Parliament: Prisoner Releases: Hague calls for halt to release of prisoners

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The Independent Online
THE PRIME Minister accused William Hague yesterday of being dragged along by those who wanted to wreck the Good Friday Agreement amid renewed Tory calls to halt the early release of terrorist prisoners. While Tony Blair said he accepted that Mr Hague was raising the issue in good faith but warned that an "imperfect" peace was better than "process and no peace at all".

In the most heated exchanges on Northern Ireland since Labour came into power, Mr Hague claimed there was abundant evidence to justify putting on hold the prisoner release programme until continuing beatings and mutilations in the province stopped.

The clashes, which took up more than 10 minutes of question time, came ahead of a Tory-led debate on the matter and put the biggest strain so far on the bipartisan peace approach.

The Prime Minister repeatedly warned Mr Hague that to stop the prisoner release programme would bring to an end the peace accord and have "immense consequences" for efforts to prevent a return to the violence of the past. However, Mr Hague claimed that unless Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, used her power to stop the releases, "every single terrorist could be released from prison without a single gun being given up".

But Mr Blair, stressing that Labour in Opposition had supported the previous Tory Government through difficulties in Northern Ireland, told the Tory leader: "True bipartisanship is not about talking about it, it's about delivering it. I do believe you are dragged along by some who do not wish the Good Friday Agreement well... I do question the motives of some of them."

Speaking of the "appalling punishment beatings", he added: "We can stop them altogether. That is true. We should do so in circumstances where we then declare the ceasefire no longer exists... I accept that this is often and has to be an imperfect process and an imperfect peace, but it is better than no process and no peace at all."

Mr Hague insisted that according to Families Against Intimidation and Terror, whom he met earlier, the number of such incidents had risen from 388 in 1997 to more than 500 last year and was continuing to rise.

Mr Hague said Ms Mowlam had said she would act if evidence was presented to her that paramilitary groups were returning to violence. "Much of that evidence is there."

Later, opening the debate, Andrew Mackay, the Conservatives Northern Ireland spokesman, added that if the releases were stopped, the pressure would be on paramilitary Republican and Loyalist groups to "get the boys out". "They can turn the tap of violence on and off to suit themselves," he said.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, said Ms Mowlam would have difficulty convincing anyone in Northern Ireland that she was not receiving intelligence indicating paramilitary organisations were involved in acts of violence.