HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc374-6
3. Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

What percentage of prisoners convicted of scheduled offences has been released to date under the Good Friday agreement. [71200]

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

To date, applications have been received from 503 indeterminate and determinate prisoners. Of those, 12 per cent. have not been processed; the prisoners being, in the main, ineligible under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Some 48 per cent. have already been released, and a further 30 per cent. have received specified dates for release in the future. Some 10 per cent. remain to be processed by the sentence review commissioners.

Mr. Bruce

The Minister is saying, effectively, that about half the prisoners who are due to be released have been released. He will know that the terrorist organisations and their political mouthpieces signed up to the Good Friday Agreement only because they knew that they would get their prisoners out. One of their obligations is to decommission their weapons. Would it not be sensible simply to say to all organisations, both loyalist and republican, that no more prisoners will be released until they start delivering on the decommissioning of weapons? That does not destroy the agreement—it simply fulfils it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Mr. Ingram

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and the support that he receives from some of his right hon. and hon. Friends. However, there ain't no simple answers to a peace process. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has spelt out the way forward. To do what the hon. Gentleman suggests would be to rewrite the Good Friday agreement. Maximum pressure must be brought to bear from all parts of Northern Ireland—from the community, the parties involved, the UK and Republic of Ireland Governments and any other international support—to impress upon those who hold illegal weapons that they must be removed from Northern Ireland if peace is to prevail.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

How many of the prisoners who have been released early under the agreement have had to be recalled for a breach in their licence conditions?

Mr. Ingram


Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Does the Minister therefore say that he has no knowledge of any involvement by any of the released prisoners in any mutilations or beatings?

Mr. Ingram

We have no knowledge of that in terms of the way in which the hon. Gentleman raises the point. The Chief Constable has said that all of the paramilitary organisations have been associated in some way with paramilitary assaults. I would suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that we do not share detailed intelligence across the Floor of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I have confirmed the Chief Constable's assessment, and we have accepted it. The effective way of dealing with those people is to bring evidence forward, to bring them to trial and to put them in prison for their acts.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Does the Minister recognise how demoralising it is for the police force to see the release of those whom they have gone to great efforts to arrest and get convicted? Will he confirm that, if the terrorists who committed the outrage in Omagh are caught and convicted, there will be no accelerated release for them and that the recommendations of the judge or judges who take part in the trial will be honoured?

Mr. Ingram

We have made it clear consistently that the issue of prisoner releases is difficult to handle. The Good Friday agreement laid it out as a clear prospect. The Government have implemented what was requested of them in the Good Friday agreement, to which the people of Northern Ireland signed up. The Omagh tragedy happened after 10 April, so those who may be brought to justice for it will not be covered by the existing legislation.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Is it true that a released prisoner was living in the house in west Belfast where IRA weapons were found recently?

Mr. Ingram

If the hon. Gentleman has such information, he should pass it to the RUC. I do not have that intelligence information. If he has more specific evidence that would help the RUC with its inquiries, he should pass it on.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

While we accept that there ain't no simple answers to the peace process, it is clear from the figures that the Minister has given the House this afternoon that the majority of prisoners will soon have been released. Does he accept that, although the Government have honoured all their commitments, including prisoner release, Sinn Fein-IRA have not started decommissioning? Does he find it acceptable that the majority of prisoners will have been released without decommissioning having taken place?

Mr. Ingram

I do not know that to be the case. There is still momentum in the process. Discussions are taking place as we speak to find resolutions to that complex issue. As my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said, we want all illegally held weapons in Northern Ireland to be decommissioned. We never said that that would happen overnight. From the way in which he asked his question, I take it that the hon. Gentleman has not understood the import of the Good Friday agreement.