Northern Ireland: Mowlam under attack over early prisoner release policy

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Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, faced sniping from all sides over the failure to link early prisoner release with the decomissioning of arms, in the Second Reading debate on the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill last night.

Opposition MPs challenged the legislation based on the Good Friday agreement, claiming that without the handing-over of weapons it was impossible to be sure organisations like the IRA was committed to peace. However, Dr Mowlam stood firm, saying the legislation was not to be "cherry picked by any party".

Under the Good Friday agreement, only organisations committed to democracy which are fully co-operating with the decomissioning body will benefit from early prisoner release. Dr Mowlam insisted that the safeguards to ensure that freed terrorists had renounced violence were rigorous. Under the legislation:

Prisoners will not be released if they support groups which are not committed to complete ceasefires.

Each case will be considered individually by independent commissioners.

Once out of jail, prisoners will be placed under licence for the rest of their sentence. If they return to violence, the licence will then be revoked and they would return to prison.

Dr Mowlam said: "The Bill is the first stage in implementing the agreement that makes possible a new future for Northern Ireland based on fairness, consent, peace and reconciliation. We have a duty to the people of Northern Ireland to implement their wishes."

She denied she was preparing to make the IRA a legal outfit. Membership of such organisations would continue to be a criminal offence.

Andrew MacKay, the Shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland, warned that the Bill should not be rushed through Parliament, and pledged to table a number of amendments to enforce the link between decomissioning and prisoner release when the Bill reaches committee stage. "We can't simply, for the sake of speedy passage through this House, afford to get it wrong. There can be no half way house or fudge between democracy and terrorism," he said. "Nor can we tolerate a situation whereby republicans or loyalists wield executive power in one hand and an Armalite in the other."

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble claimed the substance had been watered down in the proposed legislation. He said the Government must stick very closely to the conditions for early prisoner release. "We will focus on those tests which have been put into legislation. We need to have some confidence that the Government does not have difficulty in sticking to those principles. It is not clear that terrorism has ended or been defeated." UK Unionist MP Robert McCartney, said that "without decomissioning it would be a travesty of all principles of democracy".

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman, called for more help for the victims of the Troubles. "The prisoner release legislation flows out of the agreement. But victims and their families deserve recognition and respect. Unlike prisoners, victims have not had a political wing," he said.