us no good in this context. If the matter is not clarified now, it will be clarified later, with far worse consequences.

I am prepared to accept what the Prime Minister said, because it appears to be in accordance with the agreement, but I seek confirmation of that. The question of what amendments are tabled or become critical in Committee will depend on how the Government interpret the agreement to the House and on the assurances that can be given that what the Prime Minister said on the matter is correct. I believe that the agreement and the Bill match, and that the agreement was properly reflected by what the Prime Minister said, but I look forward to reassurance that that is indeed the case.

The issue with which I now wish to deal briefly may be slightly off the remit of the Bill, but it is important. I expect that, by the time the two-year period is up, there will be virtually no IRA prisoners in this country who have not been transferred either to Northern Ireland or to the Republic. I understand that the remit of the Bill concerns prisoners transferred to Northern Ireland, but the status of prisoners transferred to the Republic is a matter of abiding curiosity to me. Some of those prisoners have the unique and unpleasant distinction of being virtually the only ones subject to the full life tariff. Some were transferred on the Irish Government's explicit assurance that they accepted the full life tariff imposed by the Home Secretary.

Where do those prisoners fit into the agreement? If they do not fit into the Bill, into what agreement do they fit? I do not accept that they are merely the responsibility of the Government of the Irish Republic, because that Government's previous ability to release them has been fettered by their assurance of the full life tariff.

There are exceptions—properly made—in the Bill. I know from my experience of encountering terrorists in the courts that they come in all shapes and sizes—from the young romantic who has murdered, but who may properly wish to be released into the community quickly, to the psychopath who probably constitutes a danger to the community whether or not he is a member of a terrorist organisation, and who was drawn to terrorist organisations like a bee to a honey pot.

What measure of control will the Government exercise over influencing the release date of prisoners transferred to the Irish Republic, and how do such prisoners fit into the agreement? Even if the matter falls outside the remit of the Bill, I should be grateful for an explanation of how that will work.

I thank the House for allowing me the indulgence of exceeding the normal time for Back-Bench speeches in order that I might raise those matters.

9.27 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I am more than happy to have given my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) five or six minutes for his excellent contribution to this debate.

I reiterate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) in thanking the Secretary of State and her Ministers for involving the Opposition and seeking our advice in the drafting of the Bill. As my hon. Friend said, some of our points have been incorporated, but the Bill still does not go far enough to satisfy our concerns and those of many people in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend said, we shall submit amendments and force those to a vote in Committee unless we have further accommodation from the Government.

Contrary to the accusations of some Labour Members, we do not seek to rewrite the agreement; we merely seek to make clear in the Bill the intent and the terms of the agreement. That is no less an intent than the Prime Minister has sought to achieve in his various comments over the past few weeks.

I seek clarification from the Minister on two questions that were put to the Secretary of State by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell. The first relates to the issue of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. We seek confirmation that the Bill does not apply in their case. Clause 3(3)(a) sets a first condition that the sentence must be for a qualifying offence. It seems to me that the offences committed by Guardsmen Fisher and Wright do not fulfil that condition. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that when he responds to the debate.

Clause 1(5) refers to a lawyer who holds a legal qualification in any jurisdiction. The issue raised was not dealt with fully. There is still some doubt, and we seek confirmation that the qualification should be from the United Kingdom.

I can say in response to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) that we welcome the agreement and we acknowledge that it is a momentous event in the history of Northern Ireland. History will determine how momentous it is, but it is a key and significant step. We want further progress on the basis of that agreement. There is a glimmer of hope, and that was shown by the positive 71 per cent. vote in the referendum. However, that is conditional on good faith being exercised by all the participating parties. The commitments by the signatories to the agreement are clear cut and have repeatedly been endorsed and elaborated on by the Prime Minister himself.

It is the duty of the Opposition to challenge the wording of the legislation that interprets the intent of the agreement. There may well be differing views on the legal interpretation of words in the Bill. Is that not what the courts will be asked to determine? As a lawyer, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun should have understood that fundamental point.

There is no inconsistency in our position. We have made it clear in the House, in private meetings with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, and publicly in Northern Ireland and in mainland Britain that we seek a clear and unequivocal commitment to giving up violence for good, and that includes decommissioning. We believe that that commitment should also apply to the release of prisoners. After all, the Prime Minister has said no less. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), in his powerful speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield alluded to many of the Prime Minister's comments in the past few weeks. In the limited time available to me, I do not intend to reiterate them. In the Prime Minister's various interviews and statements on 6 May, 14 May and 17 May in the House and in Northern Ireland, the word "decommissioning" occurred time and again. Furthermore, on every occasion he linked decommissioning to both prisoner release and the taking up of Executive positions in the assembly.

The Bill does not make those links in anything like the same clear and unequivocal way. That is the critical issue. The people of Northern Ireland were entitled to believe what the Prime Minister said about those links when they voted yes to the agreement. The House is entitled to believe that the Prime Minister meant what he said under questioning from the Leader of the Opposition. The country as a whole is entitled to believe the Prime Minister when he promises to link legislation on prisoner release to the giving up of violence for good. The Prime Minister said that the war is finished, done with, gone". To ordinary men and women in Northern Ireland and in mainland Britain, it is inconceivable that an organisation that eschews violence and terrorism cannot co-operate fully and totally with the decommissioning process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) raised the issue of the prisoners transferred to the Republic of Ireland.

The intention of the agreement is clear from paragraph 1 of the section on prisoners, on page 25. I think that the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) quoted from it twice. It states: Both Governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners, including transferred prisoners, convicted of scheduled offences in Northern Ireland or, in the case of those sentenced outside Northern Ireland, similar offences (referred to hereafter as qualifying prisoners). Clause 15 of the Bill deals with sentences passed outside Northern Ireland—that is, in mainland Great Britain. Subsection (1) gives the Secretary of State power to provide for clauses 3 to 13 to take effect, if the prisoner concerned meets the four conditions specified in clause 3(3) to (6).

It strikes me that, if the likes of Paul Magee and the Balcombe street gang had stayed in prisons in the United Kingdom—as provided for in clause 15—they would have been subject to this legislation. The fact that they have been transferred to the Republic of Ireland under a separate jurisdiction does create a slight problem, but, given the intent in the paragraph in the agreement on the release of prisoners, I do not think that they can be seen to have prejudiced their case by moving from prisons here to prisons in the Republic. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point for once and for all.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said—and I think that his comments were echoed by the hon. Member for Hull, North—that there was no question of introducing new elements into the agreement, and, by inference, into the Bill. He implied that no embellishment would be countenanced—particularly to clause 3(8) and (9), the subsections which are at the heart of the Bill. Indeed, he challenged both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to come to the Floor of the House and say why the legislation was to be changed from the word and the spirit of the agreement.

I presume from those comments that the hon. Gentleman is content with the words in the Bill as drafted. I also presume that he was consulted about those words before the Bill was drafted. That is not a problem. Consultation was widespread, and many parties were included: I have already accepted that. It is, however, unusual for the first draft of a Bill, as it appears on Second Reading, to be perfect. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not entertain the view that other word sand combinations of words could strengthen the legislation in a way that we would like, while still not going beyond the terms of the agreement.

I shall give the Minister plenty of time in which to speak, as I know that he has many questions to answer. I have raised some of the key issues, principally those arising in clause 3(8) and (9). We shall be tabling amendments to those key provisions. We hope that the spirit of co-operation that the Government have shown hitherto will continue when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House for its Committee stage next week.

9.38 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate about an issue that generates strong emotions. In the time available, I shall do my best to deal with all the points that have been raised, although it may not be possible for me to do so. It will certainly be possible to discuss the details of many of the points raised this evening in Committee.

There have been many difficult and dark days in the troubled history of Northern Ireland, but 10 April and 22 May stand out like beacons. On those days a new light shone on the Province, a ray of hope and the glimmer of a better tomorrow. The Good Friday agreement and the referendum which endorsed it so convincingly are without doubt significant turning points in the history of Northern Ireland. Those two events are the opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to move forward into a future that is no longer plagued by violence and blighted by fear.

All hon. Members have an obligation to listen to what the people of Northern Ireland have said. They are the people who have been living with the troubles all these years and who have been most damaged by them. They are saying that they want a better future for themselves and their families.

When the participants to the talks signed the agreement on Good Friday, they knew that hard decisions lay ahead and that difficult actions would be required. Equally, when the people of Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted yes in the referendum, they did so knowing that they would have to accept decisions and developments that had previously been anathema to them. The talks participants and the people of Northern Ireland endorsed the Good Friday agreement knowing that it was a total package that would stand or fall as a whole.

The legislation deals with one of the first of the important matters on which the agreement can either founder or move ahead. The Government have made no secret of the fact that the prisoner element of the agreement was not easy for us. We share the concerns of many people about the early release of prisoners. However, it is time for all those who have suffered hurt over the past 30 years to take a deep breath and say that, although this is not necessarily a perfect end to the troubles, realistically it is the only one.

I shall now deal with the issue of victims. During my time in Northern Ireland I have constantly been amazed at the capacity of so many of those who have suffered gravely over the years, whether from the discriminate bombings and shootings of republican terrorists or from the evil sectarian murders by so-called loyalists, to forgive and to look ahead. Without that, politicians would not have been given the time and space in which to forge a better future.

In my role as Minister for victims, I am particularly conscious of the Bill's possible impact on victims and their families. I understand the hurt and the fears of many of those people, and I understand the need to ensure that their concerns and interests are properly addressed. In that context, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran), who also spoke about victims, for their comments. They both pertinently drew attention to the need to ensure that victims who want the information can find out when particular offenders will be released. Lord Alderdice and the Alliance party have shown a particular interest in the issue and have made similar suggestions and representations on behalf of victims. In Committee next week, I shall be happy to consider further questions on the issue with a view to tabling a Government amendment to tackle it.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked how the Republic of Ireland would deal with victims. That is a matter for the Government of the Republic. They have also appointed a Minister with responsibility for dealing with victims of terrorism over the years in the Republic, and I am due to meet him shortly to discuss what we can jointly do. Legislation and how to deal specifically with such issues are matters for that Government.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) spoke about the sensitivity of victims and about informing them. We shall have to deal with Victim Support and other such groups to ensure that information will be offered sympathetically. The overriding principle is that it will be for victims to decide whether they want to receive information. We shall be establishing a procedure whereby victims may identify themselves if they wish information to be brought forward, so that they can ease some of the pain that they may feel about prisoner releases as the releases begin to progress over the coming months and years.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), who is not present, said that we were only now beginning to think about the issue of victims. Just about everything that the hon. and learned Gentleman says is wrong. He is wrong again on the issue of victims. It is not true that victims have been ignored by this or by previous Governments. Over the years, considerable sums of money have been routed towards groups that have sought to assist victims. Since this Government took office, we have established a commission specifically to consider the issue. It has reported recently; a Minister responsible for victims has been appointed; and we are making great progress. It is wrong to say that we have ignored victims over the years; that is simply not so.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked whether the Secretary of State would consult the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding on whether a ceasefire was being maintained. The answer to that is yes. It is clear that they are both key players in understanding the effect of what is taking place on the ground. Of course, at present, both the Secretary of State and I are constantly in touch with the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding in assessing security matters on a week-by-week basis.

I turn to the safeguards in the Bill. Although we owe it to victims and to the people of Northern Ireland to address fears about release, we must obviously take account of how we go about it. The Bill builds in the major safeguards which were envisaged at the conclusion of Good Friday agreement and which the Prime Minister has promised since.

The gates of the Maze prison are not being flung open and prisoners will not be granted an amnesty for their criminal actions. The safeguards will ensure that prisoners who support terrorist groups that continue to engage in violence or return to violence will not be released. Prisoners who will be released on licence will be recalled if they engage in terrorist activities after release. Safeguards also ensure that the programme of release can be stopped if circumstances change. That means that, if a terrorist group returns to violence, prisoners who support the organisation will not be released, and those who continue to support it while on licence can be recalled. Another important safeguard is that life sentence prisoners will not be released if they are a danger to the public. Those are very important criteria and will be rigidly applied.

I turn to the Prime Minister's pledges. The message that the Prime Minister gave is very clear, and was confirmed in his statement to the people of Northern Ireland on 14 May. He said that, if parties are to benefit from accelerated release, their commitment to democratic, non-violent means must be established in an objective, meaningful and verifiable way. He said that a range of factors were to be taken into account in clarifying whether the terms and spirit of the agreement have been met and whether violence has genuinely been given up for good.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the following factors in her introductory statement, and they are now included in the Bill. They are whether an organisation is committed to the use now and in future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve its objectives; has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or preparation for violence; is not directing or promoting acts of violence committed by other organisations; and is co-operating fully with the decommissioning body.

Since we are judging what assurances have been given, it is worth looking at what has happened. It is worth underlining that prisoners have been released throughout the troubles. They include almost 450 life sentence prisoners who were released through the life sentence release mechanisms set up by the Conservative Government in 1983. Only two of them have been recalled as a result of further serious terrorist-type offences. Those prisoners include also more than 245 fixed-sentence prisoners released early under legislation introduced by the Conservative Government as recently as 1995. Only two of those prisoners have had their licence revoked.

The 1995 legislation was introduced during a period in which both loyalists and the Provisional IRA had ceasefires in place, and continued in force even when the PIRA ceasefire broke down, with the horrific docklands bombing. Although the previous Government had power to suspend by order that legislation, they chose not to do so. In many respects, we are today considering building on that Conservative legislation.

The new scheme will lead to earlier release and will for the first time involve life sentence prisoners. However, the changes are balanced by safeguards that were absent from the 1995 legislation. Specifically, we will be able to penalise organisations that do not maintain ceasefires and to prevent release of prisoners, especially life sentence prisoners, who will be a risk to the public.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Will the Minister make it clear whether IRA prisoners can be released regardless of whether there is decommissioning?

Mr. Ingram

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, one of the factors that has to be taken into account—it is one of the four factors—is commitment by those organisations to be engaged fully in that process. That factor is quite clear both from what the Prime Minister has said and in the legislation.

I tell the right hon. Member for Strangford that every hon. Member wants an end to paramilitary weapons. We all want decommissioning. The Government have initiated legislation to achieve that end. In the next few weeks, we will be signing the scheme to put into effect the means to achieve it. However, ultimately, the mechanism that those organisations would apply in decommissioning is voluntary. It is the organisations that will have to comply with the factors and produce the weapons. We do not have mechanisms to take weapons from organisations unless they co-operate with the schemes, which will be signed up to within the next few weeks.

I shall deal now with the points raised by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), which were raised again by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss).

Mr. Robathan

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram

No; I should like now to deal specifically with the transfer of prisoners, as I am very conscious of the time.

Mr. MacKay

On decommissioning, and in response to the Minister's reply to the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), may I ask whether the Minister agrees with the Prime Minister's statement on the Floor of the House that It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence. Decommissioning is part of that"? If decommissioning is part of release, surely the Minister will agree that it must be a prerequisite—rather than the Secretary of State or her successors merely saying that they will take it into account. If the Minister can give us that confirmation today, I think that we will have very few problems with the rest of the Bill.

Mr. Ingram

Of course I agree with the Prime Minister. However, let me quote the Prime Minister's exact comments, which have been quoted selectively. In reply to the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister said: Again, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence. We all agree with that. He continued: Decommissioning is part of that, of course, but it goes further. It is not just a question of decommissioning, but a question of making sure, as the agreement says, that there is a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. What is more, there is provision in the agreement for that to be kept under constant review."— [Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.] So what the Prime Minister said—

Mr. MacKay

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram


What the Prime Minister said—[HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] I am answering the point. The Prime Minister's comments went further than the assurance now sought by the hon. Member for Bracknell. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman now finds it within himself to judge that he can support the legislation.

Mr. MacKay

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has quoted the passage in full—it was purely because of the time that I did not—because I agree with the rest of what the Prime Minister said. Any reasonable person who looks at what he said—a lot of reasonable people in the Province looked at it and decided in the end to vote yes during the referendum campaign—would judge that decommissioning had to take place before prisoners were released. That is absolute fact. If that is not conceded in the legislation, the people of Northern Ireland will have been ratted upon.

Mr. Ingram

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is being so offensive about the Prime Minister, who made such a—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I remind the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) that we should always use temperate language in the House.

Mr. MacKay

I will withdraw the words "ratted upon" and say misled.

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman is merely finding another way of being offensive. Clearly, that has been the whole import of what he has been saying. We have a bipartisan approach and we are trying to move forward. The hon. Gentleman is now saying that the Prime Minister has misled the House and the people of Northern Ireland, while at the same time saying that he welcomes the agreement and recognises the major contribution that the Prime Minister made in bringing it about and getting that tremendous vote on 22 May. Can the hon. Gentleman get his act together? Can he begin to think clearly whether he wants to compliment the Prime Minister or to insult him?

Mr. MacKay

I am not saying that the Prime Minister misled the House, if the legislation is corrected. I am assuming that the Prime Minister acted in good faith and was saying what would be in the legislation; but it is not in the legislation, and unless the legislation is amended, people will assume that the right hon. Gentleman has misled the House. I am asking the Minister to ensure that that provision is in the legislation—then there will be no problems whatever.

Mr. Ingram

Perhaps I should have taken longer for my winding-up speech, if that had been permitted; because of those interventions, I will not now have time to cover all the points made.

I shall deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Bracknell about the Prime Minister's assurances and what is reflected in the legislation. Clause 3(9), which must of course be considered with all the other factors that have to come into play, states: In applying subsection (8)(b) the Secretary of State shall in particular take into account whether an organisation—

  1. (a) is committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve its objectives;
  2. (b) has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence;
  3. (c) is directing or promoting acts of violence committed by other organisations;
  4. (d) is co-operating fully with any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997."
Those are four clear factors, which the Secretary of State will take into account and which are wholly consistent with what the Prime Minister said in the House and to the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that when the hon. Member for Bracknell leaves the Chamber he will reflect on those—he probably will not correct his thoughts at this point in time. He has complimented the Prime Minister in the past and he should compliment him again for ensuring that those factors are in the legislation. They are important and they will have to be taken into account.

The transfer of prisoners from England—not from the mainland as the hon. Member for Bracknell said—to the Republic of Ireland is another critical area that has been mentioned. Repatriation of such prisoners was agreed on the basis that the Republic would continue to enforce their sentences. The hon. Gentleman and others referred to a particular prisoner, Magee, who would normally expect to serve a period similar to that which he could have expected to serve in England.

Under the Belfast agreement, both Governments agreed to introduce mechanisms for the early release of prisoners—the agreement that the hon. Gentleman says he supports. The sentences of those prisoners repatriated to the Republic of Ireland may therefore be reviewed under the terms of the agreement. That is a clear reading of the agreement. It cannot be interpreted in any other way. It is a matter for the Republic of Ireland how it implements its aspect of the agreement, in the same way as it is a matter for the House how we implement ours. My understanding is that legislation will not be required in the Republic, but that is a matter for its jurisdiction.

Many other points need to be dealt with, and I am sure that we will do that in Committee.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 343, Noes 10.

Division No. 299] [9.59 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Arbuthnot, James
Ainger, Nick Armstrong, Ms Hilary
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Ashton, Joe
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Atkins, Charlotte
Allan, Richard Baker, Norman
Allen, Graham Ballard, Jackie
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Barron, Kevin
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Battle, John
Bayley, Hugh Dowd, Jim
Beard, Nigel Drew, David
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Duncan Smith, Iain
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Bennett, Andrew F Edwards, Huw
Berry, Roger Efford, Clive
Betts, Clive Ellman, Mrs Louise
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Ennis, Jeff
Blizzard, Bob Etherington, Bill
Boateng, Paul Evans, Nigel
Borrow, David Field, Rt Hon Frank
Boswell, Tim Fisher, Mark
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Fitzpatrick, Jim
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Fitzsimons, Lorna
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Flint, Caroline
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Flynn, Paul
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Browne, Desmond Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Burgon, Colin Fox, Dr Liam
Burnett, John Fyfe, Maria
Burns, Simon Gapes, Mike
Butler, Mrs Christine Garnier, Edward
Byers, Stephen George, Andrew (St Ives)
Caborn, Richard George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Gerrard, Neil
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gibson, Dr Ian
Canavan, Dennis Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Caplin, Ivor Godman, Dr Norman A
Caton, Martin Godsiff, Roger
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Goggins, Paul
Chaytor, David Golding, Mrs Llin
Chisholm, Malcolm Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Chope, Christopher Gorrie, Donald
Clappison, James Grant, Bernie
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Green, Damian
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Greenway, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Grieve, Dominic
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Grocott, Bruce
Clwyd, Ann Grogan, John
Coaker, Vernon Gunnell, John
Coffey, Ms Ann Hague, Rt Hon William
Cohen, Harry Hain, Peter
Collins, Tim Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Colman, Tony Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Corbett, Robin Hammond, Philip
Corbyn, Jeremy Hanson, David
Corston, Ms Jean Harris, Dr Evan
Cotter, Brian Hayes, John
Cox, Tom Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Cran, James Heald, Oliver
Crausby, David Healey, John
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Heppell, John
Cummings, John Hesford, Stephen
Cunliffe, Lawrence Hinchliffe, David
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Hoey, Kate
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Dalyell, Tam Home Robertson, John
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Hoon, Geoffrey
Darvill, Keith Hope, Phil
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Hopkins, Kelvin
Davidson, Ian Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Humble, Mrs Joan
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Hurst, Alan
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly) Hutton, John
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Iddon, Dr Brian
Dawson, Hilton Illsley, Eric
Dean, Mrs Janet Ingram, Adam
Denharm, John Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Dismore, Andrew Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Jamieson, David
Doran, Frank Jenkin, Bernard
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Jenkins, Brian
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Mudie, George
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Mullin, Chris
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) Nicholls, Patrick
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Oaten, Mark
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Jowell, Ms Tessa O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Keeble, Ms Sally Olner, Bill
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Paice, James
Kemp, Fraser Palmer, Dr Nick
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Pearson, Ian
Key, Robert Perham, Ms Linda
Kilfoyle, Peter Pickthall, Colin
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Pike, Peter L
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Plaskitt, James
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Pond, Chris
Kumar, Dr Ashok Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Prescott, Rt Hon John
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Primarolo, Dawn
Lansley, Andrew Prosser, Gwyn
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Purchase, Ken
Laxton, Bob
Lepper, David
Leslie, Christopher
Letwin, Oliver
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Liddell, Mrs Helen
Lidington, David
Livingstone, Ken
Llwyd, Elfyn
Love, Andrew
Luff, Peter
McAllion, John
McAvoy, Thomas
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, John
McFall, John
McGrady, Eddie
McGuire, Mrs Anne
McIsaac, Shona
MacKay, Andrew
Mackinlay, Andrew
McLoughlin, Patrick
McNamara, Kevin
McNulty, Tony
McWalter, Tony
McWilliam, John
Madel, Sir David
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Mallaber, Judy
Mallon, Seamus
Mandelson, Peter
Maples, John
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Maxton, John
May, Mrs Theresa
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Meale, Alan
Merron, Gillian
Michael, Alun
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Milburn, Alan
Mitchell, Austin
Moffatt, Laura
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Moran, Ms Margaret
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Morley, Elliot
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Moss, Malcolm
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Quin, Ms Joyce Stott, Roger
Quinn, Lawrie Stringer, Graham
Rammell, Bill Sutcliffe, Gerry
Raynsford, Nick Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Redwood, Rt Hon John
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Rogers, Allan Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Rooker, Jeff Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Rooney, Terry Timms, Stephen
Rowlands, Ted Tipping, Paddy
Ruane, Chris Tonge, Dr Jenny
Ruddock, Ms Joan Touhig, Don
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Trend, Michael
Ryan, Ms Joan Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Salter, Martin Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Savidge, Malcolm Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Sedgemore, Brian Vis, Dr Rudi
Shaw, Jonathan Ward, Ms Claire
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Watts, David
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian Whitehead, Dr Alan
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Whittingdale, John
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk) Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Singh, Marsha Willetts, David
Skinner, Dennis Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Willis, Phil
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Winnick, David
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, Sir Robert (WAb'd'ns) Wise, Audrey
Snape, Peter Wood, Mike
Soley, Clive Woolas, Phil
Southworth, Ms Helen Worthington, Tony
Spellar, John Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Wyatt, Derek
Spring, Richard Yeo, Tim
Squire, Ms Rachel Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Stevenson, George
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Tellers for the Ayes:
Stinchcombe, Paul Janet Anderson and Mr. Greg Pope.
Stoate, Dr Howard
Donaldson, Jeffrey Thompson, William
Flight, Howard Trimble, Rt Hon David
McCartney, Robert (N Down) Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Paisley, Rev Ian
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Tellers for the Noes:
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Mr. John D. Taylor and Rev. Martin Smyth.
Ross, William (E Lond'y)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills), That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Jane Kennedy.]

Question agreed to.

Committee tomorrow.