Parliament: Northern Ireland - Hague calls for an end to early releases

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THE TORIES came close to breaking the bi-partisan approach towards the Ulster peace process yesterday when William Hague told Tony Blair there should be no further early releases of prisoners unless a start was made on weapons decommissioning.

But while the Prime Minister agreed the recent wave of punishment beatings was "totally unacceptable", he said halting the early-release programme would wreck the Good Friday Agreement.

The exchanges followed a decision by Andrew Hunter, the Tory MP for Basingstoke, to postpone plans to "name and shame" the man he believes is the Omagh bombmaker after appeals for him to stay silent from Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the RUC Chief Constable .

Mr Blair stressed at question time that a difficult balance of judgement had to be struck and far from trying to damage the Northern Ireland peace deal, "we are actually calling for the Good Friday Agreement to be implemented".

Mr Hague, however, told a silent chamber of the case of Andrew Peden, who was tortured for 10 hours, left to die, lost both his legs, and "whose wife says he cries out every night as he relives what happened to him.

"Beatings like this are happening in increasing numbers, yet we are still releasing early prisoners belonging to the organisations responsible for these crimes. Would you agree these beatings are a breach of the Good Friday Agreement?" he asked Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister made clear punishment beatings had always been "a very difficult issue" which the previous government grappled with during the first IRA ceasefire.

Mr Hague said it was not right to compare earlier release schemes with the present one "because it was made very clear at the time that those who had committed the most heinous crimes would not be released until the first decade of the next century ..."

He said: "You told me on May 6 last year, `It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release ... should give up violence'. You pledged to the people of Northern Ireland that terrorists would have to bring an end to bombings, killings and beatings, progressive dismantling of paramilitary structures and full co-operation with the commission on decommissioning.

"Given that none of these things are yet happening ... isn't it time to stop the early release of terrorist prisoners?"

Amid Tory protests, the Prime Minister said: "You have to follow through the consequences of what you are saying.

"We believe, on balance, this judgement is correct. But I don't, in saying that, minimise the difficulty of it. But the consequence of taking the course you are advocating is more serious than you are saying."

Sir Ronnie Flanagan hadsaid on Friday there was no doubt that all the organisations responsible for the beatings, including those who purport to be in cessation of military operations, were engaged in this "repugnant activity", Mr Hague told the Commons.