HL Deb 28 March 2002 vol 633 cc355-8

11.26 a.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Prime Minister has entered into any arrangements with Sinn Fein to ensure that IRA fugitives who have given themselves up will not serve prison sentences.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, it was recognised at Weston Park that the issue of those "fugitives" needed to be dealt with. However, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, it is still the object of discussion. No conclusions have been reached.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that it would be an affront to the fundamental principles of the British constitution, which have evolved over centuries, for any Prime Minister of this country to suggest that he might be able to influence or interfere with the independent operational responsibility of the police in upholding the law in individual cases? It would be even more outrageous if a Prime Minister were to suggest that he could interfere with the prerogative of Her Majesty's judges to decide whether an individual who is accused and found guilty of a serious crime should receive a custodial sentence. It is not for politicians to interfere in those fundamentals of our liberties.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I know of no occasion on which the Prime Minister has made such a suggestion about interfering with the judiciary. As is well known to all noble Lords, there is a sentence release scheme, which was authorised by Parliament and which has been operating for some considerable time in Northern Ireland. Nor do I know of any suggestion by or on behalf of the Prime Minister that involves giving any direction to any police officer.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord reassure the House that all the fugitives will have to present themselves to the courts before any question of release under licence or amnesty comes into consideration?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I must repeat what I said in my original Answer, which I think was clear—no conclusions have been reached.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, is it not essential in this matter to distinguish between those terrorist offences that were committed before and those that were committed after the Belfast agreement? If it were thought right to afford some clemency to the latter type of offence, would it not be important to ensure the return of exiles to Northern Ireland and to achieve an end to intimidation?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, on the first matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, I am happy to reassure him that the Weston Park agreement referred to offences that were committed before 10th April 1998. On his second point, which I know has been firmly pressed on a number of occasions by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, I share his views. It is not acceptable for people to be driven out of their homes. I promised, in my reply to the noble Baroness, to take matters forward. I have arranged a meeting—it will be very soon after Easter—with the Minister who has charge of that area.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, given the fact that there have been detailed reports in The Times and in the Irish Times, which naturally have not been denied by Sinn Fein, can the Minister give the House an absolute assurance that no decision will be taken on any amnesty whatever to known murderers without the issue coming to Parliament for legislation? Surely, it is not an issue that can be dealt with by a quiet, private deal, particularly as, since the Weston Park agreement, we live in a different world. We have been required to put through Parliament a number of further terrorism Acts. In that context, the Americans cannot possibly take us seriously when we ask them to arrange for funding of the IRA to stop if at the same time we do this. I ask the noble and learned Lord to give the House an absolute assurance that there will be no action whatever on this matter that does not first come to Parliament.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I have read the reports in The Times, in the Irish Times, and in other newspapers. All of them appear to be inconsistent, one with another. I simply do not know from where they acquired the material. I have to be as straightforward as possible with the House. I repeat that no conclusions have been reached. Therefore, I cannot honourably give an affirmative answer to the question posed by the noble Baroness. However, I recognise the strength of the proposition that she puts forward, and I further recognize—I am happy to repeat that I recognise it—that what she has said would chime readily with a large number of noble Lords.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, as someone who was present at Weston Park, from where the confusion about amnesties and other matters appears to have arisen, perhaps I may indicate that there was no agreement to which we, in the Ulster Unionist Party—major contributors to that extended weekend—were party. Does the Minister recognise that an unacceptable anomaly would arise if those who have escaped justice for many years were to be treated as though murder was not murder, as though crime was not crime and as though terrorism was not terrorism? No constitutional party that was present at Weston Park gave assent in any way—I emphasise, in any way—to anything that would lead to confusion or to misunderstanding or to an anomaly in respect of this matter.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord. Lord Maginnis, is quite right in what he says. At Weston Park, in July last year, the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the Republic of Ireland put forward certain proposals. This issue is dealt with in one of those proposals—paragraph 20. On 1st August the party leaders were sent a document signed by Dr Reid and the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland. So when the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, says that those present did not sign up to the agreement, historically he is quite accurate.

As to his other observations, I realise that they are sentiments that are held by a large number of people. Equally, other people take a different view and want to see some finality in relation to these matters. In regard to publishing the proposals when conclusions have been arrived at, I am bound to recognise that it is asking an enormous amount of people who have been grievously wounded one way or another over the past years in Northern Ireland.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, should we not look forward? Has the Leader of the House seen a report in The Times today that the retiring chief constable of the RUC, to whom Parliament owes so much, has predicted that, it is only a matter of time before the Provisional IRA completes the process of destroying all its weapons and disbands"? Can he confirm that all the Government's policy decisions are directed towards that end?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I can confirm that. I read the report shortly before coming into the Chamber. I hope that Sir Ronnie Flanagan is right. He says—I believe this is a fair paraphrase—that he hopes and is optimistic that the Provisional IRA will see that being an army is not consistent with political activity. He is in a better position to judge what the future holds than I am. That is certainly a more optimistic note than one has heard recently from others in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the Minister confirm—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am perfectly happy to answer the noble Baroness, but the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has a question.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord knows only too well my strength of feeling on this matter. I am delighted that he has told us that no conclusions have yet been reached. I ask him to inform his right honourable friend the Prime Minister of the strength of feeling in this House on the subject, and in particular that it is not beholden to a British Prime Minister to conduct deals of this kind, which bear no relationship whatever to the Good Friday agreement, with common terrorists.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in answer to the noble Baroness I said quite unambiguously—I repeat as plainly as I can—that I fully recognise the strength of feeling in the House. I also recognise the strength of feeling that is behind the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. I further recognise that whatever the conclusion is, there will be significant distress among large sections of the population. That will not be overlooked. I am not sure that it can be entirely accommodated.