HL Deb 29 June 1998 vol 591 cc436-93

3.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

I am glad that many noble Lords with knowledge and experience of life in Northern Ireland are present and have put their names down to speak in the debate today. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has sought the views of many noble Lords on matters relating to Northern Ireland and always welcomes the advice she has received. I, too, will listen to their contributions with care.

I am also glad that there are many noble Lords here today who have worked constructively for a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Such a settlement has been the objective of both this Government and the previous government. While in opposition we gave our full support to the previous government in their policies on Northern Ireland. I believe that that support was welcome and helped to establish the conditions in which political progress could be made. I would hope that the noble Lords who sit on the Opposition Benches would today give their support to this Bill which implements the Good Friday Agreement. It is an agreement which I know many in your Lordships' House support, and indeed some, such as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, through their support, helped to make it a reality.

The purpose of the Bill is to implement those parts of the Good Friday Agreement that relate to the release of prisoners. Under the agreement both governments gave a commitment to: 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". The reference is to page 25, paragraph I of the agreement.

I know that many noble Lords are uncomfortable with this legislation. I share that discomfort. Prisoners who meet the conditions set out under the Bill will be released from prison early, in some cases years ahead of their original release date.

Many people in Northern Ireland and Great Britain have suffered greatly at the hands of the terrorists, including some noble Lords who are here today. The security forces who have pursued the terrorists with vigour have also paid a high price over the years, in many cases with their lives. People have said that those who have committed such terrible crimes should not receive any special consideration at this time.

I acknowledge and have sympathy for that sentiment, but it cannot be allowed to determine the issue. The release of prisoners is part of the price to be paid for long-term peace in Northern Ireland. That prisoners would be part of the settlement was recognised in the negotiations that led to the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement.

The people of Northern Ireland were asked to consider the agreement—

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He has referred several times to the agreement. Will he say whether or not Sinn Fein have yet signed the agreement?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, all parties that took part in the Good Friday negotiations support the agreement.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. With great respect, I did not ask him that question. I asked whether Sinn Fein had signed the agreement.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I do not know whether they have formally signed the agreement. But certainly the fact that they took part in the negotiations up to Good Friday and gave their support to the settlement that was achieved is to my mind a sign that all parties that were there support the agreement.

The people of Northern Ireland were asked to consider the agreement and to vote on whether to accept or reject it in a referendum held on 22nd May. As your Lordships will know, more than 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland endorsed the agreement.

Since 22nd May my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been working to implement the agreement. Indeed, on 25th June elections to a new Northern Ireland Assembly took place. Other work is in hand. The Bill which is before your Lordships' House is also intended to implement the agreement.

The agreement contains a number of elements which form a package. None of the elements of that package stands alone. All were negotiated by the parties and put to the people. It was always going to be the case that no one party would get everything it wanted in the agreement. Everyone has to accept compromises. Everyone has had to accept parts of the agreement that they do not like. That will always be the case with an agreement of this kind.

The sentences Bill before the House is a product of that agreement. As I have said, under the agreement both governments gave commitments regarding the release of prisoners. I am aware that many noble Lords have concerns about the early release of prisoners, concerns that are shared by many people in Northern Ireland, including those who supported the agreement.

But this must be put in context. This is not the first piece of legislation to deal with the release of prisoners convicted of scheduled offences. In October 1995 your Lordships' House considered legislation brought forward by the then government which was designed to reduce the period that prisoners sentenced to five years or more for scheduled offences would serve in custody. That legislation was a direct response to the progress that had been made in political talks and the consequential changes in the security situation. Since November 1995, more than 240 prisoners have been released under that legislation. Of those released, only two prisoners have had their licences revoked.

We must also remember that prisoners convicted of terrorist-related crimes are being released on an ongoing basis. Since 1983 more than 450 life sentence prisoners have been released. And of that 450, only two have committed further serious offences. Prisoners convicted of the most heinous crimes have already been released and would continue to be released even were this Bill not to become law. The Bill before the House accelerates that process for certain offenders who meet the conditions set out under its provisions.

On 20th April my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland placed a paper in the Library of the House which set out in detail how the Government would intend to implement those parts of the agreement relating to prisoners. The Bill that is before your Lordships' House contains the safeguards that were set out in that paper; that is: prisoners who support terrorist groups that have not established or are not maintaining complete and unequivocal ceasefires will not be released; all applications will be considered by independent commissioners against criteria set out in the legislation; life sentence prisoners will not be released if they would be a danger to the public; prisoners will be released on licence and can be recalled and have their licence revoked if they engage in any terrorist activity after release; the Secretary of State can suspend the scheme in its entirety should the circumstances require it; and if an organisation returns to violence, prisoners released on licence who continue to support that organisation may be recalled.

The Bill also includes those matters referred to by the Prime Minister in his speech at Balmoral on 14th May. He said that the legislation would set out factors to be taken into account in deciding whether an organisation had established and was maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. Those factors are fully reflected in the text of the Bill.

There are some who would want those factors which were set out by the Prime Minister to be made into individual tests each of which must be satisfied. To do so would depart from the terms of the agreement. Under the agreement the test is whether an organisation has established and is maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. That is the test. The Prime Minister has helpfully set out factors that will be taken into account in applying that test but he has not—and the Government will not—change the test.

I shall now set out the main provisions of the Bill. Under the Bill prisoners may apply to commissioners appointed under its provisions 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 under its provisions. Each application will be considered on its merits and, if the conditions are met, the commissioners are required to make a declaration in favour of the prisoner.

The conditions a prisoner must satisfy are as follows. The first is that the prisoner must have been convicted in Northern Ireland of a qualifying offence and sentenced to five years or more, or life imprisonment. A qualifying offence is a scheduled offence which was not certified out by the Attorney-General and which was committed before 10th April 1998. Prisoners convicted and sentenced outside Northern Ireland may also apply if they have been convicted of an offence equivalent to a qualifying offence and transferred to Northern Ireland.

The second condition is that the prisoner must not be a supporter of a terrorist organisation. For the purposes of the Bill, terrorist organisations are organisations specified by order of the Secretary of State that, are concerned in terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland or in promoting or encouraging it and have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire". The agreement explicitly says that prisoners who support such organisations will not benefit.

As I have already said, in deciding whether an organisation meets the test under the Bill the Secretary of State is required to take account of the matters set out in Clause 3(9) which reflect the Prime Minister's speech of 14th May. Those factors are important and will be given the weight they deserve. The Secretary of State will also keep under review the list of terrorist organisations identified under the Bill and add or remove organisations as appropriate.

The Bill has no effect on whether an organisation is proscribed. Organisations that are proscribed will continue to be proscribed and membership of such organisations will continue to be a criminal offence.

The third condition the prisoner must satisfy is that he may not be released if he would be likely to become a supporter of a terrorist organisation or become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland. This means that no prisoner who the commissioners believe will return to terrorism may be released under the Bill.

The fourth condition applies only to life sentence prisoners. Such prisoners may not be released if they would be a danger to the public and this maintains the protection that applies in respect of the release of all life sentence prisoners.

Prisoners serving fixed sentences are not subject to this test, as in Northern Ireland the release of such prisoners is not dependent on a favourable risk assessment. But, as is the case for life sentence prisoners, prisoners serving fixed sentences will not be released under this Bill if they are considered likely to re-engage in terrorism.

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

A life sentence prisoner who satisfies the conditions will have a date set for his release which marks the elapse of about two-thirds of the period that the commissioners believe the prisoner would otherwise have been required to serve in custody. The commissioners will be given information about the periods served by life sentence prisoners who have been released on licence since 1982 to assist them in making an assessment of the period that individual prisoners would have been required to serve.

As a consequence of time already served, a declaration may result in the release of the prisoner on the next available day of release or on a later date. If a prisoner remains in custody, the Secretary of State will be under a duty to refer his case back to the commissioners at any time before he is released if she believes that he no longer meets the criteria for release under the legislation. A prisoner might no longer meet the criteria because of a change in his personal circumstances or because the organisation he supports has subsequently been identified as a terrorist organisation. In such cases the commissioners must consider whether the prisoner satisfies the conditions and if he does not they must revoke the declaration.

All prisoners released under this legislation will be released on licence. The licence conditions apply automatically in every case under the terms of the legislation. The Secretary of State may suspend a licence if she believes a prisoner is a supporter of a terrorist organisation and has become or is likely to become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism concerned with the affairs of Northern Ireland. In addition, life sentence prisoners must not become or be likely to become a danger to the public. If a licence is suspended it will be for the commissioners to decide whether the licence should be revoked.

For most fixed-sentence prisoners the licence will expire at the two-thirds point of sentence. Life sentences do not expire and prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment who are released under this legislation will remain on licence and therefore liable to recall for the rest of their lives.

The Bill also provides for the release of prisoners who remain in custody two years from the commencement of the legislation. This honours the commitment expressed in the agreement which said 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". Similar provision is made for those prisoners sentenced or committed to custody after the commencement of the legislation, but no prisoner will serve fewer than two years as a consequence of Clause 10.

The Secretary of State has the power to vary this two-year period or to bring forward an order under which it would lapse. I shall not speculate about the grounds on which such a future decision would be made but would draw attention to the paper the Secretary of State placed in the Library on 20th April which referred in particular to, progress towards the creation of a more peaceful society". By giving the Secretary of State a power of this kind the legislation ensures that any decision on this matter can be taken at the proper time.

The Bill also includes provision in relation to victims. The Secretary of State received representations from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and members of his party about the provision of information to those victims who request it regarding releases under this legislation. I believe that the clause that was inserted in the Bill as a consequence has improved the Bill as a whole.

As I have indicated, this is an unusual Bill. Before the Bill was published the Secretary of State met representatives of a number of the parties, including some noble Lords who are here today, to discuss the Bill. Representations were made regarding the terms of the Bill and those representations were considered carefully. But in each case consideration was given on the basis that the Bill before the House must be fully consistent with the Good Friday Agreement that was endorsed by more than 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland.

The scrutiny of this Bill is not an opportunity to re-write the agreement. But where improvements are suggested which are helpful and would improve the terms of the Bill the Government have already demonstrated that they will accept or bring forward government amendments as necessary. Amendments have already been made to the Bill in another place which give greater certainty to the process where declarations are referred back to the commissioners (to which I have already referred) as well as to include more of the words of the Prime Minister and, as I mentioned, the Bill now includes a new clause relating to victims.

But, where amendments have been proposed which go beyond the terms of the agreement, they have been rejected. As the right honourable Member for Upper Bann said in another place: We must take the Stormont agreement as a whole, and should not pick and choose".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/6/98; cols. 1096–97.] If the Government were to depart from the terms of the Agreement they would lose all moral authority to hold other participants fully to the commitments they have made under the same agreement.

This Bill is a product of the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement concluded a process that was begun under the previous government, notably under the stewardship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and his predecessor. When we sat on the other side of the House we supported the Government in their policies on Northern Ireland. I believe that that support was important in bringing us to where we are today. I would hope that noble Lords who sit opposite today would support this Government in their policies on Northern Ireland and would support this Bill as part of the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement they also worked hard to achieve. To do otherwise would give support to those who have committed themselves to undermining the agreement. We cannot allow that to happen. My Lords, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Dubs.)

3.26 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I have previously told your Lordships' House that I hate the idea of this Bill to release early those who have been convicted of the most horrible crimes. These terrorists had no compassion for their victims of all ages and occupations, including bystanders and so-called mistakes. They rejoiced in killing and maiming and in attacking economic life and smashing property. They did all that, from both sides of the political divide, to terrorise people and to destroy democracy. We all remember incidents which stick in the mind: murder at a war memorial and murder in a cemetery. The horrors will live with us for life. This is not an amnesty and it does not wipe clean the legal slate, and it cannot wipe out our memories either.

The act of release not only frees the prisoners, it does an injustice to the victims and their families. It eats away at the deterrent value of long sentences. It negates the painstaking work of detectives and forensic scientists who, under attack themselves, secured convictions. It mocks the work of the judges and lawyers, targeted and assassinated themselves. Judges have risked their lives to say "25 years", and we are going to say, "No, two years".

These releases, therefore, can only be acceptable as part of a process which will really lead to an end to the attempt to terrorise the people and the state.

However, an opportunity to reinstate democracy has arisen. The agreement is not what we, left to ourselves, would like; but that is true, as the Minister said, for every participant in the talks. It is the only agreement on offer, after years of effort by successive British governments and the other parties concerned.

I think we should take the risk and I support the agreement, but the whole agreement. The people of Northern Ireland supported the agreement, both in the referendum and in the vote last week for the new assembly. So should we.

I believe that no party to the agreement has physically signed it. But the parties, including Sinn Fein, recommended their followers to vote "yes" in the referendum, which shows support. The agreement says on page 1 that every participant, will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement". It is therefore right for this Bill concerning one specific type of action—prisoner releases—to insist that the other parts of the agreement are also observed. If each of the other parts do not go ahead, it would be wrong for the releases to go ahead. We are not trying to create a link. Everything in the agreement is linked by the agreement itself.

A key matter of concern in considering the Bill is the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. I do not mean that that aspect is the only one of importance, but it has a key link with this Bill, and that link is the terrorists themselves. The Bill helps convicted terrorists out of prison and decommissioning is the direct and clear responsibility of the terrorist arms of the organisations we face.

I do not for one moment accept that Sinn Fein and PIRA are separate organisations, but those who stand for democratic office and have become members of the new assembly claim that. With regard to weapons, Sinn Fein can possibly claim to have used its influence without success. But PIRA cannot make that claim. Its members will be judged by the results, and the same is true on the loyalist side of the divide. The prisoners who stand to benefit from this Bill are mostly self-acknowledged members of specific terrorist organisations. The wing and the cell that they occupy in prison is evidence of that. Both this sentences Bill and decommissioning involve the terrorists. The constitutional Bill will not.

Ministers have said that decommissioning must proceed in parallel with prisoner releases and everything else over the next two years. The Secretary of State repeated that yesterday on television. Ministers' words are important; but Bills such as this one are Parliament's words. In spite of appearances in another place just now, Bills become Acts of Parliament, not Acts of government. The only way that we in Parliament can ensure that provisions in the agreement proceed in parallel is to write them into the Bill.

The wording of the Bill will be discussed in Committee, though it is right to refer to it today, as the Minister did. The Bill has been stiffened, both in its draft form and in another place. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her willingness to accept some of our suggestions, as well as others. But the Government have not yet accepted the most important suggestion that we made—to make clear that progress on decommissioning as well as other matters must proceed in parallel with progress on prisoner releases.

The Bill says that the Secretary of State should take into account decommissioning among other factors. We believe it is right, and crucially within the agreement, that she should satisfy herself on each factor, including specifically that decommissioning is progressing. The Bill says that the organisation must be committed to ending violence. But we are entitled to more than the words of killers. We are entitled to see some action over their huge arsenals as the months progress.

The Minister referred to the Balmoral speech of the Prime Minister as being a precursor to the relevant clause in the Bill. In that speech the Prime Minister set out tests one, two, three and four. The Bill crucially omits the word "and". I understand that that has the effect of meaning that each criterion need not be fulfilled, as the Prime Minister appeared to promise in that speech.

Much has been said in debates on this subject in relation to avoiding "preconditions". I want to be absolutely clear about that. The agreement does not provide for either decommissioning or prisoner releases to start one before the other; everything is to proceed together. We support the agreement and do not ask for physical decommissioning of actual weapons to start first. We want these events to move in parallel.

The agreement provides for both processes to take place over two years. Under the agreement, the two years for decommissioning started with the referendum on 22nd May. The two years for the prisoner releases will start some two months after the coming into force of this Bill. This fact of the agreement, on which the Government, we in Parliament and the public are entitled to rely, is significant. The accelerated releases of those with most to gain from the Bill under the two-year rule in Clause 10 will become due in July 2000 after we can all judge from the reports of the decommissioning commission whether, the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms", has in fact been delivered by 22nd May in the year 2000.

It is said by some—though not by the Government—that to insist on decommissioning is to want the impossible. We are told that in Irish history there is no precedent for it. But Irish history is the story of terrorism returning time and again after a lull. We are not trying to legislate for another lull, however long, but for a permanent acceptance of democracy. The whole process, to the credit of the Secretary of State and the Government, as well as their predecessors, has been full of unlikely, even seemingly impossible hurdles, and so far we have been pleasantly surprised. In some respects the impossible has happened. Everyone knows that without a permanent end to violence the agreement will fail. Decommissioning is part of that. With it, the agreement can succeed.

I firmly believe that it is both necessary and possible for decommissioning to succeed. I am supported in that view by the statement of the senior man from PIRA in the Maze—in an interview given to an unlikely paper, the Financial Times. There have been other statements from loyalist terrorists accepting the idea of decommissioning. That is Irish history in the making.

The fact is that decommissioning should not be seen by PIRA or anyone else as evidence of surrender. It is not the same situation as the commanding officer handing over his sword to the winning general or the collection of arms from defeated troops. This is agreed disarmament under independent auspices as an acceptance of democracy. The analogy is with the destruction of weapons recently following the end of the Cold War rather than the collection of German weapons in 1945.

I am not naÏve enough to believe that decommissioning by itself will solve the security problem; of course it will not. Not every group and breakaway group is likely to accept the agreement. The financial rackets will remain. Even if every weapon were destroyed at present, more weapons can be bought, and fertiliser cannot be decommissioned. But decommissioning, even if incomplete, will be a massive reassurance to everybody and of great symbolism both in Irish history and in our present situation. That is why we seek it and why it is important that it should appear specifically in the Bill.

Before I sit down I want to refer briefly to two other matters. We know and welcome the fact that this is not a general amnesty. The Bill requires the authorities to consider each prisoner and his or her organisation. The tests are both individual and collective.

Curiously, as the Minister pointed out in his opening speech, the condition that the prisoner would not be a danger to the public if he or she were to be released is only to be applied to life sentence prisoners and not to those with fixed sentences. The explanation that the Minister gave was not entirely satisfactory and this will be one of the matters we will return to in Committee.

Similarly, we know that prisoners who are released will be released on licence. That means that a released prisoner who subsequently breaks the law will go back to prison to continue his sentence—provided the authorities can find him or her. What will happen if a released prisoner re-offends and escapes to the Republic of Ireland? Is there an agreement with the government of the Republic to ensure that such a prisoner can be returned to finish the full original sentence as well as any new sentence that may have been acquired in the process?

This Bill for the release of prisoners can be part of the key to a permanent end to violence, but it would be a monstrous injustice to implement it unless that end is clear.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the terms in which he introduced this debate. In the eight years in which I have had the privilege of speaking on Northern Ireland matters from these Benches, this is quite the most difficult Bill that we have had before us. We are looking now at the dark side of the Good Friday Agreement whose brightness gave us all hope. This is the other side of it: the moment when we have to think what the consequences of that agreement are. We have to deal with the future of those who have used terror, who have maimed and killed to get their way and who, having now failed, may or may not be seeking a better way.

I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said at the beginning of his remarks. I deplore the records of the people whom we are discussing this afternoon. I again express my sympathy for their victims, who include members of your Lordships' House. We must now look to the future. We cannot will the ends of the Good Friday Agreement without willing the means. It would be well to remind ourselves of the section of that agreement which relates specifically to prisoners. The agreement says: Both Governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners … Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements … The Governments will seek to enact the appropriate legislation to give effect to these arrangements by the end of June 1998". We support the agreement and so, in logic, we have to support the legislation. It is as simple as that. Some noble Lords may suggest that the legislation is born of a compromise of principles. It is the reverse of that; it is a principled compromise. We cannot have the agreement without this legislation. As other noble Lords have said in previous debates, it is impossible to cherry-pick. We have to take the agreement as a whole.

It is undeniable that there are risks. Of course there are risks; there are very severe risks in the months and years ahead. Is the new adoption of the paths of peace by some who have horrendous records of violence a genuine change of mind? We do not yet know. Is it permanent? We cannot yet know, although each day that passes encourages us in that respect. What evidence of good faith can they provide? What are the confidence building measures? It is high time that we saw some from the PIRA.

More practically, what barriers to re-entry to violence can we provide through legislation and the newly-established settlement? We would do well to consider the legislation in context—not only in the context of the agreement but of the precedent legislation, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs said. The Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act 1995, pioneered by the previous government, set the precedent on this issue.

That legislation passed through Parliament just a few months after the first republican and loyalist ceasefires. It increased from one third to a half the amount of remission that prisoners convicted of scheduled offences could expect. It has led to some 240 prisoners being released on licence earlier than they would otherwise have been, of which only two have had their licences subsequently revoked. The House united behind the pioneering 1995 legislation. I hope that it will unite behind this successor legislation today and in the coming days.

A close consideration of the Bill suggests that a similar number of prisoners will be affected. Approximately four out of every five prisoners who are currently serving sentences for scheduled offences will be released within two years as a result of the legislation. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that 45 per cent., roughly half, would have been released within two years anyway.

The legislation is not a sudden swinging open of the prison doors to allow a flood of prisoners to roam. It is opening the prison doors little by little so that the inmates can smell the fresh breeze outside. It is letting them out one by one while keeping them on a tight and secure leash.

There need to be safeguards in legislation such as this, and some of them are set out in Clause 9. As the noble Lord said, it sets out the terms of the licences under which prisoners will be released. If the terms of licences are broken the prisoners can be locked up again and their sentences reimposed. Let noble Lords put themselves in the mind of one of those prisoners. They can imagine how strong a deterrent that would and could be to re-offending.

We welcome the independent element provided by the sentences review board, and in particular the independent commissioners. Their independence gives the process added credibility. We also welcome the fact that all prisoners will have to have served a certain amount of their sentence, depending on its length. Anybody who perceives that this is simply a "get out of gaol free" card is incorrect.

As my noble friend, Lord Alderdice, is not able to be here today, I shall talk about victim notification. In the light of the comprehensive Bloomfield Report on the victims of violence over the past 30 years, it is essential that victims should not be overlooked in the legislation. In the whole process of settlement and reconciliation, the victims are as essential to our feelings and perceptions as the prisoners. I particularly welcome the new Clause 14, which was added to the Bill at Committee stage in another place, as the noble Lord said. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland have led the way by making the issue of victim notification a central part of their post-agreement platform.

Just as the views of Nationalists and Unionists need to be reconciled, it is good that there is an attempt to reconcile as far as possible the differences between prisoners and their victims. It will be very difficult. Victims and their families deserve, and have not received adequately until recent times, recognition and respect. They do not have a political wing and we all have a responsibility to see that they are not ignored in the process.

I turn now to the most contentious part of the Bill, the linkage between decommissioning and release of prisoners. When this legislation was discussed in another place there was a controversial amendment making the release of prisoners entirely conditional on the prior decommissioning of former paramilitary weapons. We do not support that amendment. If that view is advanced in this House, we will not support it. I can see the emotional appeal and the symmetry of it. If one puts together the two, a lot of people say "Yes, that makes sense". It is flawed for practical reasons. Decommissioning must be meant and voluntary if it is ultimately to succeed. Otherwise, in the arms bazaar of the modern world, armaments arms will simply be replaced. We must have a will to decommission, not simply the measures to decommission.

Secondly—a point made already by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—the legislation as drafted is entirely in line with the spirit and letter of the Good Friday Agreement. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, we support that agreement. When one signs up to an agreement, one signs up to all of it. That is why it was called a deal; and it was. It was a hard-negotiated deal. We in this House should not seek to renegotiate or change the agreement, or to go back on the agreement made then. The agreement is, of course, not perfect. It creates fears for many people and it has flaws for many others. But it is none the less a good agreement. I hope that in this House we do not undermine the agreement.

The legislation before us already links prisoner releases to decommissioning. Paramilitary groups must be involved in the decommissioning process in order for their prisoners to be released. So if former paramilitaries show bad faith in the decommissioning process the Secretary of State—let us remind ourselves of this—can bring those prisoners back to prison if she thinks it appropriate. The current drafting of the legislation maximises the chances for General de Chastelain and his colleagues to advance decommissioning and to make sure that it takes place.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, there are somewhat hopeful signs from Mr. Patrick Wilson of the Provisional IRA and from loyalist circles that perhaps the time has come to start matching fine words with deeds. I should just like to say a few words to Conservative colleagues—I deliberately say "colleagues" because we work closely on these issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, will confirm that we on these Benches gave the previous government consistent and loyal support on their steps towards peace in Northern Ireland, as we try to do with the current Government. That is not always easy. It does not follow that because one tries to operate consensually one agrees with everything the Government do. However, I hope that our Conservative colleagues will try to avoid in this House any repetition of the "grandstanding" that went on in another place in trying to establish extra guarantees and extra linkage, which, although emotionally appealing, unbalanced a very hard-won agreement.

I noted yesterday that, immediately following the election, Mr. David Trimble went out of his way to say how unhelpful those efforts from the Conservative Benches in another place had been during the election campaign to those, particularly in his party, who were trying to advance the cause of a peaceful settlement. Indeed, he said that those efforts seemed to be more for short-term party advantage than in support of a fair and full settlement. I shall read the amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Cope, described to us and I shall see the balance it strikes; but I have to say that we shall regard it as our main priority to ensure that the legislation is passed.

The greatest impact of the legislation will be on those organisations which will be listed under Clause 3(8)—those terrorist organisations which have not enacted a ceasefire. Because of this legislation, any prisoners from those organisations will be pleading for a ceasefire to be declared. But because of the agreement and the fact that most paramilitary groups seem to be abiding by it, those organisations should now feel the full force of the security efforts concentrated against them. They will do so now without any pretence to legitimacy.

The people of Northern Ireland have spoken and have said that they want a new way. That way has to include all those who are prepared to abandon the armed struggle. I believe that this legislation is a vital element in bringing a lasting peace to Northern Ireland. We shall be supporting it from these Benches.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, in his interesting opening speech the noble Lord the Minister suggested that the Northern Ireland parties and groups all had to make concessions to reach agreement. But your Lordships are not in that same position for you are not a party to the agreement. Yet this House is being invited to establish a very different and dangerous precedent. For example, it is not clear to me how the Parliament of the United Kingdom is going to limit or restrict release to one category of prisoners but deny it to others. How in the longer term can release be denied to those who have committed murder in the course of robbery, but have repented, or appeared to repent, of their sins? What about murders classified as crimes of passion? Then again, drug barons convicted and rightly imprisoned can claim to have seen the errors of their ways. Child molesters are also taken out of society, but after encounters with the counselling industry, can claim to have forsaken their evil ways.

Over many years, long before I had the privilege of joining your Lordships' House, some noble Lords have lobbied for the release of individual prisoners, mostly without success. Are all individual prisoners in the above categories to be exempted because they do not have a "union" to wring concessions from government; and would they too qualify if they organised in paramilitary-style interest groups? Arms should not be a great problem because, while 1.5 million legally held firearms were confiscated last year, absolutely nothing was done to destroy the 2 million illegally held weapons in England and Wales. In any case, the pressure groups would only need to convince governments that they could hold the nation to ransom—because modern environments make society very vulnerable even to the threat of force.

How can the Government or a future government resist future pressures—perhaps backed by threats of force—from prisoners in the groups I have mentioned? I have discovered that throughout the United Kingdom there is a conviction that the Bill is a concession to terrorism. We can be certain that the lesson will not be lost on other interest groups and will not be lost on any future terrorist organisations in Ireland or elsewhere.

In regard to the phrase "release on licence", I note that the Secretary of State is given the power to suspend the licence if the prisoner re-offends. But the Bill is very thin on the subsequent steps. There is the phrase, he shall be detained in pursuance of his sentence and, if at large"— that is, after being released on licence— shall be taken to be unlawfully at large". The words "unlawfully at large" are unlikely to terrify the said prisoner, who almost certainly will have crossed the frontier into the republic within a matter of hours.

What then does the Good Friday Agreement do? Does it contain a secret clause providing a fast track for instant return of prisoners from the Irish Republic to the Secretary of State, to be enrolled again in the five star hotel called the Maze Prison? Surely all those brilliant minds involved in drafting the agreement could not have failed to produce a provision for the return of escaped prisoners. Surely they were not so negligent as to fail to substitute arrangements to replace the ludicrous extradition farce, which can be spun out by the Irish judiciary for around three years with a nil return at the very end.

The gaping hole in the Bill is left by the omission of a firm insistence on decommissioning before the release of prisoners. Indeed, it is the indispensable key to even the preliminary arrangements for the Northern Ireland Assembly structures. That was explained by the leader of the SDLP, Mr. John Hume, who is to be congratulated on establishing his party as the largest in Northern Ireland. He asserted that democratically elected parties cannot sit down and do business with a group, which has guns on the table; under the table; or outside the door". Not for the first time in my political career do I find myself in agreement with Mr. Hume in that very clear statement, which I do not believe was made out of consideration for opportunism.

It also appears to be the position of the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. He, too, has clearly listed his criteria. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, has listed some of them. Admittedly, some are repeated in the Bill, but the more emphatic passages, such as the following, have been omitted: an end to violence for good"; and the so-called war is finished, done with, gone"; and an end to bombings, killings and beatings"; and an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence". Those are the Prime Minister's words, not mine. More recently, in another place, in answer to a question from the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, the Prime Minister declared, It is essential that any agreement is signed up to in full".—[Official Report, Commons, 6/5/98; col. 711.] He said, in answer to the question, that, yes, of course it is the case that, both in respect of taking seats in the government of Northern Ireland and in respect of the early release of prisoners, the only organisations that qualify for that are organisations that have given up violence and given it up for good. That too could not be construed as political opportunism.

Last week, in conversation with some noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, the absence of linkage of prisoner release with the decommissioning of weapons and structures was pinpointed as the fatal flaw in the Bill. Many noble Lords have spotted and agreed that that is a fatal flaw. At that time I suggested that the Bill might have been drafted some weeks before the Prime Minister gave those cast iron assurances which I have repeated. That would appear to be the only convincing reason. It is fortunate and desirable that, in the next very few weeks, the Prime Minister will have an opportunity to impose his clear intentions and directions on the Bill.

All noble Lords will agree that the Prime Minister has devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to this current initiative. I suggest that we owe it to him to ensure that his sacrifices are not sabotaged by any department in either government.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, by the nature of the draw and the order in which we speak, I speak after the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. He has the great advantage of knowing more than most about Northern Ireland and I am aware of that. I speak just before the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and he knows the reality of it in other respects and I am aware of that. I say that both ways. I have 24 tapes on Northern Ireland. They contain my thoughts over a period of time. I intend to destroy them. They should not be sold at some future date. When I returned to this country my signing-off note was, "Back home where people know very little about the problem." Going back, I wrote, "They live in the problem". I am very much aware of that.

This Bill has to be seen in the context of Northern Ireland. It is a place apart and it is different. There are 3,000 dead. There are large security forces there and there is special legislation that we would not have in this country. I remember going to Northern Ireland for the first time in 1971, I believe, and going to Longkesh. It looked like a prisoner-of-war camp with barbed wire—yet within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is different and remains so. Nevertheless, even in the darkest days, there is a way forward. Over a period of 20 years most governments have much the same policies. They try to ameliorate and they try to do a good economic job. They are hopeful that democracy will break through. I do not know whether it will always be that way, but, as things are, small steps forward are important.

I have never believed that there can be a military victory. No general advising me ever said that a military victory could be achieved. There is no such victory. In my view in recent months the paramilitaries have realised that there can be no military victory. It is not a place in which there can be a military victory. The history of Ireland shows that. Through the last century we had special legislation by Gladstone and Disraeli year after year. The situation has not changed in that respect. The only way forward is via the ballot box and recognition of the fact that there are two communities in Northern Ireland, whether we like it or not. The Belfast agreement is one part of the process of moving forward.

The section in the White Paper on prisoners is the key to this Bill. There is one part about prisoners which speaks about their reintegration. No-one has mentioned that. If I have time I shall return to that. The Bill is in line with the special laws on security. There is the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the emergency provisions Act, which followed the special powers Act. People could be locked up. There are harsher powers in the Republic than there are in the United Kingdom. That is in line with the differences that arise because of the violence that occurs.

Scheduled offences arose from the Gardiner Report in 1975, I believe, which I set up. Those scheduled offences are an important difference between that side and this side of the water. There was the establishment of juryless courts. A debate took place the other evening on the two soldiers. It has been said that if there were not special courts the soldiers would have been set free, but I doubt it. There are no juries in Northern Ireland because they cannot be trusted. They would be biased one way or the other. That situation arose from the Gardiner recommendations. I knew that it was not possible to have parole in Northern Ireland. An officer could not walk up the Falls Road to the Shankill or to the other side of the road, and say, "Mrs. So-and-so, what sort of son have you got? Is he a good lad? If we let him out on parole do you think he will behave himself?" The officer or the woman would be shot. So I introduced 50 per cent. remission. The last government returned to that a couple of years ago. Those who broke the rules would go back to prison if they were sentenced again for a similar crime.

I ended detention. That was executive detention. Those people were locked up by me. I signed a bit of paper. I used to sit in my office at the weekend with a policeman and someone from MI5. I would say, "OK, I will sign for this man to go away". It was executive action and I ended it. I was right to do so. The mistake that both Houses made was in allowing internment to take place. Violence escalated, and it led to the rebirth of the Provisional IRA. It was not thought so here, but that was the situation in Northern Ireland. I ended that, but I was not abusing the legal process. At the same time, I ended the special categories.

All governments have made mistakes. It was the Conservative Government who had been in power until 1974, when I took office, who set up special political category status. The Labour Government ended that. In fact, it was my actions that led eventually to the blanket protests and so on because although I said that 1st March was the cut-off date, it mattered not. I was right to do that although a real problem resulted from it. When we consider police primacy and the ending of special categories, how can I approve of this Bill? I have the figures with which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, supplied me about the number of people who will be released. They are significant figures. I hope that those figures have been placed in the Library.

Although questions remain to be asked, I shall leave them for now, except one. How can I subscribe to this Bill when I worked so hard to end that sort of thing? If people went to gaol, they stayed in gaol. Such matters were not decided by a "politician", to use a word that some noble and learned Lords sometimes use. I can subscribe to this Bill only if it is part of the peace process. If it proves not to be part of the peace process, my belief will be wrong.

Before I sit down, perhaps I may say that I see the merit in decommissioning. I know about the Mitchell principles, but I came across a note which I think was the view of the then Chief Constable of Northern Ireland. I repeat that I only think that this was his view. The note states: Everybody who was close to what was going on wanted to see the guns out of circulation but there was a difference between what was achievable and what wasn't achievable". This was in the days of the previous administration. The note continues: It was perfectly clear from all of the intelligence assessments that the Provisionals were not going to hand in their arms. Indeed, some individual reports made it clear that some prominent players said they wouldn't hand in as much as a single rifle. In pragmatic terms, the issue of decommissioning was less important for the security forces". I paraphrase: it was a political matter. What mattered far more was evidence that the Provisional IRA was demobilising its whole system. With the ability to make bombs that do not come from Gaddafi or the Middle East, what good is decommissioning when the IRA can make explosives at the drop of a hat?

The argument is not about decommissioning, which has become a political shibboleth because it looks good. The important question is the structure of the paramilitaries. If their structure remains in place, they will soon be able to return to violence and make arms themselves. Nevertheless, the cry has been, "Decommissioning!". This is not easy—and there are the Mitchell principles also.

I do not believe—I never have believed—that there is a solution to the problem of Northern Ireland. I believe that we are making a mistake if we believe that there is such a solution. Sometimes when good things happen in Northern Ireland, the media go rattling on as if all the problems are solved. That is foolish. The media do not know the area about which they are writing.

Both the previous administration and this Administration have tried hard. We have had the Belfast Agreement. This Bill arises out of one of the agreements made—out of an unsigned agreement, but an agreement nevertheless. This must be worked through. Whether it will be worked through and come about, I do not know. However, I am glad that there was the Belfast Agreement. It is a credit to all those who played a part in it. I wish it well. I wish this Bill well. I wish that I could say that I have no doubts about whether it will work. I would be dishonest if I said that. But the Government have tried hard and I wish them well.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, for whom I have the greatest respect, will not carry out his threat to destroy the tapes that he has made over his years of experience in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will see them safely locked away for many years. I believe that future historians would deeply regret it if that priceless material were not available. I hope that the noble Lord will reconsider what he said.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and others from the other side of the water will also have picked up a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, because it says so much about what we on this side of the water have got wrong about Northern Ireland. The noble Lord said that when he arrived in Northern Ireland he saw things which we would not put up with in this country. Northern Ireland is in this country—that is the whole issue. It is because we on this side of the water, as much as those south of the Border, tend to forget that that we have encouraged the IRA over the years in the belief that we do not truly regard Northern Ireland as a part of this Kingdom.

I must make my next remark because I shall then have some critical words to say about the policies of the Secretary of State. I must put on the record how much I appreciate her unfailing courtesy towards me during these difficult months in which a very heavy load has been set upon her and when her health has only been recovering to its normal strength. Whatever differences I may have with her, I have a very considerable admiration for that lady.

It occurred to me only today that Clause 3(8) gives us a flavour of the whole of this agreement and this legislation. Under it, we can expect that the IRA will not be defined as a "terrorist organisation". What is the IRA if it is not a "terrorist organisation"? If we believe that the IRA—or, as I should properly say, "the Provisional IRA"—is not a terrorist organisation because it has declared a truce, we delude ourselves.

Many people assume that my opposition to the agreement and the Bill is personal and that it arises from the fact that I was bombed by the IRA. That is not the case. Like most of my generation, I was bombed by better men than the IRA while I was still in short trousers. I was bombed by the Luftwaffe—men for whom I have a high respect and high regard. Nor does my opposition spring from the loss of five good, close friends, murdered by the Provisional IRA and the INLA; nor from the savage injuries which were inflicted on my wife, which have left her imprisoned for life in a wheelchair. There is no provision for early release for the victims of these terrorists. There is no provision for the early release of the innocent—only of the guilty.

My involvement in Irish politics goes back to 1972 when I became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Robin Chichester-Clark, the Member for Londonderry. I was, I am, and no doubt I shall die, a Unionist, whatever happens to the Union.

The Northern Ireland Agreement, of which this Bill is a part, grants to those who have used violence what would not have been granted had they not used violence. It is a victory for the bomb and the bullet over the ballot. It is a denial of the protection of the law to the law-abiding and a grant to the lawless of what democratic politics would not grant them. It undermines the Union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain. Before Ministers seek to argue the contrary, let them recollect that they claimed that devolution in Scotland would kill the SNP. I believe they now understand that feeding that monster has only strengthened it and it has every opportunity to devour the Labour Party in Scotland.

The strongest argument of the Government is that after 30 years of war Northern Ireland is simply war-weary, that the war cannot be won, as the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said, and that these are the best terms on which it can be suspended. It is hard to believe that a nation that spends £20 billion a year on defence is unable to defend its citizens against an army that is numbered in hundreds rather than thousands. What has been lacking is not the means but the will.

There is a stronger argument—stronger by far than war-weariness or belief in appeasement—for this Bill and the Northern Ireland agreement but it is one that the Government prefer not to make. In January 1996 I and my good friend Austin Mitchell, the Labour Member for Grimsby, interviewed Dr. Mowlam, then Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, on Sky Television. Dr. Mowlam told me openly and frankly: Our policy is for the union of Ireland by consent"; that is, Labour was and is in Irish terms a republican party. Nor should that be any surprise. The Labour Party does not have any members in Northern Ireland because its sister party is the SDLP—a non-violent democratic hut republican party. Mr. McCartney was refused the Labour whip—because he was a Unionist.

This Bill is part of a policy to achieve Irish unity, so I cannot complain that the Government are not achieving their objective; only that I do not share that objective. I oppose this Bill for the violence that it does to the concept of justice and the distinction that it draws between murder and bombing in pursuit of politics and in pursuit of any other end. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, was right. Justice must be even-handed. This legislation gives special treatment to political criminals. It would have been better entitled the Legitimisation of Political Crime Bill.

My former constituent, Mr. Reggie Kray, is not a nice man. In my judgment, he should have been hanged for the crime that he committed, but it is 30 years since he was convicted of a single murder. It is held that he is still too devious and manipulative to be released. On this side of the water a man is liable to imprisonment for the possession of a single shot 22 calibre handgun. In Northern Ireland known serial killers are to be released to be reunited with their armoury of weapons. Indeed, killing in connection with Irish politics on this side of the water is to be excused by the expedient of transferring murderers into the Northern Irish jurisdiction. Can such a contrast be justified on any grounds of principle or solely upon expediency?

What about Guardsmen Fisher and Wright? I was in America and was unable to attend the debate on this subject last week. I returned from America only this morning specifically to be here today. What about Fisher and Wright? I read carefully the words of the noble Lord. He indicated that they would have an opportunity to take advantage of the provisions of this Bill—like terrorists. The Prime Minister was economical with the truth when Mr. Hague questioned him on this. We know that the Secretary of State had decided last October that those guardsmen should serve not less than six years. Mr. Ingram, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, informed the other place that, Fisher and Wright had not served a period sufficient to reflect the seriousness of the crime".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/98; col. 348.] One murder. What a contrast!

It is my intention to move an amendment to this Bill to delay its coming into effect until Fisher and Wright are released. Common decency, let alone justice, demands that. It does not conflict with the agreement in any way whatever. Today we have finally wrung out of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that that agreement has not been signed by Sinn Fein. The weasel words that have been used are "signed up to", not "signed".

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Is he aware that not a single party in Northern Ireland has formally signed the agreement? There was no procedure for signing as such. However, every party to the agreement, including the two governments, have stated publicly that they support the agreement in totality.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I am aware of that. Surely, it is a remarkable state of affairs that one is constantly told that this is an agreement to which people have signed up but no provision has been made for any party to be asked to set its hand to it. I do not believe that Sinn Fein would sign the agreement even if given an opportunity to do so. In a way Sinn Fein is a curiously honest group of people. Sinn Fein knows that the IRA has no intention of giving up its weapons before Northern Ireland is ceded to the republic. My noble friend Lord Cope was far too optimistic. As Mr. Adams has made plain, the Provisional IRA will not give up its arms unless the United Kingdom renounces its right to deploy Her Majesty's Armed Forces in its territory. That is what it means by "decommissioning".

The Earl of Longford

I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting his remarks. Does he see any prospect of the Protestant paramilitaries giving up their arms?

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I do not distinguish between them except in the sense of scale. They are all of the same ilk and should be treated in the same way. But the weapons of the IRA are essential, not just as a threat—

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House sympathises with the noble Lord's feelings about terrorism. But is he aware of any settlement reached since the war with former terrorists that has not involved some element of amnesty, and does he condemn them all?

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, the noble Earl forgets that this is not an agreement reached between the United Kingdom and citizens of a foreign place. This is in our land, over which we have jurisdiction. This is not a war of independence against a colonial power. This is Her Majesty's Kingdom. The IRA knows that its weapons are essential not just now as a threat to the people of Ulster but to be used sooner or later to back up an IRA campaign of ethnic cleansing designed to create a majority for unity with the Republic.

I intend to move an amendment to add a fifth condition to the release of a prisoner: that he should have given, full co-operation with the Independent Commission on Decommissioning to implement the provisions of this Agreement".—[Official Report, 21/5/98; col. WA 199.] The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will be familiar with the words; he used them in a Parliamentary Answer to me. I believe that they are also the words of the Prime Minister.

I have spoken for too long. I have spoken as a Unionist. I speak also for the victims of these criminals who have shown no repentance or contrition. They have uttered not a single word of regret for their crimes. There has been no sign of repentance and regret. The victims of the past would not wish to stand in the way of a process if it meant that there would be no more victims in the future, but there can be no lasting peace without justice. This Bill reeks and stinks of injustice.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, when the agreement was first debated in this House I said that given the overall situation in Northern Ireland I was inclined to support it with grave reservations about prisoners and the RUC. Since then, during every day that has elapsed I have had a real conscience striking me in relation to the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, said that this was by far the most difficult part of the agreement. This morning, after hearing on the radio what was liable to happen in Northern Ireland this week, particularly on Sunday in regard to the march at Drumcree, I debated whether to say anything in this House. Whatever I said could be misinterpreted as being an attack on the agreement. The one thing which persuaded me to stand up today was the knowledge that I would be speaking immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. If there is any noble Lord in this House with whom I can agree in emotion, in conscience and in every other way it is the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. That is not because of his opposition to the agreement, but because of the terrible things that happened to him. Every morning he gets up and looks at his wife in a wheelchair. The IRA's atrocities will be with him and his wife until the end of their days.

It is in no one's ambit to criticise the noble Lord for his opposition to the Bill. I feel exactly the same. Some of my colleagues—among them, one of my closest colleagues—were murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. I had to identify my colleague's body after he was almost decapitated by a loyalist murderer. That murderer fought an election to the assembly last week. Thanks be to God that he did not achieve majority support at the polls.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, will know, we have in Northern Ireland what we have referred to over the years as "whataboutery". When one talks about the atrocities of the IRA, someone from the other side will say, "Ah, but what about?" I have lived with that for 30 years in Northern Ireland. There is a lot of "whataboutery". If the IRA gives up its arms—and I want it to do so—I want the same criteria applied to the other paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland which have carried out the most atrocious murders seen in the island of Ireland in my lifetime and long before.

Today, we are asked either to accept or reject the Bill. As I said to some of my friends this afternoon, I find it offensive when people from the Northern Ireland Office and Ministers refer to "cherry picking". Perhaps I am not well read, but the first time I heard the expression was when some civil servants were making a vicious and prolonged attack on the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, at the end of her career in Northern Ireland. They said that the report on the alleged misdoings in her office was cherry picking. I find that an offensive term because people who are giving of their all, their conscience, and their whole being, in expressing opposition to elements of the agreement are not cherry picking. They are not. I hope that from now on no Minister, in an attempt to push the agreement, will accuse those who have a conscience and mental reservations about some aspects of cherry picking.

Should the Bill mean that the agreement was defeated I would be opposed to it. Grave as my reservations are, I support the agreement. Despite all my reservations, I believe that in the attempt to resolve the problems of Northern Ireland there is no further answer except by way of this agreement. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—and it makes my blood run cold when I think of it—that a convicted loyalist murderer was elected to the assembly last Thursday. A convicted IRA murderer who was responsible for the Old Bailey bombing was elected last week. An indication of the awful divide which exists in Northern Ireland is that people who have the same conscience as I have can go into a ballot box and vote for people who have carried out such atrocious crimes. I will have to live with that. Those people will be elected to the assembly in Northern Ireland and they will speak with the authority of a mandate in Northern Ireland. Much as I would wish, there is no way in which I could reject that mandate. People voted for them in the democratic process in the privacy of a polling booth in Northern Ireland.

I listened with great attention to my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees. I could detect that he, too, was wrestling with his conscience about the Bill. He was in Northern Ireland during a great deal of travail with car bombs and murders almost every day, sometimes almost every hour. He cannot be happy with the Bill. Incidentally, I notice that in today's debate only myself and the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, are what I consider to be supporters of the Labour Government. I hope that it will not be assumed that the Conservatives are opposed to the Bill but that Members on this side of the House are not. I believe that many Members on this side of the House cannot be happy with the Bill. Perhaps they are not speaking about it, perhaps they are not writing about it and perhaps they are hoping that the problem will go away.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that I understand every fibre of his being in his opposition to the Bill because he has lived through the incident and every day that he lives he will remember it. Every day that I live I remember that identification of my friend's body and all the other atrocities that took place. I remember very well when a pub was blown up in my constituency. I went down there and helped to pull 16 bodies out of the pub—

Lord Graham of Edmonton

It was McGurk's Bar.

Lord Fitt

It was McGurk's Bar. I had to pull out 16 bodies. One of the bodies which I tried to bring out from under the rubble actually broke in my hands. They are incidents which I can never forget. But the Bill seems to be absolving people who were responsible for the commission of those horrendous crimes.

Will the noble Lord explain to me whether McArdle, recently convicted in a British court of driving that horrendous bomb from Northern Ireland and sentenced to 25 years, will be able to gain remission under the terms of the Bill? Will he serve only two years of his 25-year sentence? Will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland make some accommodation transferring him to Northern Ireland where he will be released? After all, he killed two innocent people; he murdered two people. Will he become part and parcel of the Bill? I hope that the commission will take very seriously those who have great reservations about the Bill.

Seventy one per cent. of the population voted in the referendum. Those people voted because they wanted peace. Who does not want peace in Northern Ireland? Since then, we have seen a reduction in that yes vote in the assembly elections because the people who voted yes began to think and to examine the agreement. They began to look at the police Bill and at this sentences Bill and did not vote in such great numbers. Therefore, I urge my noble friend at all times to be acutely aware of the great sensitivities which exist.

I wish to associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, about the report of Sir Kenneth Bloomfield in relation to the victims in Northern Ireland. There are many victims in Northern Ireland in the same category as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, who will have to live the rest of their lives with the consequences of what was carried out by those paramilitaries, loyalists and republicans. I urge my noble friend to make certain that in the years that lie ahead those victims and their consideration must never be taken out of the equation in this agreement. I continue to support the agreement but with great reservations, which I had at the time and continue to have.

4.40 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, of course I support what this Government and the government before them have done to create the conditions in which Northern Ireland may be able to work out its future. But I have a number of difficulties with this Bill which I expect the general public in Northern Ireland share.

The first is the definition of eligibility for release. Clause 3(4) requires that the prisoner is not a supporter of a terrorist organisation. Clause 3(8) provides that the Secretary of State may specify a terrorist organisation but only those which are either, concerned in terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland or … have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire". Clause 3(9) requires the Secretary of State to take into account in particular whether an organisation, is committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve its objectives; (b) has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence; (c) is directing or promoting acts of violence committed by other organisations", that is presumably intended to cover the continuity IRA, the real IRA and the 32 counties group. Paragraph (d) covers any organisation which, is co-operating fully with any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act". I presume that that is the international independent commission set up to serve both the British and Irish governments.

My difficulties are that first, the prisoners being offered the opportunity to apply for release on licence and a major reduction of sentence are being offered it precisely because they are, though they are there for murder and violence, first and foremost, members of and therefore presumably supporters of terrorist organisations. Are they in the least likely to say that they no longer support the very organisations which both put them there and now have the political leverage to get them out?

My next difficulty, at least with the IRA prisoners, is that the IRA does not appear to be taking any steps to end the breaking of the ceasefire by its so-called breakaway groups. The latter could not operate without both the expertise and the special materials, including semtex, available only to the PIRA itself.

Next, the Secretary of State must take into account whether the organisation which they have supported to this day is co-operating with the commission on decommissioning. How can that come about when the IRA has said, not only in May this year but on many other occasion, that it has no intention of decommissioning its arms, not one ounce of semtex; when Martin McGuinness has reiterated that for the IRA, decommissioning means only with the withdrawal of the British forces and the disarming of the RUC; and when Gerry Adams said in June 1995:

Even a symbolic gesture of decommissioning arms would symbolise an IRA surrender, and is hardly a reasonable or justifiable demand by the British". I believe that one of the IRA leaders in the Maze—mention has been made of this today—has recently been reported as floating the possibility that the IRA might itself destroy some arms. There is of course provision for that in the decommissioning plans, provided that the destruction is both supervised and certified by the commission. But no more has been heard of that and it may well have been a pre-election gimmick, dictated by the IRA to raise hopes, rather like the more recent hints that the IRA may at last reveal where its victims are buried.

It is of course always possible that in order to secure the release of prisoners the IRA may indeed instruct its members to say that they no longer support the IRA although I do not believe, for reasons of face, that that could ever happen. It is much more likely simply to instruct them to say that they are now men of peace. Will that be enough? But since the IRA recently said publicly that members of Sinn Fein who were also members of the IRA were free to stand for election and serve in the assembly, such an instruction is not perhaps impossible if it will obtain the release of the prisoners. It would be cynical, but would it count under the terms of the Bill? It could be simply another tactic in the political phase of the struggle.

The IRA's use of Sinn Fein is always flexible and has allowed it to say that it did not consider itself in any way bound by Sinn Fein's support of the Mitchell principles, thus implying, successfully at that time, that they were quite separate institutions.

The Secretary of State's powers in the Bill are very wide and I suggest that by comparison the sentencing review body is an instrument rather than a truly decision-making body. It is becoming clear that this Bill is flexible enough to allow the paramilitaries on both side to get their men out and into a splendid rehabilitation programme promised in the Belfast agreement—something the RUC and other victims never had—without any quid pro quo at all. Here we come to a major difference between the Secretary of State's view of the policy—and I share the admiration expressed for her courage—and that of the Prime Minister which I find difficult to understand. Discussing the Belfast agreement on 20th April 1998, when the point had been made that there was no explicit linkage between decommissioning and the release of prisoners in the agreement, most unfortunately, she said:

There is quite consciously no bartering of prisoners for weapons—no link between the two. All along, the Government have believed that that would be an unacceptable bargain to strike … There are no side deals and no bartering ".—[Official Report, Commons, 20/4/98; col. 491.] Negotiation is not bartering. It is a perfectly proper procedure. It is deeply unfortunate that there is no explicit linkage between decommissioning and the release of the men of violence in the agreement but the Prime Minister's statement, in his speech at Balmoral on 14th May, quite apart from his reply in the other place to Mr. David Trimble, makes it clear that he regards a commitment to decommissioning as explicit in the agreement. He said: Their commitment to democratic, non-violent means must be established in an objective, meaningful and verifiable way". He includes among the factors to be taken into account in establishing whether violence has been genuinely given up for good: Full co-operation with the independent commission on decommissioning to implement the provisions of the agreement". Therefore, I suggest that to make release conditional on actual decommissioning is not unreasonable. It is a very important way in which, as the Prime Minister also said, there can be, confidence building measures from those organisations after all the suffering they have inflicted on Northern Ireland". That is not bartering. It is entirely consonant with the Mitchell principles on the total disarmament on paramilitary organisations and is identifying a perfectly reasonable quid pro quo which also offers all the many victims who must now see the murderers of their fathers, sons, mothers and daughters going free some reassurance. They deserve to see the confidence-building measures which the Prime Minister had in mind form part of the process of release. It would be infinitely more convincing than the ceasefire.

As the Prime Minister said: It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence".[Oflicial Report, Commons, 6/5/98; col. 711.] Decommissioning is part of that, of course. What we cannot have in terms of security for people is a tactical ceasefire following which organisations whose prisoners have been released return to violence.

I should say that I am well aware that the loyalist paramilitaries too have been responsible for terrible grief and murder. I have concentrated on Sinn Fein/IRA because the loyalists have, it is said, taken the first steps to discussing decommissioning with the commission. The IRA has not.

I have only two other questions at this stage. All we know of the Irish draft legislation is that it is reported it will under no circumstances consider for release under the new process those who may be convicted of the murder of a Gardai officer, Detective Garda Gerry McCabe. Can we be reassured that we too will follow that admirable precept and not release the murderers of policemen or members of the forces? They would not have been released if they had been, other than, in effect, political prisoners.

Incidentally, I hope that we shall be given details before the Committee stage of the Irish draft legislation. I shall be especially interested to know whether provision is made there for the extradition to Northern Ireland of any prisoner released on licence under this scheme from Northern Ireland who breaks a condition of release by, for example, engaging in renewed paramilitary activity in the Irish Republic or takes refuge there.

The Minister will tell us that under arrangements made as far back as 1985 by the previous government quite large numbers of those paramilitary prisoners have already been released or are due for release. That was intended to stop the violence; it did not do so.

The general public—and most especially the victims on all sides—do not wish to see a series of efforts by the Government, even for the most admirable reasons, to try to set up arrangements which will in effect let the IRA in particular, and the paramilitaries generally, literally get away with murder. It is really not enough for them to have a last minute conversion to peace, unless they and Sinn Fein/IRA also publicly urge their former organisations to engage actively in decommissioning. Alas, I know that this is extremely unlikely to happen, but it is surely the least that we should be requiring of them, if only on behalf of their victims, in return for freedom and a new start in life. We of all people, after Munich, should know the difference between peace and appeasement.

4.50 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am a very loyal but not automatic supporter of the Government. However, on this occasion I rise to give the fullest possible support to my noble friend the Minister who made such an effective speech. I am aware that no none who lives in Northern Ireland thinks that anyone who lives over here is worth listening to. But I have one or two qualifications of my own. They do not compare for one moment with those of my noble friend Lord Fitt, the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux or, indeed, in a different tragic sense, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit.

Nevertheless, I suppose that I am one of the few people present today who was given a drink of whiskey—specifically Irish whiskey—by James Craig who was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in the 1930s. I wrote a book—still, I am glad to say, a standard book—about the treaty of 1921, which established the Northern Ireland state as we know it. Moreover, as I believe I have mentioned once before in the House, a few years ago I stayed with the leader of the Ulster Volunteer Force (a Protestant paramilitary body) who was later assassinated. I learnt from him that Carson was still the great hero—Carson being the man who brought guns into Ireland. After all, the guns came from a Protestant source. Resistance to the British Government was why guns first came into Northern Ireland with the slogan, "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right"; but that was not the IRA, it was the opposite. However, that is by the way.

I return to the present situation. I express the strongest possible support and admiration for this settlement. I congratulate all those concerned. In my eyes, particular credit goes to our Prime Minister. I fervently believe that without him the settlement would never have been reached. So all credit to him.

That admiration leads me, I believe quite logically, to have confidence in those who are concerned with operating the agreement. There are many difficult choices in front of them. It is no good pretending from outside that I know exactly the best course of action in every case. I leave it confidently in their hands. If you like, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, there are very serious issues before us today. For example, the whole question of releasing people who have done terrible things cannot be glossed over quickly.

Something like 3,000 men and women in this country have been convicted of murder. I am in touch with and see about six of them from time to time. Indeed, only last week one of those men who has been convicted of murder asked: "Why are the Irish people being treated better than we are?" That is the kind of question that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, raised in his speech. It is a question that needs a serious answer. Why should people who have been convicted of murder—and of course not all members of the IRA have been convicted of murder, whether it is the IRA, UDA or whatever—be let out early, as is intended will occur if the ceasefire holds?

One cannot answer that question without taking a long and hard look at the difference between the situation in this country and that which prevails in Northern Ireland. For example, no one in this country would tolerate for a moment the existence of a series of paramilitary bodies. That is the first difference. There are six or more paramilitary bodies in Northern Ireland, half of them Protestant and half of them Catholic. Roughly speaking, half are involved in the agreement while the other half are not. Those who are not involved are particularly dangerous because they are not even committed to the agreement. However, that is the situation that whoever is responsible for our affairs here and in Ireland has to cope with. Those people may not like it, but that is the regrettable fact. Perhaps one should ask. "Why haven't we got rid of such bodies before?" These paramilitary bodies are criminal organisations and totally illegal. But they have been allowed to flourish and some of them have been indirectly involved in the agreement. That is the situation.

We shall have to make time to decide what course should be taken. Indeed, one has to try to put oneself in the position of the Government. As I said, I give them the benefit of the doubt. I can only say that I condemn utterly all violence in Northern Ireland, especially murderous violence. That is not quite the same as saying that all terrorism is unjustified everywhere. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out, many terrorists have later become heroes. In 1920 Lord George spoke of "holding murder by the throat" when dealing with the Irish guerilla warfare, but later he hailed Michael Collins as a glorious figure.

In Northern Ireland today there is no excuse whatever for violence. I wish to make it plain that I am not soft on crime in Northern Ireland. Indeed, there is no excuse whatever for violence by any party. But paramilitary bodies, criminal bodies, are still permitted to exist. That is the situation with which the leaders and all those concerned have had to cope.

Before I sit down I should like to make one further plea. I illustrated it in a sense when I asked a question earlier. It is natural in England for people to think of the enemy as being the IRA. After all, it is those people who attacked the British Forces in the Province. However, over the past few years it would seem that more damage has been done by the Protestant paramilitaries. It is difficult to calculate, but more damage seems to have been done by them. They are heavily armed. Indeed they are possibly as heavily armed as the IRA but it is difficult to know exactly. Certainly, if one were a Catholic, one would think that the Protestants were the more powerful body.

I remember being present in 1969 when the British Army was brought in in strength. To some extent, it was brought in to protect the Catholics. But let us not think of the unfortunate Protestants as being at the mercy of the IRA; indeed it is the other way round. I always ask for balance. I am not saying that any of them are in the right because, ideally, no paramilitary force should exist anywhere. A paramilitary force can be a force committed to violence against one's fellow citizens and should not exist. However, assuming they exist, they should be put on the same footing, whether Protestant or Catholic. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit will agree with that.

I return to what I said earlier. I am entirely in favour of the agreement and I have the utmost confidence in those who are trying to put it into effect. I wish them very good luck.

4.58 p.m.

Lord Rathcavan

My Lords, I wish to speak briefly as someone who lives in Northern Ireland. I hope that I can impress on your Lordships the enormous impact that the prisoner issue has had and is having. It has caused passionate views to be held by those in the middle ground who have not previously held many passionate views. The Bill will be carefully assessed in Northern Ireland, and I believe that the apparent dilution in Unionist support for the "Yes" campaign in the assembly elections, compared to that in the referendum, has reflected the uncertainty and concern about this prisoner issue which has continued to exist. That concern was no doubt increased by the discussion, much of it rather confused, which took place on the Bill in another place during the final stages of the assembly election campaign.

People in Northern Ireland are greatly concerned that the Bill may not be an integral part of the process which will lead to a democratic and peaceful end. They are concerned in particular that progress on decommissioning must proceed in parallel.

I support the view of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that some of the Bill's wording might be improved and that the reassurances that people want should be written more clearly in the Bill. Ironically, it was his party which moved the goal posts on the decommissioning issue on several occasions, which is why many people in Northern Ireland have lost confidence in the decommissioning process and why they now want to see some material and positive progress towards the decommissioning of illegal arms and explosives in parallel with prisoner release.

I hope that the Minister will consider tidying up the drafting of Clause 3(9) so that it will be made much clearer that the Secretary of Sate has to take into account the fact that full co-operation on decommissioning by any organisation with which a prisoner for release is concerned, is taking place. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said that that litmus test should be applied to each prisoner being considered for release. In my view it is sufficient that it is applied to the organisation with which that prisoner is concerned.

Prisoner release and decommissioning must be clearly seen not to be linked—I realise that that will be difficult, if not impossible—but to be taking place in parallel. Like the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, I supported the agreement. I realise that we cannot cherry pick, as he said. He has spoken and written movingly on many occasions, as he did today, about his own experiences, and the struggle he has had with his conscience about accepting the release of prisoners who have been guilty of horrific crimes, as regards many of which he has had personal and harrowing experience.

We have all had to compromise our commitments and our consciences in some way in supporting the agreement. In that spirit, I support the need for the Bill. I urge the Minister to confirm the Government's insistence that decommissioning and prisoner release will clearly proceed in parallel. He must be aware of the great sensitivity of the prisoner issue in the Province. He must give people in Northern Ireland the clear reassurances that the process will be fair.

5.2 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, we in this House have the advantage over our colleagues in another place in that we have yet again seen confirmation that the people of Northern Ireland want the Good Friday Agreement to proceed. The vote may have been lower, as the noble Lord said, but it was still substantial and solid. However, on a day when those newly elected Northern Ireland politicians should be planning for the future of health, education and the economy in Northern Ireland, we are, yet again, as happens each year at this time of year, discussing violence and the prospects of violence. We had only to watch the scenes on Saturday to see that that is something that will not go away easily.

One did not have to be psychic about the judgment of the officials when one saw the arrival of a thousand troops in the Province in advance of a pronouncement by the Parades Commission. This morning the chairman—to quote Mr. Trimble—of the "so-called" Parades Commission announced that there were to be no Orangemen down the Garvaghy Road.

If in previous years, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, Church leaders and community workers could not solve the problem, why should five men and women with no previous experience of these negotiations have been able to find an answer? The commission is called independent. One probably has to live in Northern Ireland to recognise that for many people any body appointed by the British Government will not be regarded as independent.

It will be the same with regard to the commissioners provided under the Bill. There will be assumptions and prejudice from day one. The independence of the Parades Commission was removed by the Prime Minister and the absence of a resignation by the chairman of the commission when he accepted the instruction not to publish the provisional plan for the commission earlier this year. It would help were the Prime Minister to learn that when one pushes something into the long grass, the long grass has eventually to be mowed. The week of the Drumcree procession is not the time to do it.

Perhaps I may use this opportunity to express sympathy for members of the RUC and the security forces who will be in the middle of any confrontation. We talk about the victims of terrorism. But what about the victims of the prejudices and enthusiasm for confrontation of constitutional politicians? Those members of the RUC and the security forces are just as likely as others to be injured and out of work for the rest of their lives. I hope that that will be borne in mind in the future.

Before I came to this House I had never heard of Henry VIII clauses. Fortunately I was well educated in them by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. If I had not learnt then, this Bill would well and truly teach me what it is. The greater the detail you find on the face of the Bill, the better it will be. It would surely help those Northern Ireland politicians who have to make it work.

From time to time we have seen legislation helped to go through quickly. Things are then often left unresolved. The purpose of your Lordships' House is to revise legislation. Most years it makes 2,000 revisions. Legislation then comes back to haunt the people who have to make the legislation work.

It is appropriate for me now to praise the bipartisan support I received from all sides of the House during my years in office. That does not mean that I had an easy time. I am grateful to those noble Lords who gave me that support. It is especially appropriate that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is in his place, because it was helpful to be able to concentrate on Northern Ireland rather than cross-House disputes. I hope that we shall be able to continue in that way. Northern Ireland issues are too fragile to be turned into a World Cup-style game. There will never be a golden goal in Northern Ireland.

On 16th March this year, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, told me: The noble Baroness will also be aware of the Government's view that there are no political prisoners anywhere in the United Kingdom".—[Official Report, 16/3/98; col. 494.] I am afraid that my view is that there now are, by definition, because of what the agreement contains. I was sorry to hear the Minister say that of all the people who had been released only two had committed heinous crimes. I ask about the victims of those "only two". Any prisoner who is released and commits a crime—

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Perhaps, for the sake of accuracy, I might say that I said that of the prisoners who had been released only two had committed further offences. I meant that the process of releasing prisoners had resulted in the vast majority behaving lawfully on release.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is saying, but I personally think that two is two too many. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, referred to political categorisation. If criminals kill someone in a warehouse raid—the aim of that warehouse raid may be to raise funds for terrorists—why are they outside the life imprisonment requirement? I did not take part in the debate on the imprisoned guardsmen. Why do the Government feel that the guardsmen would pose a greater threat to the communities than the people who are being released? It would be interesting to know that.

If prisoners can count on a sentence that is given by the judicial authorities being commuted into a shorter sentence, does that mean that there may be more crime because the price to be paid for that crime will be a lesser one? Why should the protection afforded to the Garda by not releasing in the south people who have attacked policemen be greater than that afforded to policemen in the north?

I am nervous about the definition of a terrorist group in the Bill. I do not believe that the people concerned will not form new groups. As regards the fact that a crime will have to be committed before that is recognised, I think that we shall need to examine that aspect. In my view unless a victim can be resurrected, murder is murder. I cannot swallow easily the deal which has been done. Over recent years some former terrorists have worked hard to achieve the agreement. Nevertheless I find it difficult to accept that we have to swallow this step in order to move forward.

I believe this to be a flawed Bill and the timing unhelpful. But however fudged the agreement, the majority of people in Northern Ireland have shown that they want to go forward. They want democracy, not terrorism. I am neither a resident nor a native of Northern Ireland but I am a friend for life. As such, I am keen to see the future of Northern Ireland in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland.

5.12 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the subject. I feel particularly humble to be speaking in such a debate when so many eminent speakers have already spoken, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, for whom I have a great deal of respect, admiration and sympathy. I am ashamed that there are people from the Province where I live who have caused such misery for so many people on this side of the Irish Sea.

I, like many others, realise that if we are to achieve a lasting peace, then unpalatable as it is, convicted terrorists may have to be released on licence earlier than their sentences would previously have permitted. Therefore I would not support an amendment to defeat the Bill as a whole. However, in the later stages I shall support amendments which in my view strengthen the legal requirements, including those relating to decommissioning, which will be necessary prior to early releases of the prisoners.

The greatest threat to the future of the assembly and indeed the peace process at this moment is the question of decommissioning of weapons and the link with prisoner releases. All the parties who are not linked to paramilitaries, including the unionists and the SDLP, have voiced concern at some level, and sympathy with victims' families and law-abiding people.

I live in County Fermanagh which is perhaps the largest mixed community in the Province with an almost 50–50 balance in religious and political mix. The nationalists and unionists work and live together. It is a rural and border county, having the largest border area of any county in the Province. I served in the regular Army in Belfast in the winter of 1976–77. I then served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for 17 years and the amalgamated Royal Irish Regiment for a further two years. I wish to add to what my noble friend Lord Rathcavan has said. I wish to explain why this issue has become such a serious threat to progress within the Province.

We have to understand the kind of people who in many cases carried out these terrorist incidents. Your Lordships should also understand why so many intelligent and normal people right across the political divide feel deep uneasiness about earlier releases without stricter criteria being applied. The Bill concerns the release of prisoners, but we must be in no doubt that these prisoners are terrorists. We must not forget that. Many of them are guilty not just of shooting people or blowing them up from a distance, but of the most repugnant acts of torture and cruelty too. I want to put this into perspective and I make no apology for doing so. At the moment we are in danger of treating these people like PoWs, but I put it to your Lordships that if they were, we would pursue many of them as war criminals for the way in which they have committed their crimes. In Bosnia we are doing exactly that as regards people who have committed similar acts.

Let us think for a moment of the two corporals taken from their car in west Belfast. They were taken from their car in the full glare of the media and heli tele in the air. They were tortured and beaten to death when their own weapons were there to kill them in—dare I say it?—a less inhumane way. However, the terrorists did not choose that way; they killed them in the most brutal way by stripping them and beating them. We should remember the mentally retarded woman taken from a club in Belfast and ruthlessly killed a couple of years ago by Protestants. We should remember Captain Robert Nairac and what we believe happened to him.

Eleven soldiers in my company in 4UDR were brutally murdered. My first platoon corporal was murdered delivering vegetables to a Roman Catholic school in Roslea. The police called me out of Omagh market whilst I was selling cattle to tell me of it. Three brothers, all my soldiers, were killed over a period of time. One was killed in front of his family and his wife who was a Roman Catholic and staying with her parents at the time. Another was shot to pieces delivering groceries to a house a mile outside Lisnaskea. He was put down by the first shots but that was not enough. The killers went right up to him and shot him many times in the head. That was not a film but reality. It is impossible to describe the effects of such close range shooting.

The third brother, whom they had failed to kill previously, was killed while driving children to school on a school bus. Having wounded him, they pursued him to the back of the bus and riddled him with shots in front of the young children. The killers drove off cheering and laughing down the main street in Derrylin. They enjoyed what they were doing. We know from intelligence that after many other incidents, terrorists on both sides went to pubs and cheered and relished the brutality they had caused.

Only last year one evening I was travelling home from your Lordships' House. During the flight I read in the evening paper of a girl called Bernadette Martin. Noble Lords may remember that she was shot while sleeping in a house in Aghalee. Even though I did not have a clue as to who she was, I felt numbed by what I read. I decided to call and see the family before I got home. I asked for directions at the local police station in Portadown. I cannot describe what it is like to sit beside the coffin of a pretty young girl who has been riddled with bullets by a psychopathic killer. There were others there who did not know the family either. This was almost certainly done by a Protestant. Is he not guilty of a war crime? If and when he is convicted, does he have a right to early release? In any other country, even if there were a more legitimate type of war, would he not be tried as a war criminal?

I related that event because I wanted to demonstrate that the relatives and close friends of the 3,000 people murdered are not the only people affected by that sort of indiscriminate ethnic cleansing—

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, perhaps the noble Viscount will give way. Has he, and has the House, considered what would happen if, God forbid, a member of the family of any of the victims he has described, on hearing of the release of the killer of their loved one, were to kill that terrorist? Presumably that person would be tried conventionally for murder and sentenced to 30 years, with no early release.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, many thousands more people are affected. That is where the danger comes for the assembly. We talk about the victims, and the Bloomfield Report is important in relation to what we should do for them. However, we must not forget that we are not talking merely about the relatives of 3,000 murdered people. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of other people in Northern Ireland who are affected, and whose trust the Government require in order to go forward in the peace process.

By now it should be understood that many of those terrorists must have a serious psychological problem. Enjoying such brutality is not normal. Imagine knee-capping a person. Shooting is one thing, but drilling a person's knee with a Black and Decker must be a traumatic experience for any normal person—but these terrorists are not normal. So why are we considering their early release without removing their primary tools—their weapons?

This morning, through the RUC statistics branch, I learnt something which far exceeded my estimate: 205 children have been killed in terrorist-related incidents since 1969. That is a frightening number. It represents some 7 or 8 per cent. of the total deaths. Can that be considered justifiable in a so-called struggle for freedom? I was horrified, as I am sure your Lordships will be, to learn that fact. I do not have to wonder—I know—how we treat child killers in the remainder of the United Kingdom.

Does society not have a right to demand decommissioning of weapons? I believe that normal society does have that right. I realise that it has not happened following previous IRA campaigns—for example, the '56 campaign. But it is different this time. The weapons used then were obsolete in a few years—bolt action long-barrelled rifles and gelignite which deteriorated during storage. This time, it is AK 47s, armalites and Semtex, which will be reusable in 20 or 30 years' time, whenever it is so desired.

The matters I have set out are the reasons that so many moderate unionists, or middle-of-the-road SDLP voters, may have worries. Many on the unionist side are not extreme Paisleyites. They simply believe that it is wrong to have early release prior to some decommissioning.

In today's Independent, the Secretary of State is said to have been disappointed that the results of the election were not as clear-cut as she would have liked. I agree. But we must understand the reason. It is the threat of more ill-timed releases, such as the recent ones of Michael Stone by this Government and the Balcombe Street gang by the Government of the Republic.

This Bill is to enable the Secretary of State to carry out the early release policy—but she must not act prematurely, regardless of the opinions of the vast majority of moderate people in Northern Ireland. It worries me when the only unequivocal supporters of this legislation are the terrorists and those who have close links with them. It is disturbing that that is the case.

The assembly is very finely balanced even as it stands, given the number of unionists who may not support its staying in place. If there is to be no real attempt at decommissioning, I fear for its future.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a couple of short questions on the Good Friday Agreement and the Bill. Concerning decommissioning, the agreement states of the parties:

They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms". Sinn Fein, through its leadership—two members of which are commonly believed to be on the IRA army council—has, or has had, control of terrorists who personally had custody of paramilitary weapons. Sinn Fein leaders state categorically that there will be no decommissioning, and yet they are still in close touch with those terrorists. Are they now to be allowed out of this by saying that they are no longer responsible for the weapons? Is it right that all they have had to do is give their weapons to another of their groups for safe-keeping? That makes a mockery of it all. Handling a murder weapon and/or knowingly being an accessory, would not be treated in that way in Great Britain. Will the Minister tell the House how their commitment to use "any influence" they may have is to be judged in the light of those negative remarks and actions?

Paragraph 3 of the paper, Prisoners and the Political Settlement, which was placed in the Library on 20th April, states: The Government has said that there will be no amnesty for those convicted of terrorist offences". I accept that; but can the Minister reassure us that there will also be no let-up in the search for those who have not yet been caught—and that there will also be no amnesty for them?

In conclusion, I support the Bill as a whole. However, I may support any amendments that are put forward at a later stage. We must try to give the people of Northern Ireland more reassurance.

5.28 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, in addressing your Lordships today, I am wearing a different hat from my usual one. I was for two and a half years the president of the former Greater London area of the Conservative Party—that is, of the voluntary workers of the party. Before that, I was for six years its treasurer and then its chairman. As a result of the long period I spent in those positions I have had, and continue to have, extensive contacts with the officers and rank and file members of all the London Conservative associations.

In addition, for reasons about which I am too modest to speculate, I am frequently asked to speak at meetings of other associations around the country. That adds to my contacts with a large number of what may be called "ordinary" members of my party. From those very widespread contacts, I can tell the House that I believe ordinary party members take a realistic view of the Good Friday Agreement—that is, the one that was accepted by a majority of voters in the recent referendum. I stress that I refer to the original Good Friday Agreement. They are realistic enough to follow the dictum of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who pointed out that the only people you can make peace with are your enemies. Unless you can utterly defeat your enemies and impose unconditional surrender, making peace involves making compromises on both sides.

Nobody can win an urban guerrilla war, neither the government nor the guerrillas. A guerrilla war is what, to some extent, has been going on in Northern Ireland and the mainland. I say "to some extent" because the so-called paramilitaries, claiming to support either the republican or the loyalist sides, are in reality nothing but gangsters. Their pretended patriotic activities are to disguise their criminal actions in various forms: extortion, bank robbery, drug dealing, counterfeiting, smuggling, confidence trickery on gullible Irish Americans and any other form of racketeering when an opportunity presents itself.

One of the things that is most bothering my colleagues out there in the field, and, indeed, a great part of the British public, is the matter we are discussing today: the early release of these violent prisoners on both sides. I shall not refer to the link to decommissioning of weapons. My noble friend Lord Cope and most other noble Lords who have spoken have already mentioned the matter today.

Considering the pain, hurt and damage that the prisoners have collectively caused, the lives they have taken and the lives they have spoiled, it really goes against the grain to see them walk free, especially if that is accompanied by the disgraceful scenes of triumphalism we saw when the Balcombe Street thugs were temporarily released to attend the Sinn Fein/IRA rally.

Realism extends to understanding that, however distasteful the early release of these prisoners may be, it is one of the compromises that has to be made in the hope of securing the peace that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland passionately want. However, in order to reassure the public, both here and in Northern Ireland, that the Good Friday Agreement will not be watered down, certain basic conditions, I believe, must be imposed. First, the prisoner must, in writing, admit his guilt and acknowledge that his crime was inexcusable. In the present case, we do not want to hear any more talk about the convicts being political prisoners or prisoners of war, which is how the IRA describes its own gaoled personnel. Indeed, only yesterday we heard Martin McGuinness calling them that on the David Frost programme. It is entirely consistent with common penal practice around the world that as an essential prerequisite to release a parolee should admit his guilt. These men are nothing but common criminals.

On the other hand, perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to the tragic case of Mr. Patrick Nicholls who was recently released after serving 27 years for murder. His life sentence had a tariff of 13 years, but he was not released because he simply would not admit his guilt of a crime he not only insisted he did not commit but which, it transpired, never actually happened.

Secondly, the prisoner must unequivocally apologise to those he has harmed or their families or those whose property he has destroyed. He must admit some kind of guilt and must have some kind of apology to offer. The Prime Minister has recently expressed a desire to apologise for the potato famine. No one alive today has any responsibility for that. But none of the criminal and violent acts committed by the prisoners who will be released occurred in the dim and distant past. They occurred during the lifetime of your Lordships. More important, the victims or their families are still alive. An apology is the barest minimum to which they are entitled. My noble friend Lord Tebbit mentioned that far more eloquently and passionately than I could.

Thirdly, the prisoners must undertake that they will never again either commit any act of violence themselves or aid, abet or encourage any other person to do so. Fourthly, the prisoner must admit that he signed the document of his own free will. We do not want to have any later recantations on the grounds that he signed under duress.

Fifthly, the Government must make it clear that any released prisoner who commits another act of violence or encourages it will be recalled to serve the rest of his sentence, even if it would have expired by then. This may need an amendment to the present Bill.

Sixthly and lastly, any sentence for a subsequent violent crime should be consecutive to the one for which the prisoner was recalled. In my maiden speech in this House on 23rd November 1993, I asked for a limitation on the use of concurrent sentences. I said:

Our courts ought not to be a kind of discount store—commit two crimes and get one free".—[Official Report, 23/11/93; col. 186.] What is required from the Government is a firm and binding commitment that if prisoners are to be released as part of the price that has to be paid for peace, then those prisoners must admit their guilt and be genuinely contrite. What is also required is that we should be assured that the prisoners will not simply be free to resume their criminal activities with impunity.

I look forward to hearing the Minister tell us what binding assurances will be given to all the people of the United Kingdom and especially to our fellow countrymen and women in Northern Ireland.

5.36 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, this is a very important Bill. It is not like other Bills which, after the wording has been discussed and the Bill passed, move away, perhaps to be looked at by lawyers. On this Bill will probably depend the future of the assembly in Northern Ireland. That has already been spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, and latterly by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough.

The early release of prisoners is perhaps the most difficult and burning subject in Northern Ireland. It is burning people up inside. It is not just what they are talking about in the street. I find it difficult to read and think about it clearly because the idea of early release of convicted terrorists is almost impossible. One can just accept that if we had peace and a settlement and the terrorists had stopped, it could be considered. But we are not yet at that stage. This Bill has already had a significant effect on what has happened in Northern Ireland in the past two weeks. Before the referendum, the Prime Minister took particular care to make repeated assurances in Northern Ireland about prisoner releases. I have no doubt that it was considerably due to what he said and the actions he took that a 71 per cent. yes vote was achieved in the referendum.

Then, only days after the referendum, this Bill was published and the four assurances set out in Clause 3(9) were seen to fall far short of those given by the Prime Minister. That was the general view. I dare say that if the technicalities of the words are examined, there may not appear to be much difference but the people in Northern Ireland felt that they had been let down. The Secretary of State has only to take into account the relevant factors when considering early release and all efforts to tighten up the wording were rejected in another place. That was widely reported in Northern Ireland and had a significant effect.

The defects were widely reported. It was no surprise that many of those who voted yes in the referendum voted for "no" candidates in the election which took place on Thursday. It was a very near thing. It now seems that the new assembly will have sufficient "yes" members to make it possible for it to go forward, but only by the narrowest of margins—something which this Bill influenced. I have no doubt that it will also have a considerable effect on how events develop in the assembly. The subject will not go away.

Perhaps we, in Northern Ireland, are simple. We believed that the Prime Minister could deliver what he said he could deliver. However, we are not used to spin-doctoring and ambiguous words. During the run-up to the election last Thursday, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who had accepted the Prime Minister's assurances, had his feet cut from under him, so to speak. He bravely and forcefully continued to promote the assembly as the only way forward. But his party's vote fell away by a substantial amount when many who would normally vote for the Ulster Unionist Party voted for a "no" candidate. The result is that there are almost enough "no" candidates to wreck the assembly, but I hope not enough.

Something needs to be done to help the "yes" members of the assembly. I believe it can be done in two ways. Clause 3 and its various subsections read, to those of us in Northern Ireland, as a possible subject for another fudge. The wording is not positive enough. That is extremely important. For instance, I cannot understand why an amendment, proposed in another place by the Opposition Member responsible for Northern Ireland affairs, was not accepted. He proposed that in Clause 3(9) the words "take into account" should be replaced by "be satisfied". The Bill would thus read, be satisfied whether an organisation is co-operating fully with any Commission [for decommissioning]". That has much meaning whereas merely to take something into account has little meaning in the view of ordinary people. I do not see that that affects the agreement or its intention, but such a change could be extremely important in Northern Ireland.

Something further may be done to help the progress of the assembly. On 20th April the Northern Ireland Office published a statement saying what the British Government would do in respect of prisoners in the context of a peaceful and lasting settlement. We do not yet have a peaceful or lasting settlement; we have only started on the road to normality. Terrorists are still active, as last Wednesday's bomb in Newtownhamilton made clear. No terrorist organisation has yet made an unequivocal rejection of violence. But most people believe that early release is about to begin.

I hope that the Secretary of State will make clear that the conditions which will allow her to consider early release do not yet exist. Without such a statement this Bill, if passed in its present form, will be the cause of disquiet and considerable problems which will affect the assembly. Cannot the Government understand just how abhorrent is the concept of early release of convicted terrorists when little has changed on the ground? It may just be tolerable when normality has returned.

Of course I support the Bill as part of the agreement and the assembly which is to come. The great majority of people in Northern Ireland want it to succeed and it will be intolerable if the wording of this Bill is the cause of its failure. I hope that it can be amended in a careful way so that it makes a positive contribution to peace.

5.45 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, at this late stage I do not intend to keep your Lordships for any lengthy period. First, let me say that I disapprove of the use of the word "prisoners". Those people are convicted terrorists and to describe them as "prisoners" is to try to put a veneer of respectability on people who do not deserve it.

I should like to refer, as did the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, to a conviction last week of a man who was sentenced to 15 years for his part in the Docklands massacre in which two people were killed. He was sentenced to 15 years and, according to the report in the Daily Telegraph, Under the terms of the Northern Ireland agreement, all terrorist members of groups who adhere to the ceasefire are likely to be released within two years. Recognising this, McArdle's supporters held up two fingers in the public gallery and chanted 'Two years, two years'". There is not much deterrent in that. The leading article in the Daily Telegraph refers to that and concludes by saying that it would like an answer to a simple question: "is this justice?" The judges are trying to impose a deterrent sentence on people who are likely to commit crimes of that kind in the future. There is not much deterrent if those involved receive a long sentence from the judge but are let out by the back door in a short space of time.

I notice that in Clause 3(4) the Bill talks of not being a supporter of a terrorist organisation. It is easy for a terrorist to say, "It was not my organisation; it was a breakaway group". They can keep on changing the name of the group under which they operate and will move away from the one prescribed to some other one. If the Government believe that they will tie them up with those words, they must be rather naïve. Also, why do they want to keep their weapons if they have given up terrorism? What use are weapons unless they intend to start over again? I suggest that when people say that they will give up terrorism but want to keep their weapons, we should treat them with caution.

Another press report of yesterday said, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said she would not barter prisoners for Semtex in the bid to get the IRA to hand over their weapons. She insisted decommissioning was an essential part of the Good Friday agreement but she would not put a timetable on it. Dr. Mowlam also declined to say that Sinn Fein could not sit on the executive of the Northern Ireland assembly without handing over their weapons". Apparently, they may have to leave their weapons outside the door, but they can still become part of the government and part of this country without handing over their weapons. I suggest that the Government and this House tread carefully in relation to the contents of the Bill.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, there is every reason that the issue concerning prisoners should feature highly in the present parliamentary programme. It is one of the main parts of the Good Friday Agreement. I compliment the home affairs section on the publication of research paper 98/65 on 15th June, made available by the House of Commons' Library. Some noble Lords may also have copies. I am sure that if other noble Lords had studied that report a number of questions that have been asked today would not have been asked. The report explains the Bill and its background. It is not a Northern Ireland Bill for the future; it is a reserved matter for the United Kingdom Government. The research paper sets out clearly and precisely the detailed history, the legislation, the current arrangements and procedures and the rules governing the release of prisoners in Northern Ireland.

I join with other noble Lords in condemning all those who have planned and perpetrated evil deeds under the guise of promoting the aims, objects and future well-being of the Irish people, especially the citizens of Northern Ireland. Never was anything further from the truth. These people should be utterly condemned by all sides.

I could recite for hours the repercussions that their deeds have had on the lives of many. One does not need to move too far in Northern Ireland to touch upon friends, relatives or others who have had to flee the country or to move house; who have suffered under terrorism; who have been shot, maimed or murdered. It is something we live with in Northern Ireland. I found the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, interesting and challenging. I look forward to reading them again. They touched upon her sensitivity and understanding of the situation.

I share the many views expressed about the suffering. The report by Sir Ken Bloomfield deserves the careful, thoughtful support of those who have suffered directly through terrorism and violence. It is not something which is simply erected such as a statue or a garden of remembrance. There is much suffering which needs to be helped and Sir Ken is to be praised for the report he has brought forward with such great sensitivity.

As to the Bill, the subjects of prisoner releases and decommissioning are not two inextricably linked parts of a single issue in the context of the agreement. On the 22nd May, 71 per cent. of the voters of Northern Ireland supported the agreement. Much of the debate since that time has centred around the interpretation of the agreement. As with most things in Northern Ireland, interpretation depends upon your political perspective.

On the 25th June, the same day as the Northern Ireland electorate voted, Coopers and Lybrand was commissioned by the BBC to conduct a poll. People were asked to comment on five issues, but I shall refer to only two. They were asked whether they thought weapon decommissioning will have started by June 1999: 36 per cent. of all those questioned said yes and 64 per cent. said no, that weapon decommissioning will not have started. Asked whether prisoner releases will have started, 82 per cent. said yes and 18 per cent. said no. In other words, the electorate have a better knowledge of the procedures that will fall into place than some politicians. Politicians use the situation to stir up, mislead and make aspects of it more hideous than perhaps they are.

The people of Northern Ireland have suffered. The poll shows that they know in which direction the future peace lies.

The questions asked in the poll were based closely on the peace accord package which underpins the Good Friday Agreement. The outcome of that poll and the outcome of the election clearly demonstrate that the electorate is still saying what it said in the referendum. Instead of the issues of decommissioning, prisoner releases and other matters running in parallel, they must be taken as part of a programme. They do not all have to be resolved at one time in order to make progress. They must be taken in stages as they become manageable and the United Kingdom Government see them as a proper way forward.

There is a view which says that decommissioning must always come before anything; if it cannot be delivered, everything waits. If that view is put into practice there will be no assembly in place and working until all these things are brought together and resolved. That is a topsy-turvy way of putting it to the people.

This Bill is deserving of support. It is manageable, and the United Kingdom Government have the knowledge and the machinery available to deal with it. They do not have the machinery set up to deal with decommissioning, except for the commission that has been set up to look at it.

We are building on the principle of parliamentary democracy in the way the Bill has been presented, both here and in another place. I support it because it is a stepping stone on the road to civilised living and parliamentary democracy in Northern Ireland, a feature we all want to see. It cannot be done by a bolt from the blue from heaven. It must be won by the people and those they have voted into office.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, I have received a letter this afternoon from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, regretting that he is unable to be with us today and unable to speak. That moves me one position up in the speakers' list. I am conscious of the fact that I am the last man in and following many other distinguished noble Lords who, like me, come from Northern Ireland. At least two distinguished former members of the Northern Ireland Office, the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, and the noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield, have spoken. We have also heard from other noble Lords who have suffered from terrorism. I too remember Brighton and I take great heed of what the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, has said this afternoon. I offer my continuing sympathy both to him and to Lady Tebbit.

I wish to thank the Government Chief Whip, who, with his usual courtesy and good sense, rearranged the timetable so that noble Lords from Northern Ireland who were busy voting early, but I hope not too often, last Thursday could take part in this important debate on the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill today. Indeed, I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Molyneaux and Lord Weatherill for raising the potential clash that might have occurred when your Lordships' House met on 11th June.

However, am I alone in being surprised that there was not a murmur of protest from the usual channels; not a word from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when his Benches contain a number of distinguished noble Lords from Northern Ireland and when he was surely aware that Mr. Andrew Mackay, the main Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland in another place, was about to end the bipartisan approach to the Province's affairs; not a squeak from the Liberal Democrat Benches, when their number includes the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who always speaks so fluently and with such good sense on Northern Ireland matters? I am sorry that he is not here today but he did warn me that he would be preparing for the first meeting of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. I congratulate him most warmly on his election to that body. However, one should perhaps not be too surprised at the lack of comment as one understands that Mr. Ashdown is almost as desperate as Mr. Mandelson to become a member of Mr. Blair's Cabinet; so presumably the Liberal Democrat Benches are not allowed to protest at anything that this Government do.

I thank the Minister for setting out this afternoon's business with the clarity to which one has become accustomed. The election results from last Thursday give us some hope, but there are other things which still give us much cause for concern. The commission on policing is one and it is to be hoped that Mr. Patten and his colleagues will not be seduced into making ill-advised changes when we are so fortunate to be served by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who are without doubt the finest and most courageous police force in the world. Their operational efficiency and capability must not be compromised or diluted at any cost. They deserve the support of all right-minded people, in particular with the marching season that is now upon us; and goodness knows what will happen after the decision of the Parades Commission and the banning of the Orange Order from marching down the Garvaghy Road, which was announced earlier today.

Decommissioning is another cause for concern, although we are beginning to hear encouraging noises from the loyalist paramilitaries at least. Let us hope that the IRA, the INLA and other republican groups will follow suit. However, in a strange way I wonder whether the whole issue of decommissioning is being over-exaggerated. Obviously, such a process will provide comfort. But even if every weapon is decommissioned, it is so easy for anyone with the right contacts and the right money to re-arm from a world arsenal that is awash with weapons.

The third cause for concern is the emotive subject of the release of prisoners. To many, myself included, the early release of prisoners who have committed the most dreadful terrorist crimes is complete anathema. I was in Belfast city centre on that bloody Friday in the summer of 1971. Further examples of terrorist crimes have been graphically and movingly described by my noble kinsman Lord Brookeborough. However, in dealing with the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill, we must put personal feelings firmly to one side. This Bill is being enacted in line with, and to implement a part of, the agreement that was signed in Belfast on Good Friday.

The key is that the Bill can go no further than was agreed and signed up to by all the participating parties at Stormont. In that context, the Government in another place have accepted amendments that are wholly consistent with the agreement. The Official Opposition, in an unholy alliance with the DUP, Mr. McCartney and those Ulster Unionists who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, have sought to bring in a further amendment that would have the effect of tying in the release of prisoners to the progressive decommissioning of weapons.

While I am sure that we all find such a formula attractive, there is no linkage whatever in the agreement between the release of prisoners and decommissioning. It is not hard to envisage what would happen if we now started to cherry pick—I apologise for using those dreadful words—through the agreement. The Government of the United Kingdom would lose all credence; and with that gone their moral authority to prevent any party and, in particular, Mr. Adams and his fellow travellers in Sinn Fein/IRA, from rejecting any elements of the agreement that did not suit them.

Much has been made of what the Prime Minister may or may not have said at Balmoral, at Westminster and elsewhere, but that is totally beside the point and completely irrelevant. However, maybe in future he will think first before he makes his soundbites. He was not a party to the agreement which was signed up to by all those who participated in the talks. I am sure that noble Lords need no reminding that this agreement has subsequently been endorsed by 71 per cent. of the electorate that voted on it. Mr. Peter Robinson has now claimed with regard to the agreement in another place: on the doorstep, over and over again, it became apparent that many people did not understand the legalese and Northern Ireland Office-speak in the document". I am sure that he maligns the intelligence of the electorate in suggesting that they do not understand the agreement. Ulster men and women are extremely astute, thanks to our excellent schools in the Province, and I am certain that they would have no problems in comprehension. In any event, one has to question why Mr. Robinson did not seek to highlight this issue when he was so desperately going for a no vote in the referendum campaign. Is he now clutching at straws?

I am sorry that he cannot be more positive. Mr. Robinson is my Member of Parliament in East Belfast and he is hard-working, highly effective and very conscientious in his constituency work. I wonder whether he ever reflects on how, if he and his party had not walked out of the talks, they might have influenced the final outcome. I hope that one day he may learn that constructive politics are so much more rewarding than always being in a position of having to say no.

I have been encouraged by press reports indicating that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, thinks that the Official Opposition will not oppose this Bill at Second Reading, in your Lordships' House. I hope, but I am not certain, that that is the case. However, it is perhaps worth remembering that, in the Division in another place on 18th June, the Opposition were not joined by any Northern Ireland MP who is in support of the agreement, be they Ulster Unionist or SDLP.

Last Friday, I was talking to a great friend. Sir John Gorman, who was standing as an Official Unionist candidate in North Down, who, thankfully, has been elected to the assembly. I would reiterate his words when he said that the Opposition's voting against the sentences Bill in the Commons was political opportunism of the worst possible kind. One shudders to think how many votes they delivered to the parties that seek to wreck the assembly.

I hope that your Lordships will not oppose the Bill, which is wholly consistent with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

6.7 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, this has been one of the most sombre and serious debates I have ever heard in this House and those of us who have had the privilege of being here throughout have much to think about.

My noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley said in his opening sentence that he hates the idea of this Bill. That sentiment has been repeated many times this afternoon and I add my own feelings of repugnance. I have two vivid memories of two horrific nights when here on the mainland terrorists brought death and devastation to innocent people. First, I remember the Birmingham pub bombings, whoever was responsible, where young people enjoying an evening out with their friends were killed or maimed, many suffering the most ghastly burns so that they were unrecognisable from the carnage. Secondly, I was in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, on that fatal night when many of us on this side of the House lost dear friends and witnessed the most appalling injuries suffered by others. We shall carry this pain throughout our lives. So it is with a heavy heart that I approach the Bill. But this is not the time to look back. As my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon said, we have to move forward and look positively at where we are today.

The people of Northern Ireland have taken major and very brave steps, first, by endorsing the Good Friday Agreement and, on Thursday, voting for members of their own Northern Ireland Assembly. I am sure that everyone in your Lordships' House wishes those members well on Wednesday as they enter a new era of great responsibility. Naturally, there will be difficulties and set-backs, but with good will on all sides, the fruits of their labour could be rich indeed.

The agreement came about after dedicated work in recent years by both my right honourable friend John Major and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew. It has been taken forward by the Government, culminating in the Good Friday declaration. It was supported by all parties to the negotiations. I support it and I want to see it work. I believe that we should do all in our power to see that it does. This is a chance to restore democracy as a result of compromises on all sides. One could say that it is a result that pleases no one, but if it brings to an end the terror and mayhem that has bedevilled Northern Ireland for 25 years, then it is an option that we cannot ignore and must support. As my noble friends Lord Tebbit, Lady Park and Lady Denton of Wakefield have said, it goes against decent instincts to agree to the release of convicted prisoners on both sides who have committed such terrible crimes and show no remorse. Yet we know that without bringing the subject of prisoners into the mainstream equation there would have been no agreement.

However, the subject of decommissioning is equally important to us and, I believe, to the majority of British people. Of course I understand that it is impossible to have a situation where a certain number of guns and a certain amount of ammunition is handed over simultaneously as a prisoner is released. But I believe that it is essential that there must be an absolute and unequivocal commitment to the two processes to proceed hand in hand. It is important for us to keep the fact before us that prisoners will only be released if their particular organisation has given up violence for good. We are not talking about an amnesty. A released prisoner will be on licence so recall is possible if violence erupts again, but, as my noble friend Lord Cope said, if he has not gone to ground.

Decommissioning is a vital issue in the process. We hope to persuade the Government to accept our argument. We believe that it is essential to spell out loud and clear in the legislation that bombs and guns must be handed over to prove the permanent commitment to non-violence. There must be maximum safeguards consistent with the agreement. We understand only too well and share the feelings of victims and their families. We cannot allow such injustice to take place unless there is a real chance of lasting peace.

It is our responsibility to ensure that the Bill leaves your Lordships' House a better, more precise and unambiguous Bill which we hope will be understood and accepted by British people on both sides of the water. To that end important amendments will be tabled by my noble friends. We intend to pursue them strenuously as we move to the next stage of the Bill.

6.12 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, this has been a thorough, extensive and very moving debate. It is certainly the most moving debate that I have heard, either in this House or in the other place when I had the privilege of serving there. I understand and respect the very strong feelings that have been voiced this afternoon. I acknowledge the strong feelings. I understand the anxieties and concerns to which this legislation gives rise. I well understand that it is the natural human reaction—and I share it—to feel deeply uncomfortable that people who have committed the most appalling crimes—we have had descriptions from some of the victims of those crimes this afternoon—should be released from gaol long before they have served what society would normally demand represents justice.

I also understand that, although many noble Lords wish the Good Friday Agreement to succeed, some of them will find it difficult to support this legislation or will wish significantly to change it. I understand the sentiments which give rise to that.

It seems to me that the Government have a simple choice. There is no other way forward to bring peace to Northern Ireland. If we are right in that—I believe most sincerely that we are—then we have to make very difficult and painful decisions. The prize is peace for the people of Northern Ireland and the end of terrorism in all parts of the United Kingdom. That is the prize. I believe many people will feel it right to make sacrifices for that. But it sits uneasily that some people who have committed the most appalling crimes and not shown any remorse, will be let out early.

It is a major undertaking to make special arrangements for the early release of prisoners convicted of crimes of terrorism. The Government have not entered into it lightly or without good reason. But we are here today debating this Bill because of the other matters which are integral parts of the Good Friday Agreement. That is the only reason we have for bringing the Bill before your Lordships' House.

In drawing up the legislation, we have taken care to ensure that appropriate safeguards are included. This afternoon I have already referred to the conditions that prisoners must satisfy to be released and the terms of the licence that will be imposed. I have explained the powers that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will hold to identify organisations that have not established, or which are not maintaining, an unequivocal ceasefire and to ensure that prisoners who support such organisations are not released, as well as the general powers she holds to suspend the scheme as a whole. There is quite an array of safeguards to ensure that the Bill works and that we are simply not giving these people an amnesty and letting them out without any conditions whatever.

I have a great many points of detail to refer to and I shall try to do that as briefly as possible, but I fear that it will take a little time. Before I do that, perhaps I may make two general points. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Government are as one in their approach to the issues of Northern Ireland. There is nothing useful to be served by trying to find dots or commas to suggest that there are differences within the Government: there are not.

In reply to a comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, the Government's policy is that the future of Northern Ireland will continue to be determined by the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That consent will determine whether at any point in the future there is to be a change in its status. As long as the people of Northern Ireland want it to remain part of the United Kingdom that is what the Government will ensure happens.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is he telling me that the policy enunciated by Mo Mowlam in January 1996 is not the Government's policy and that the Labour Party—I know that the Minister cannot speak for it—will begin to recruit members in Northern Ireland rather than rely on the republican SDLP to represent their case in Northern Ireland?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I have stated the Government's policy. It is that there will be no change in Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom unless a majority of the people there want that to happen. That is the Government's policy and there is no equivocation about it. The Secretary of State has explained that policy on countless occasions. I have heard her myself and I am sure that the noble Lord has also heard that.

As regards the recruitment of Labour Party members in Northern Ireland, I suggest that that is not a subject for deliberation this afternoon, although I shall be happy to debate it with the noble Lord on a future occasion, if he so wishes, and perhaps outside the House.

Perhaps I may refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. No one who heard it could fail to be affected by his strength of feeling. I acknowledge, too, that his remarks were born not only out of his personal experience of terrorism—he indicated very clearly that that was not the reason that he put forward his arguments, although his personal experiences are truly shocking—but out of his strong personal attachment to the Union and his beliefs in justice. I believe that I am being fair in putting the matter in those terms.

However, I ask the noble Lord when reflecting on the Bill to dwell upon the fact that it has its origins in an agreement which had the consent of political parties representing the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland and that it was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, and by both Houses. That agreement was freely and voluntarily negotiated and entered into by the political parties of Northern Ireland—unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican. Therefore, whatever view we may take of the legislation, it will give effect to a scheme which undeniably reflects the views of the parties and which they felt able to support. The agreement was endorsed by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland. I give way again to the noble Lord.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, the Minister is extremely generous and I am most grateful to him. However, he must accept that, although the agreement was, as he said, approved by the people of Northern Ireland, it has an effect on all the people of the United Kingdom because it affects justice, and justice is a matter which affects all of us in this kingdom, and justice must be even-handed on both sides of the water for they are both parts of this kingdom.

Lord Dubs

Yes, my Lords. Of course, justice must be even-handed, but the search for peace affects all parts of the United Kingdom as well and the people of England, Wales and Scotland are as committed to achieving peace in Northern Ireland as are the people of Northern Ireland. Both Houses of Parliament are committed to achieving that peace. It is because of the prize that is at stake—peace for the first time in Northern Ireland for many years—that we have put forward legislation which is controversial and causes some people understandable anxiety. However, peace is the aim and the motive. I suggest to the noble Lord that all the people of the United Kingdom share that aim. If we were to achieve long-lasting peace in Northern Ireland—I believe that for the first time for many years that is within our grasp—I believe that people would say, "Yes, it was difficult, but it was worth while".

Both this Government and their predecessors have spent years encouraging the parties in Northern Ireland—unionist and nationalist—to reach agreement and we must now take that agreement seriously. As I have said, the early release of prisoners is part of that agreement. We, the Government, are trying to give effect to the agreement. It is in that context that we have had this debate.

My noble friend Lord Fitt also spoke with great strength of feeling, which the whole House respected, from his personal experiences not only of threats to him personally, but also in relation to the many people close to him who have been killed or injured over many years. I pay tribute to my noble friend for the way in which he put his position and expressed his doubts and uncertainties; but he also said—I think that I am being fair to my noble friend—that, difficult as it is, he will go along with what we are trying to do because there is a greater purpose to be achieved.

Perhaps I may deal now with some of the very many specific points made about the Bill. I shall do my best to do justice to them, although I may not reply to noble Lords' points in quite the order that they were put to me. The noble Lords, Lord Cope of Berkeley and Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, asked what happens when a prisoner on licence commits an offence but then escapes from Northern Ireland, perhaps to the Republic. They asked how we can get such a person back. When persons are fugitives from justice, the Government are committed to pursuing them and to achieving extradition under international agreements. We have such an agreement with the Irish Government and we intend that that agreement should be used in such instances—

Lord Tebbit


Lord Dubs

My Lords, the noble Lord laughs, but people have been extradited. I believe that the positive atmosphere between the British Government and the government in Dublin will ensure that there will be even better co-operation in the future than there has been in the past in order to achieve effective extradition should such a circumstance arise.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the difference between fixed-term prisoners and prisoners with life sentences as regards the conditions applied to their release. The noble Lord argued that all prisoners should be subject to the condition which applies to life-sentence prisoners that, if released, they would not be a danger to the public—and that this should also be a licence condition.

I understand the arguments that have been made, but there are good reasons not to apply a risk test of this kind to fixed-term prisoners. Under Northern Ireland law, all fixed-term prisoners are released automatically after they have served a given portion of their sentence. There is no requirement that they be subject to a condition that they would not be a danger to the public. This was also the case under the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act introduced by the previous government. Prisoners who were released under the terms of that Act were not subject to a risk test. To impose a condition of this kind would introduce a new concept into the law of Northern Ireland.

It is also important to remember that the primary concern of this Bill is with prisoners who have been convicted of offences related to terrorism. Under the third condition, which applies to fixed-term prisoners as well as lifers, a prisoner may not be released if the commissioners believe he would be likely to become a supporter of a terrorist organisation or to become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland. So if there is a genuine concern that a prisoner may return to violence after release, he may not be granted a declaration by the commissioners. A similar condition is imposed as part of the licence. We do have safeguards, but there is a reason for dealing differently with the two sets of prisoners.

The key point in today's debate has been decommissioning—perhaps I may use that shorthand term—and the need to prove that there is a ceasefire. Numerous noble Lords referred to that. They argued that the test that the Secretary of State must apply in deciding whether an organisation is a terrorist organisation, that is—whether an organisation has established and is maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire—should be supplemented by the requirement that such an organisation has already begun to decommission weapons. I believe that that was the key point in many of the arguments that have been advanced today.

Perhaps I may begin by saying that we are at one in our desire to see the decommissioning of illegal arms. There is no good reason for any organisation that is truly committed to a democratic process to hold on to arms. The agreement explicitly recognises this in the section which deals with decommissioning. But we cannot add or take away from the agreement. We cannot insert a precondition or test which is not there. To do so would be to do exactly what we have told others must not be done. We must implement the agreement as a complete document—a document voted on by the people of Northern Ireland—and remain faithful to its terms. The agreement states: Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements". The agreement does not impose a precondition of decommissioning of the kind proposed by noble Lords. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for having clearly recognised that fact.

That does not mean that decommissioning is not important or not relevant. In his Balmoral speech on 14th May, the Prime Minister set out four factors that would be taken into account in deciding whether an organisation had established and was maintaining such a ceasefire. Co-operation with the decommissioning commission to implement the provisions of the agreement was one of those factors. Under the terms of the Bill, the Secretary of State must take account of this and each of the other factors in deciding whether the test is met. But it would not be right for this House to change the status of those factors to make all or any of them into separate tests that must be satisfied. That is not what the agreement says and we must be true to the agreement.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister. I imagine that we shall spend a considerable time on this in Committee, but I wanted to make it clear now that I did not argue for a precondition. I did not argue that decommissioning should have begun before any prisoner was released. I argued for the two to proceed in parallel and for a tightening in the wording to try to secure that. The Minister is attributing to me and to a number of other noble Lords a much more sweeping amendment, stepping outside the agreement, which is not what I was advocating.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, if I misunderstood the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and other noble Lords, I apologise, but I thought that the thrust of their argument was that type of link. I was anxious to make clear where the Government stood in terms of sticking by the agreement. I believe that even the lesser position which the noble Lord has suggested is his position is still outside the agreement. However, as the noble Lord said, we can return to that point in Committee next week.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I may have contributed accidentally to the noble Lord's misunderstanding. None of us has used the word "disarmament'", which relates only to arms. The term that has been used is "decommissioning", which refers to the breaking up and standing down of the control and command structures of terrorist organisations. There is absolutely no mystery about the existence of those structures. Without giving away any intelligence secrets, the security services know exactly where they are and the membership of those command structures. There is not the slightest doubt about that.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord has just said. The security services have a great deal of information. I am grateful to the noble Lord for making that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, and my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees, asked how many prisoners would be likely to be released under the terms of the Bill and when those prisoners would be released if the Bill were not enacted. Under the Bill the question of release falls to the commissioners appointed under its terms. It is their responsibility to decide whether a prisoner is entitled to receive a declaration. Therefore I cannot say precisely how many prisoners will or can benefit. However, I can give figures for the number of prisoners who are serving sentences of five years or more or life imprisonment for scheduled offences. That is the first condition that a prisoner must satisfy to qualify for a declaration. Between 400 and 450 prisoners are likely to meet that condition. Under current release arrangements, over 45 per cent. of those would be released within two years anyway. Under the arrangements in the Bill over 80 per cent. could be released within two years. About 60 prisoners would remain in custody after two years and could be affected by the cut-off. To put these figures in context, the Northern Ireland Prison Service releases about 1,500 prisoners every year and since 1983 has released more than 450 life sentence prisoners.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, suggested that the words of the Prime Minister's Balmoral speech were not fully reflected in the Bill. I am disappointed that the noble Lord returns to this issue, which I believe has been fully addressed in another place. The Bill gives full effect to the words of the Prime Minister. That fact was recognised by the right honourable Member for Upper Bann in a speech recently.

The noble Lord also asked whether or not there would be any fast-track extradition if a licence was breached. No. The position is as I stated it earlier. The extradition arrangements already in place are the ones that will be applied.

The noble Lord also made a comparison between non-terrorist and terrorist offences. The Bill before the House applies only to those convicted of scheduled offences; that is, those generally connected with terrorism. The Bill deals with very particular circumstances that cannot be made to apply to other groups. I understand the difficulty to which the noble Lord refers, but that is the answer.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, referred to the definition of terrorist organisations. He asked how an organisation that was proscribed as a terrorist organisation could not be excluded under Clause 3(8). The Bill before your Lordships has no effect upon proscription. The provisions in relation to proscription in the Emergency Provisions Act and Prevention of Terrorism Act are unaffected and will remain in place. No organisation which is currently proscribed will be de-proscribed as a consequence of this Bill becoming law. However, it is possible for an organisation to be a proscribed organisation but not be a terrorist organisation as defined by this Bill. This is because the Bill focusses on whether an organisation has established and maintained a complete and unequivocal ceasefire, whereas the EPA and PTA look to the nature of the organisation. The Bill before your Lordships' House applies a two-stage test that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State must consider. First, she must consider whether an organisation is concerned in terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland, or in promoting or encouraging it". This part of the test draws on the language of the PTA and identifies the nature of the organisation in question. However, the second part of the test, which must also be satisfied before an organisation is identified as a terrorist organisation for the purpose of this Bill is whether the organisation has not established or is not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. This looks to the attitude of the organisation to violence now and in the future and follows directly from the terms of the agreement. In this way an organisation can be a proscribed organisation but not defined as a terrorist organisation within this legislation.

I have already reminded the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that no party is a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement but that every party and the two governments have fully endorsed it either at the time or subsequently. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, enquired about the McArdle case and the cases of other prisoners who were transferred to Northern Ireland. I cannot comment on whether an individual prisoner will qualify for release under the sentences Bill or when a prisoner can be released. No prisoner will automatically qualify for release and only prisoners serving their sentence in Northern Ireland will be eligible to apply under the Bill.

If a prisoner sentenced in England and Wales is transferred to serve his sentence in Northern Ireland he will be able to apply to the commissioners under the legislation. The Bill makes special provision for prisoners convicted outside Northern Ireland to take account of their transferred status and the fact that they will not have been convicted of a scheduled offence. But it is for the commissioners to decide whether a prisoner satisfies the conditions under the legislation.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. What has been said in no way deflects me from what I said earlier this afternoon. If a terrorist is found guilty of an offence in England and is sentenced to life imprisonment he may qualify under these arrangements. However, where a terrorist has committed an offence that results in the death of five people, such as in the Brighton bombing, and is sentenced to five life terms which all run concurrently, will he be given any priority over, or be treated any differently from, a person who has been found guilty of one terrorist murder? I have in mind particularly the Brighton bombing in which five people were killed and many more were injured. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, did not mention that. No one has asked me about this, but my conscience makes me refer to it. Would the person who did that be regarded with less sympathy than the person who had committed just one murder?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, speaking for myself I do not regard any of them with any sympathy but that is not the point that the noble Lord raises. The commissioners would have to consider each case individually and decide whether any individual qualified under the terms of this legislation. I agree that very difficult decisions would have to be made. The noble Lord points out some of the real dilemmas inherent in the Bill. However, I do not wish to speak about individual cases. It is not appropriate for me to do so; it does not fall within my terms of reference but is a matter for the commissioners. But if any prisoner convicted in England and Wales was to be transferred to Northern Ireland it would have to be for an offence connected with terrorism in Northern Ireland. There are some limiting conditions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, asked about the position of prisoners who claimed that they were no longer associated with a particular terrorist organisation as a way of qualifying for early release under the terms of the Bill. The Bill clearly excludes those prisoners who support organisations that have not established ceasefires, as required under Clause 3(8). No prisoner who supports such an organisation would gain a declaration under the Bill. The mere fact that a prisoner states that he no longer supports a terrorist organisation would not necessarily satisfy the condition. We could not have them merely claiming that they are no longer part of an organisation, and, that is all right then! An assessment would have to be made by the commissioners of all the circumstances, not just any particular claim made by a prisoner who is trying to imply that he had moved from one organisation to another or out of one organisation.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. How on earth can that be contradicted? What evidence would be put before the commissioners to persuade them that the declaration was not true? That is what I do not understand.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, it is not for me to describe how I think the commissioners will operate. Clearly, there would be other evidence about that individual. If an individual's record had been close association with an organisation that was not on ceasefire, the commissioners would presumably look at that, as they would look at other facts about the prisoner. We must make it clear that there is no easy way in which a prisoner can claim that he is part of an organisation that is on ceasefire when his track record suggests otherwise.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. My point was that all those people are being considered, and would be likely to be applying to the commission, precisely because they are paramilitaries. They are there because they are paramilitaries as well as for their crimes. It is difficult to see how they would have the faintest possibility of getting out, having spent X years in the Maze in the IRA section of the prison, behaving under "military discipline", and all the rest of it, then suddenly saying, "I am not actually a supporter of this organisation." I find it difficult to believe that anyone would dare to do it, or could be credible if they did.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, there may be a misunderstanding here. I am talking about prisoners who satisfy the test that they are not associated with an organisation that is not on ceasefire. The key test is that they are not associated with an organisation that is not on ceasefire. If a terrorist happens to be a member of the Provisional IRA, and the Provisional IRA is on ceasefire, then that prisoner would qualify.

I thought that the noble Baroness was talking about prisoners who are associated with the LVF, the Continuity Army Council, the INLA, or one of the organisations that are not on ceasefire. I think that the LVF claimed recently to be on ceasefire. If the organisation is clearly on ceasefire, and the individual is associated with that organisation, that individual will qualify. If the organisation is not on ceasefire, then the second test will be whether the individual is associated with it. That is what I thought was the point at issue.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, perhaps I can ask the Minister to clarify a point. To ask for release, the prisoner has to come from a prison cell block which has IRA written all over it. The IRA may be on ceasefire, but presumably to be in that block the prisoner has to be a supporter of something called the Irish Republican Army, otherwise he could not survive. In fact we have seen that those people, even within the Maze, who do not necessarily support it are sometimes murdered. This seems unrealistic. The prisoner is a supporter because he is permitted to live within the environment where there are supporters of something called the Irish Republican Army. I thought there were no other armies apart from the legitimate British forces.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am not sure that I follow the noble Viscount's point. Let me restate the position to avoid doubt. The terrorist in prison cannot be considered by the commissioners unless he is associated with an organisation which is on ceasefire. If the prisoner is associated with an organisation which is not on ceasefire, the prisoner would not qualify. That is straightforward.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, will the Minister give way again? There is surely a difference between being on ceasefire and being, or not, a terrorist organisation. Whether the IRA is on ceasefire or not, it is a terrorist organisation. That is the point that the noble Viscount and I are making. It is impossible overnight to become not a supporter of a terrorist organisation if one has spent one's entire time in the prison in that group and essentially supporting it. It is a totally different issue from whether the organisation is, or is not, on a tactical ceasefire.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, we have to look at the details of the Bill. We may be dealing with a point which is more appropriately dealt with in Committee. We are using the term "terrorist organisation" in the Bill as a way of identifying whether an association with such an organisation would allow a prisoner to come under the terms of the Bill for early release. That is different from organisations that are proscribed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Provisions Act. That is a different process. It is a criminal offence to be a member of a proscribed organisation. I do not want to take up more time than is necessary, but there is a distinction there which it is important to bear in mind, and which I thought I had explained earlier.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked about the relationship of Sinn Fein, the IRA and decommissioning. Under the agreement, Sinn Fein is required to use its influence to bring about decommissioning. We expect that to happen, and Sinn Fein to act according to the agreement.

As the Prime Minister has said, we consider Sinn Fein to be inextricably linked to the IRA, and we will hold Sinn Fein accountable for its actions. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked me whether we should not consider terrorists to be war criminals. I have great sympathy with the point of substance there.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I apologise if I gave the impression that I was asking for them to be considered as war criminals, because I do not accept that they are POWs. I was merely relating it to the fact that had they been POWs we would consider them as war criminals. If I said it, I apologise. I did not ask that we change them into POWs or war criminals.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thought that the noble Viscount was saying that some war criminals had committed the most appalling crimes, and that terrorists should be seen as having committed crimes of similar horror. I have great sympathy with the point the noble Viscount was making, because these crimes are horrendous. However, the prisoners who committed them have been convicted in criminal courts of crimes under the criminal law. Those prisoners are not POWs, as the noble Viscount said.

The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, said that the Bill established the concept of political prisoner. It most emphatically does not. It is not an amnesty. These are not political prisoners. These are people who have committed criminal offences, even if they claim that their motive was political. Prisoners are still required to serve sentences in custody and on licence.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I find it distressing that I have had to interrupt the Minister so often. If these people are not being treated differently because they are political prisoners, why is this particular group of murderers not being treated like other murderers? There is only one explanation: their crimes were political.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, let me restate the point. We do not accept that these are political prisoners. It may well be that their motive was political, but they have committed crimes. The noble Lord understands perfectly well that we have a Good Friday agreement and these matters were contained within the agreement. He may shake his head, but that has been the point of the debate all afternoon. I am sorry that I have not persuaded him to the Government's way of thinking. That may have been a forlorn hope, but I ask him to have at least some respect for the motives underlying the Government's position in this legislation, which is to give effect to something that the political parties who took part in the agreement supported.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I do not believe that those who are querying the issue of political prisoners are criticising the Good Friday agreement. Most of us have said that that is the wish of the people of Northern Ireland and we are not looking to take it away. However, we find it impossible to understand the distinction between those who commit murder as terrorists and those who commit murder during other violent crimes. How can a differentiation be made if not on a political criterion?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, that difficulty is inherent in the Bill. Much of today's debate has been an attempt to explain why we have the Bill and why we are proceeding in this way. Of course at one level it is very uncomfortable to have to see one group of prisoners treated differently from another when perhaps both categories have committed murder. But the prize at stake is peace in Northern Ireland. If in order to achieve that enormous prize we must do things which are difficult and uncomfortable, this Bill is a way forward in doing so. A fundamental concept of the Bill is that we are treating certain prisoners differently because they qualify under the Bill because there was an agreement. I believe that noble Lords understand and accept that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about making remorse and an acknowledgement of guilt a condition of release. While I have sympathy with her motive it would be difficult to impose such an undertaking, particularly as some of the terrorists would sign such an undertaking whether or not they believed a word of it. I am not sure how much further forward that would take us.

I was asked about the impact of the Bill on Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, and a third noble Lord. Noble Lords have also said that the guardsmen should not be treated in the same manner or less favourably than prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes. We have had a number of debates in this House on the subject of these two Scots Guardsmen and their continued imprisonment. The last debate was about a week ago. I do not intend to address the issues raised in those debates, but I will set out how the Bill before your Lordships' House could affect them. Under the terms of the Bill, prisoners may apply to the commissioners for a declaration in respect of their sentence. The terms of the Bill do not require that an applicant be a terrorist or a supporter of an organisation, only that he meets the conditions set out in Clause 3. As such, it will be open to Fisher and Wright to apply under the terms of the Bill. I cannot say whether an application would be successful; that matter would be the responsibility of the commissioners. However, as prisoners whose cases have already been considered by the Life Sentence Review Board, they could expect to receive early consideration should they apply. If they choose not to apply the question of their release will continue to be the responsibility of the Secretary of State under the arrangements and law which currently apply to life sentence prisoners. Therefore, they can come under this Bill if they wish to or will in any case be considered next October under the arrangements already in existence.

We have had a long debate and I apologise for taking longer than intended in trying to deal with the many points that were raised. There were a number of interventions which I was happy to take. The Good Friday agreement gives the people of Northern Ireland an unparalleled opportunity for a peaceful future. Many of those persons who voted in the referendum have never known a time when there was not killing and bombing. They have grown up in a society beset with violence. But on 22nd May this year, 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland voted for the Good Friday agreement. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have undertaken to implement the agreement in full. This Bill is part of the implementation of that agreement and I call on noble Lords to support it.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.