HC Deb 13 May 1998 vol 312 cc364-6
7. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

If she will make a statement on the conditions contained in the Belfast agreement concerning the release of prisoners convicted of terrorist offences on licence. [40686]

8. Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

If she will make a statement on the Belfast agreement's provisions for the release of prisoners. [40687]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

I referred in my statement to the House on 20 April on the Belfast agreement to the accelerated releases which were part of that overall package. The release of prisoners will be considered on a case-by-case basis by an independent body. It is not a general amnesty. Prisoners will be released on licence and recalled to prison if they support an organisation engaged in terrorism or if they engage in terrorism themselves. Prisoners affiliated to groups that continue to engage in terrorism will not be given early release; nor will those who are considered to be a serious risk to the public. We consider those to be crucial safeguards.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Given that some of these prisoners who might be released on licence still might have a significant proportion of their sentences for serious terrorist offences to serve, does not the Secretary of State think that it is wholly necessary—indeed, that it should be a precondition—that the authorities do everything they possibly can to ensure that these prisoners have genuinely renounced violence and any organisation to which they belong that espouses violence?

Marjorie Mowlam

I have no difficulty agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. Prisoners have to have renounced violence and anything else that is not part of a democratic, constitutional way forward. They will not be released unless that has happened. They will be released on licence and can be recalled—they are the crucial safeguards which show that there is a commitment to a peaceful way forward.

Mr. Hunter

What does the right hon. Lady regard as the moral justification for early release? Surely it undermines the rule of law and amounts to capitulation to the threat of terror. How can lasting peace and political stability emerge from an agreement which in part relies on murderers to act as its ambassadors?

Marjorie Mowlam

I accept that lasting peace is what we are looking for. Equally, I accept that it is a difficult, complex problem. As I said in answer to the previous question, it is part of an overall agreement. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that more than most. He, too, has been to the Maze and talked to prisoners. He, too, put forward schemes a couple of years ago, saying that we should look at the early release of prisoners who are members of organisations maintaining a credible ceasefire. I hope that he understands that it is not easy. Others have tried: when the previous Government examined this issue, they changed the remission system, and they had 240 prisoners out before we took over government.

In addition, if the present scheme continued, without our introducing any change to the previous Government's scheme, half the prisoners would be out in two years anyway. These schemes were not changed during the Canary Wharf breakdown or during the breakdown of the ceasefire.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we all appreciate the pain felt by members of both communities at the prospect of the release of prisoners? We also realise the important part that prisoners from both communities play in seeking to achieve peace and in the Belfast agreement. It must be recognised that, painful though it is, it is necessary and proper in respect of reaching agreement, and that the terms and conditions set out by my right hon. Friend will properly and effectively achieve equity for all concerned.

Marjorie Mowlam

There is no doubt among hon. Members, many of whom have friends who have suffered at the hands of terrorism in Northern Ireland on both sides of the divide. I spent this morning with the families of victims who had been killed or injured. No one can underplay the pain and suffering of those families. As I said in the House on 20 April, it is not an easy part of the package or of the Good Friday agreement, but, on balance, the political parties of Northern Ireland have signed up to it.