Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 4 Jul 1995

Vol. 455 No. 4

Private Members' Business. - Treatment of Prisoners: Motion.

I move:

— acknowledging the constructive role played by both Loyalist and Republican prisoners in the calling and sustaining of the two ceasefires over the past ten months,

— welcoming the positive steps taken by successive Irish Governments since last autumn to begin the phased release of politically motivated prisoners who are members of paramilitary organisations and looking forward to further steps before the end of the year with a view to clearing the majority of prisoners in the reasonably near future,

— welcoming also decisions by the German authorities to release such prisoners in the light of the present situation and

— supporting the efforts of the Irish Government in the Anglo-Irish Conference and between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to achieve progress on these issues,

— calls on the British Government to play a positive role by addressing, without further delay, issues relating to prisoners, as a means of contributing to confidence in the peace process, in particular to

— legislate, as a first step, to restore 50 per cent remission to prisoners in the North to come into effect before Christmas,

— treat prisoners convicted of crime equally, regardless of whether they come from the security forces in Britain or the North or from paramilitary organisations,

— reverse all other punitive measures introduced in the course of the troubles and to implement the recommendations of the SACHR report, in particular the full restoration of electoral rights once prisoners have been released,

— investigate and order judicial review as a matter of urgency of all cases where a prima facie miscarriage of justice may have occurred,

— expedite the transfer of prisoners from British jails to jails throughout Ireland under the transfer of prisoners convention, where applicable,

— facilitate access by families, friends and political representatives to prisoners in Britain and to provide independent medical assessment and end special and oppressive restrictions on their freedom within British prisons,

— treat life prisoners on the same basis as other life prisoners in Britain and to indicate clearly the terms of their sentence to those who already served a long number of years in jail,

— ensure that no one is required to serve a double sentence following extradition to another jurisdiction and

— provide all necessary means and resources for victim support."

Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Teachta Bertie Ahern.

An aontaítear le sin? Anotaítear.

Thug mé dhá chuairt i mbliana ar na príosúnaigh Poblachtacha atá á gcoinneáil i bpríosúin i Sasana. Bhí mé ann i dtosach Mí Márta seo caite agus ag an am sin thug mé cuairt ar phríosúnaigh i Belmarsh in aice le Londan agus freisin ar phríosúnaigh atá á gcoinneáil i Full Sutton, in aice le York. Caithfidh mé a rá gur chuir sé animní orm ag an am go raibh na príosúnaigh ag rá go raibh na coinníollacha faoina bhfuil siad á gcoinneáil níos measa ná mar a bhí ag an am gur tháinig an sos cogaidh i bhfeidhm.

Cuid de na fadhbanna a luaigh siad liom ná: go raibh cuid acu á gcoinneáil faoi ghlas 23 uair a' chloig sa lá, nach raibh cead á thabhairt dóibh a gcuid éadaigh féin a chaitheamh agus nach raibh cead acu dochtúirí neamhspleácha a thabhairt isteach ón taobh amuigh. Mar dhuine a chreid i bpróiséas na síochána agus a thug creidiúint iomlán do na príosúnaigh as an bpáirt a bhí acu ann, shíl mé go mba údar mór buartha nach raibh dul chun cinn á dhéanamh le coinníollacha a dhéanamh níos fearr dóibh agus lena n-aistriú go hÉirínn agus freisin lena scaoileadh saor.

Nuair a chuaigh mé ar ais ag deireadh na míosa seo caite fuair mé amach gur in olcas atá rudaí ag dul. Níor éirigh liom na príosúnaigh i Belmarsh a fheiceáil de bharr go bhfuil réim "cuairteanna dúnta" á chur i bhfeidhm. Níl na príosúnaigh sásta glacadh le cuairteanna faoi na coinníollacha seo. Fiú domsa, ní raibh an lucht i gceannas sásta ligean dom na príosúnaigh a fheiceáil, mar a chonaic mé cheana iad Mí Márta seo caite. Chonaic mé iad ar fad i gcuideachta Mí na Márta agus níor thug údaráis an phríosúin an cead sin dom an t-am seo.

Is dul ar an gcúl é seo. Ar ndóigh nuair a dhéantar comparáid idir an chaoi a bhfuiltear ag caitheamh leis na príosúnaigh polaitiúla ó Éirinn agus Private Lee Clegg, feictear go bhfuil anéagsulacht ann. Beidh mé ag déanamh tagairt eile do seo ar ball, ach díreach ag an bpointe seo níl le rá agam ach go mb'fhéidir gur fíor an tseanfhocal i gcás Rialtas na Breataine: "cuir síoda ar ghabhar ach is gabhar i gcónaí é.

Is oth liom go gcaithfidh mé é seo a rá ach is léir nach bhfuil dada foghlamtha ag polaiteoirí sinsearacha Sasanacha faoi Éirinn agus go mb'fhéidir gur dóchas bréagach a bhí ann aimsir an "joint declaration" go raibh i gceist ag Sasana déileáil ar bhealach nua le fadhb na hÉireann. Ní féidir le polaiteoirí, áfach, a chreideann sa daonlachas agus sa mhodh polaitíochta, misneach a cháilleadh. Beidh orainn gach dícheall a dhéanamh le cinntiú go gcuireann muid ina luí ar Rialtas na Breataine Móire cé chomh tromchúiseach atá ceist na bpriosúnach agus freisin an gá atá ann, láithreach, brú ar aghaidh leis an bpróiséas síochána.

Yesterday was a dark day for Ireland and for the peace process. The worst fears of many people familiar with prisoner issues were confirmed. There is now an urgent need for the British Government to realise the magnitute of the injustice perpetrated in the unequal treatment of Private Lee Clegg compared with the treatment of other prisoners, both loyalist and nationalist.

However, it was not yesterday or in the past week that the urgency to tackle the prisoner problem in relation to the peace process arose. As someone who has always argued in favour of a peaceful resolution to the problem of partition in Ireland, I was delighted when the ceasefire was announced last year. It gave an opportunity to all sides to bind up the wounds of the past 25 years and to start afresh. It also gave an opportunity to all sides to look at the political causes of the conflict and to direct their attention to arriving at a long term solution to them. As somebody who has argued for the political road and who appreciated the part played by the prisoners in bringing about the ceasefire, I felt there was an obligation to ensure that those prisoners and their families would also benefit from the peace dividend and that recognition would be given to the fact that but for the political situation in this country most, if not all, of them would never have been behind bars.

I pay tribute to successive Irish Government for the realistic and imaginative way they have tackled the new political situation and the way they have acted in relation to prisoner releases here. This has played a constructive part in building the peace process and has hastened the day when we will have full peace and reconciliation on this island. It is also a step forward that Dáil Éireann has passed the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Bill, 1995, which I hope will soon be passed by Seanad Éireann and signed by the President. Although this Bill covers all people in prison abroad, it is of particular significance at present for people in prison in connection with the troubles.

On my visits to prisons in Britain, I have witnessed at first hand the conditions experienced by the prisoners. I do not have enough time tonight to go into detail about individual cases and prison conditions. The conditions under which prisoners are being held in Britain at present does not lead one to believe that the attitude of the British authorities has changed towards the prisoners. Since the ceasefire, conditions have not only not improved, but have deteriorated in many cases. For example, during last winter some prisoners experienced solitary confinement for 23 or 24 hours a day. This arose because of a refusal by prisoners to wear prison clothes. Anyone familiar with Irish history understands the significance of that. There have also been serious complaints regarding refusals by prison authorities to allow independent doctors into the prison. I can vouch for these facts because I dealt with such a case last week on my visit to Full Sutton. All the prisoners are kept in maximum security prisons and, in some cases, in special security units within those prisons. There have been instances where prisoners have not been allowed to talk Irish to their families, although it is the home language of the families. The study of Irish has also been refused. When I visited one prison in March I was told that the prisoners were told that Irish was the language of the IRA. As an Irish speaker, I find that gratuitously insulting. Such behaviour perpetuates bad feeling between the two countries. Other prisoners have been refused educational facilities. I highlighted these matters in a report I presented on my recent visits to the prisoners in March and June.

On my latest visit to the prisoners in England, I did not meet the prisoners in Belmarsh because a regime of closed visits was recently introduced. The reason given for this was that these were high risk category prisoners. However, when I visited them in March I saw them collectively. Under the closed visits regime prisoners are seen on a one to one basis and talked to through a screen. The argument in favour of closed visits is a security one. However, one must ask what security risk they thought was posed by a Member visiting prisoners and whether the prison authorities are alleging that he or she is a security risk. This regime is a farce as can be seen from my visit last week to Full Sutton Prison where I had no difficulty in meeting three prisoners together. These prisoners are due to be transferred to Whitemoor Prison where they will come under the closed visits regime. It seems strange that what was safe and accessible last week can become highly dangerous next week or the week after.

The second issue highlighted during my recent visit was the position of prisoners who have already served 20 years of a life sentence. For example on 10 July next Brendan Dowd, Sean Kinsella, Noel Gibson, Steven Nordonne and Paul Norney will have served 20 years of their sentences. A direct comparison of the way the British authorities have treated these prisoners with the way they have treated Private Lee Clegg is interesting. All the above were convicted of attempted murder and related charges but none was convicted of murder while Private Lee Clegg was. Despite the fact that every court in the land upheld the conviction, he was immediately transferred to a prison near his home, subjected to a benign regime and released within four years. Given the principle that murder is always murder and that those who have the privilege to serve in security forces have a full obligation to uphold the law one would have thought that the prison regime to which he was subjected post-the ceasefires would be an example in similar cases.

The prisoners to whom I referred have already served 20 years, held in maximum security prisons and have not been granted transfers to Ireland. When the case regarding the length of their sentences was taken to court the Lord Chief Justice said:

I have considered the submissions made on behalf of the above named prisoners, i.e. Dowd, Kinsella, Nordonne, Norney and Gibson. Life sentences were imposed on each for more than one attempted murder committed in the course of waging a terrorist campaign, in most instances against police officers attempting to apprehend the offenders. I see no reason to change my view that 20 years would be appropriate for punishment and deterrent, both specific deterrence of the offenders and general deterrent of any terrorists in pursuit of whatever cause resorting to attempted murder.

However, since the prisoners have served over 19 years I would not hold out rigidly for their detention during the remaining few months.

Following that recommendation the case was submitted to the Home Secretary in Britain. This happened early this year but, unlike Private Clegg, these prisoners have been given no indication to date when they will be released. Given that Paul Norney and Stephen Nordonne were 17 and 19 years, respectively, when they were convicted it is obvious that prisoners are not being treated in a similar manner.

During my visit to Britain I have experienced difficulty in getting to the prisons and associated costs. I estimate that it costs a family a minimum of £1,000 to visit a prisoner which is a huge burden on them. Regardless of the argument by the British authorities in relation to prisoners, there can be no question but that it is grossly vindictive, unfair and unjust not to give some consideration to these families, particularly in view of the ceasefires. The transfer of these prisoners home should be high on the agenda as their families can never be held to have been guilty of any crime. A small number of prisoners have been transferred but this was only after legal action. Most of the prisoners transferred to the North were on temporary transfers which are at the discretion of the British authorities. This means a prisoner never knows when he may be transferred back to Britain.

It is fair to say that the prisoners were involved to a large extent in bringing about the ceasefire and giving politics a chance. As a politician I believe in the political system. However, there is a major onus on politicians who argued for years that political progress would be made if we had peace to deliver on those promises. This is why I have shown such an interest in this problem. The prisoner issue is part of the bigger issue of peace and reconciliation in Ireland. I fully recognise the position of victims and the need to fully support them. However, it must not be forgotten that many prisoners come from families who had members killed and whose involvement in the troubles is directly related to those events. To regard victims as separate from prisoners is to ignore the nature of the problem.

In our efforts to break the cycle of violence we can do no better than follow the example of the late Senator Gordon Wilson who, by his tremendous courage and forgiveness, showed us that vengeance will not bring about lasting peace but that forgiveness and reconciliation will. In this connection it is also of great significance that loyalist and republican prisoner representatives and community leaders have called for the release of prisoners.

I wish to quote from the submission of the former Senator John Robb to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. As a surgeon he knows more about victims and their needs than most and he originally came to prominence because of his concern for them. In addressing the prisoner issue he said:

When preparing the first draft of this paper before Christmas, it was impossible not to conclude that the prisoner represents, in part, the guilt which we feel concerning our own attitude, action or inaction, in relation to the past 25 years. None of us can avoid taking a share of responsibility for failure to resolve a conflict which has taken such a heavy toll of life and limb. Healing will be incomplete until the prisoner has been reintegrated with the rest of us.

The cycle of recurring violence which has plagued us for so many centuries, will not be broken once and for all unless we are able to anticipate more than consensus seeking politics and constitutional rearrangement. Healing will not be complete without the decommissioning of all arms, the reintegration of all prisoners and the payment of what we can of the debt which we owe to so many people, on all sides, who have been hurt through injury or loss during these bitter years.

A memorial for the dead is not enough. People maimed and families bereaved must now be generously supported in an ongoing manner by the rest of us for the remainder of their lives... A ceasefire and decommissioning of arms are matters with which the average citizen has no difficulty if, for no other reason, they make little demand on us. On the other hand, advocacy of victim support should indicate a willingness to make some sacrifice in the promotion of such support. Amnesty, however, is quite another matter — and a very painful one at that — yet, at the end of the day it is the willingness to embrace amnesty rather than "release" that will finally indicate whether we too are willing to acknowledge, through forgiveness, our personal roles of inaction as well as of attitude and action in the violation of others both before and during the last 25 years.

In conclusion he said:

No particular section has won a victory — for which we should thank God — yet sometimes it seems that the powers that be wish to act as though they have won some victory. In a sense, we have all had a victory as we can now anticipate building a new society in which we will be liberated from the restrictions and fetters of the past. In short, help the wounded, soften our hearts, get rid of the weapons, find space for the prisoners, remember the dead and look after the victims.

I hope that this House will have the wisdom to accept the acts and advice of two illustrious ex-Senators in their approach to healing the wounds in our society. I hope that in turn we will be able to persuade the British authorities and everybody else involved in the conflict over the last 25 years that the only way forward is in a spirit of forgiveness on all sides. We must now build for the future and while not hiding the truth about the past, as it is part of forgiveness, we must not continue the cycle of violence by seeking vengeance and blaming one side or another for past events.

The release of prisoners is an essential element in the peace process and that is why we tabled this motion. I commend the work, efforts, time and commitment put in by my colleague Deputy Ó Cuív who, by his regular reports and visits to prisons, keeps this House aware of what happens on the inside and the views of prisoners.

The urgency of the problem and the topicality of this motion tabled last Friday have been highlighted by the controversial decision of the Northern Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, yesterday to release Private Lee Clegg without clarifying the British Government's intentions with regard to other prisoners. Our attitude is that there should be no double standards. Equity and justice mean that people are treated alike and fairly. Any suspicion of an intention on the British Government's part to let matters rest there causes a deep sense of anger and frustration, particularly to nationalists and republicans, but also to loyalist communities. We do not accept that soldiers in the British Army are entitled to fast-track release and possible reinstatement, when they have committed murder, unless the same approach is to be extended to others. We cannot have one law for those favoured by the British establishment and another law for everybody else. There is no valid distinction between different types of murder, depending on the category of the person who committed it. Mrs. Thatcher said "murder is murder". Not all deaths caused by paramilitary organisations, as a result of bomb explosions or mistaken indentity, were intended. Many have been deeply regretted. On the other hand, it is difficult to accept that people shoot to kill unintentionally, even if on the spur of the moment. I extend my party's sympathies to the family of Karen Reilly who have every right to feel deeply aggrieved that the killing of their daughter is regarded as a venial offence. My party favours an enlightened, humane and progressive approach to all prisoners and has said so on every possible occasion since last autumn.

The sensitivities of the situation were pointed out to the Prime Minister by the Taoiseach at the informal European Union Summit, by the Tánaiste to the Secretary of State in the Anglo-Irish Conference and by members in more informal political and diplomatic meetings. The British Government can have been in no doubt about our views of the risks, yet chose to ignore them at a time of uncertainty and some tension. The Secretary of State has acted in a very irresponsible manner with regard to the peace process of which he ought to be one of the principal guardians.

Since his tenure as Attorney General, when he played a crucial role in the Stalker and shoot-to-kill cases and the Gibraltar Three case, in controversial and political sensitive cases he has shown very little regard for natural justice, being ever and always a protector of the British establishment from justice.

The notion that this decision was taken according to approved procedures is completely undermined by the resignation of the head of the Northern Ireland Probation Office, Breidge Gadd. The cause of her resignation is the major deviation in this case from normal principles and procedures. She made a very strong and courageous statement about high-handed political decision-making. How many members of paramilitary organisations convicted of murder, or in many cases lesser offences, have had their cases reviewed even, let alone be released, after only a few years?

We are entitled to expect the British Government would place the stability of the peace process above every other political consideration. Let spokesmen in No. 10 Downing Street be very clear. They are not dealing with Sinn Féin on this matter. They are dealing with strong public feeling throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, with the united voice of the democratic Government and Parliament of this State. Cardinal Daly, who has been a champion of peace for years, also spoke for many people this morning, when he described the Secretary of State's decision, taken in isolation, as a very serious blunder. I also agree with the Cardinal's views that yesterday's street disturbances were unhelpful.

The prisoners deserve recognition, having played a positive and constructive role in supporting the ceasefire on the republican and loyalist sides. The ceasefires have been held with a discipline that has few parallels elsewhere by both sets of organisations, which is greatly to their credit.

Since last August, successive Irish Governments have responded to the situation by releasing prisoners, the first batch last Christmas and New Year and a second batch around Easter. I have consistently argued that by next Christmas the vast majority of paramilitary prisoners in our jails could be safely released. This would also be in accordance with what happened in the past.

Everyone should understand the reasons for this. The offences for which the prisoners were convicted were politically motivated. A lasting ceasefire has been called and Mitchel McLaughlin stated in the last two days that the guns will remain silent. Loyalist spokesmen have also confirmed in strong terms their commitment to stay away from the gun. We can be confident that in conditions of peace those released, or certainly the vast majority of them, will not reoffend in any way. We need the prison spaces for criminals, those who are likely to reoffend. The peace process has to be built on mutual confidence. Unless we, the previous Government and the present one, had been prepared to show some trust in those involved in both the republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations, and if they, likewise, had not been prepared to repose some trust in us, there would have been no ceasefire.

Releases are, therefore, a vitally important confidence-building measure. They should extend not only to the mainstream republican and loyalist organisations. We believe that, as they too have observed a ceasefire, republican socialist prisoners should be included in the release programme. The German authorities accepted the same logic as the Irish Government. While those involved may be unhappy with the verdicts of the German courts, at least they have all been released, with the judges making explicit reference to the peace process. I thank the German authorities for moving rapidly to close the book on prisoners, arising from a campaign which ended some time earlier in Germany. It is surely time for Britain to adopt a similar approach.

There is an unanswerable political logic to restoring 50 per cent remission as a first step. It was removed in 1989 because of actions during the paramilitary campaigns. Now after ten months' ceasefire it ought to be restored. That, I believe, is the view of the entire House. It will be recalled that, when a Baptist pastor came to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation a few months ago, he expressed the view that the restoration of 50 per cent remission would make a big difference. We do not claim that it represents the solution to the problem, merely that it provides an obvious first step, consistent with the logic of the British Government's position to date. As the peace holds, they will obviously have to go much further. Its objective — and ours — should be to draw a line as soon as possible under the last 25 years, while giving all the support we can to the families of the victims of violence.

We have to recognise openly and acknowledge that one of the difficulties we face is a difference between the political culture in Ireland, North and South, and in Britain, especially the England of the Home Counties. Most English politicians sent over to govern Ireland or part of it continue the same mistakes, year after year, century after century. They do not understand the sensitivities on which they tread.

Most of those who joined paramilitary organisations, however tragically mistaken they may have been in their methods and who have engaged in violence over the years, both loyalist and republican, did so in the main for patriotic motives when they were young and on behalf of their respective communities. The civil conflict of the past 25 years was not a sudden concentrated outbreak of criminality. Those who fought were acting in accordance with a long and honoured tradition in their respective tight-knit communities. One would have some considerable difficulty persuading most people in Ireland that members of the Parachute Regiment or the SAS occupy any higher moral plane.

At the first Brussels Summit in October 1993 and on other occasions the British and Irish Governments promised to act imaginatively when violence had stopped. I believe the Irish Government under Deputy Reynolds and Deputy Bruton fulfilled this pledge. Many people in the North are asking where is the evidence is of this imaginativeness in the response of the British Government in the North. Where indeed is the evidence of good faith?

The British Government has in ten months shown no sign of acting on any of the three major promises they made prior to the ceasefire. The first promise contained in the Downing Street Declaration and in subsequent clarifying statements that they made about it before 31 August 1994, was that if violence stopped for good, after a sufficient period to verify it was for real, parties like Sinn Féin would be admitted to participate fully in political dialogue. The second promise was that the British Government would in effect act as persuaders for an agreement, that they would in the words of the Declaration encourage, participate and enable agreement to be reached through a process of dialogue and co-operation. Since the Framework Document, they have done nothing to fulfil that pledge. The dialogue is not even under way. The third promise was that there would be an imaginative response but this has not been forthcoming.

On the central issues of talks, decommissioning and prisoners, all we have had so far is a vindictive attitude. Months have been wasted in the futile pursuit of a symbolic surrender. Loyalists and Republicans are a proud people. Their political leaders are not going to destroy themselves and their organisations to satisfy Sir Patrick Mayhew. If a modicum of goodwill was being generated, it might be possible to reach an understanding on the contentious issues and the timing of their resolution, which would make it easier for talks to proceed. Gerry Adams made some helpful points in his interview with The Irish Times. The British Prime Minister, Mr. John Major, showed an understanding at Cannes that inclusive talks must take place until he was effectively disowned by his Secretary of State the following morning.

If political progress is delayed in the short term, it is even more imperative that there be movement on the question of prisoners. Early release and 50 per cent remission only represent a start in terms of what needs to be done. The position of all long term prisoners needs to be reviewed. I am not calling for the immediate release of prisoners who have been recently convicted of horrendous multiple murders but the transfer of prisoners from Britain to the North and the Republic needs to be expedited. The petty and vindictive treatment of prisoners in British jails and their families and visitors and the placing of impediments in the way of elected representatives and lawyers must stop. Deputy Ó Cuív dealt with that matter in detail. Independent as well as official medical assessment should be provided. Political miscarriages of justice must be addressed.

I would like to refer to a number of cases on which representations have been made to me; these have been passed to the authorities here and in Britain. The Casement Three appear to have been arbitrarily convicted to make an example of them following the horrific lynching of two soldiers outside Milltown Cemetery in 1988. In the view of many the evidence against them is weak. Joe Doherty was extradited from the United States after a long legal struggle. He is now being made serve, in effect, a double sentence. This is vindictive and wrong.

The conviction earlier this year of Stephen Larkin, 24, on the basis of a hit and miss identification parade — he had no connection with the IRA and his alibi was ignored — appears to be a prima facie miscarriage of justice. I have given the relevant papers to the Northern Ireland spokesperson of the British Labour Party. There is also the case of Billy Gorman and Patrick McKinney, young men who were forced to make confessions about the shooting of a member of the RUC in the Castlereagh holding centre in 1980 and who were convicted on the basis of uncorroborated statements.

In any case where there are serious and legitimate doubts about a conviction there is a strong argument in current circumstances for the prisoners in question to be released. Some of the justice meted out in the past 25 years was deeply flawed, as was demonstrated conclusively in the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire family, not to mention the super-grass trials involving both Loyalists and Republicans in the North.

Among Unionists the conviction of Neil Latimer, one of the UDR Four, is a matter of serious contention. This case has been raised with me. I do not propose to enter into the rights and wrongs of the case nor to take any position on the claim of his supporters that there was a miscarriage of justice but, if Private Lee Clegg could be released despite a clear-cut and confirmed conviction, it is difficult to see the logic behind keeping Neil Latimer in jail provided that a similar approach is adopted towards other prisoners, Republican and Loyalist, where any genuine doubt or controversy has arisen.

The British Government has a moral and political obligation to show imagination, generosity and magnanimity on the question of prisoners. It should be looking for ways to empty the prisons by every possible route as soon as reasonably feasible, recognising that there may be some cases where this would not be immediately possible or desirable. Nothing would do more to consolidate the peace process. Such a gesture would help to secure the necessary stability for the foreseeable future. The two Governments could do worse than adopt the vision of the prophet Isaiah "to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound".

There is a much broader political agenda which must not be lost sight of — the opening up of inclusive dialogue on the Framework Document which contains the proposals of the two Governments and on any other alternative proposals which the parties may wish to table. No one should be allowed to veto that process through the setting of preconditions nor should the two Governments adopt as their own the preconditions set by any political party as the British Government has blatantly done in the case of the Ulster Unionist Party in relation to early unilateral decommissioning. If all parties have a genuine commitment to peace, they should be prepared to enter talks now without placing further obstacles in the way, accepting that arrangements for decommissioning must be part of any talks process and of any settlement. The two most pressing requirements are movement of prisoners and a commitment to talks based on what the British Prime Minister identified as the reality "that the political process will have to involve all the political parties".

We decided to focus this motion on all aspects of the question of prisoners. I deeply regret that the Government, instead of adopting the motion which was designed to win all-party support, has tabled a limp and vague general amendment which has taken the bite out of the motion and addresses almost none of the agenda relating to prisoners that needs to be acted upon, such as the transfer of prisoners. Many Nationalists and Republicans, as well as Loyalists, will be disappointed that the Government could not see its way to support our more vigourously worded motion. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and their parties should recognise that bipartisanship is a two-way process.

I support the motion which contains the following important lines: "calls on the British Government to play a positive role by addressing, without further delay, issues relating to prisoners, as a means of contributing to confidence in the peace process". It is necessary to do that at this time.

The ceasefire provided hope to families in the Border region who have members in prison. It would be regrettable if there were any unnecessary delays in releasing prisoners on a phased basis. The ceasefire has given the region a new lease of life during the past ten months.

The Furum for Peace and Reconciliation, of which I am a member, has heard submissions from Professor John Robb, the Committee for the Transfer of Irish Prisoners, Colm Crawford on behalf of Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland, the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas and the Committee for the Repatriation of Irish Prisoners; these submissions were the subject of lengthy debates. Each spokesperson made emotive appeals that consideration should be given to the question of prisoners. They also highlighted the need for prerelease programmes, family support services as well as employment, education and training programmes on the release of prisoners.

In the past few days I have spoken to a father who has two sons in jail. He feels strongly that one of them should not be in prison. This is a source of much trauma for the family. None of us expects the jails to be opened but the release of prisoners on a phased basis has much to offer in the continuation of the peace process. There is no doubt that there is a genuine commitment to peace on all sides of the political and religious divide. Everything possible that can be done in this regard should be pursued.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Dáil Éireann fully supports the efforts of successive Governments to consolidate the peace process at every level

— by seeking progress towards the overall goal of an agreed political settlement through comprehensive negotiations,

— by pursuing an even-handed and constructive handling of all aspects of prison issues, including earlier releases, bearing in mind the role which the loyalist and republican prisoners have played in the peace process, the reduced risk of reoffence and the positive effects of improvements in this area on the prisoners, their families and the political climate in their communities,

— by recognising the sensitivities of all victims of violence,

— by promoting sensitive response to security developments on the ground in Northern Ireland in view of the dramatically improved security situation and

— by maximising the economic and other benefits of peace through increased North-South co-operation

and calls on the British Government to continue to co-operate in the joint pursuit of these objectives building on the progress achieved in the Downing Street Declaration and the Joint Framework Document."

I welcome the fact that political uncertainty in Britain is over. As the House is aware, the British Prime Minister and I made considerable progress at our meeting in Cannes. We set out a detailed agenda of work that needs to be dealt with and I am glad his mind is now free by today's result to proceed to deal with that agenda.

I welcome the helpful and constructive tone of the speeches on this motion. I was particularly impressed by Deputy Ó Cuív's speech; he has obviously done much research into the position of prisoners in Britain. I invite him to brief me and my officials in person on some of the matters he was not able to put on the record because of the restrictions on time.

Representatives from the Irish Embassy in London have made regular visits to the prisons concerned. I understand there has been increased severity in visiting arrangements, as referred to by Deputy Ó Cuív. These are due to escapes from British prisons — there has been much political controversy about escapes from prisons in Britain and accountability is demanded of people involved in the management of prisons for these eventualities — that has led to the implementation of measures which cause many problems from a human point of view. All these issues have been raised by the Tánaiste, most recently at the Anglo-Irish Conference last week.

I was struck by the statistic — which, I think, is accurate — quoted by Deputy Ó Cuív of the cost to a family based in Ireland of bringing a number of members to visit a loved one in prison in Britain. The figure he gave of £1,000 seems a lot but, on reflection, it is probably not an exaggeration. The Government is of the view that we should revert to the 50 per cent rate of remission that applied up to 1988 rather than the 33 per cent rate being applied at present in Britain, and that will require legislation.

I was also struck by the comparison made by Deputy Ó Cuív between the position of Private Clegg who was released after four years for an offence and other people who committed similar offences at the age of 18 or 19 years for which they have served up to 20 years in prison. I believe very strongly that there should be equality before the law, all people should be treated equally — I am not sure if that is the case in regard to these examples — and that politics and politicians should stay out of decisions of a judicial character. I have been very strong in the House in resisting attempts, for example, to make the Director of Public Prosecutions politically accountable. If politicians should stay out of the process to avoid politicisation of it in prosecutions and cases of that kind, then there is a serious argument against a Secretary of State being in a position to make decisions in the political circumstances as was done in the case of Private Clegg. That is a form of politicisation of what should be a judicial process and is not desirable.

I do not agree with Deputy Ahern's contention that if he puts down a motion without consulting the Government he can expect all-party agreement on it. I have no doubt he intended to frame the motion in the most constructive fashion possible, and I am sure in his view he did so, but if he wanted all-party agreement, the way to proceed would have been to consult the other parties about the motion.

And vice versa.

However, he made no attempt to consult the Government parties about the matter. I am sure if we had gone through a process of consultation we could have reached agreement on the motion. Deputy Ahern decided to act on his own, as is his right, but he must accept the consequences. If we had a discussion about the framing of the motion I would have said I did not agree, in terms of the peace process, with singling out one item, even one as important as prisoners, and saying that we will concentrate on that item in the motion. Issues such as prisoners, decommissioning, policing, the courts system and progress on political talks feed into and off one another and if progress is made in one area it makes progress possible in others. One item cannot be dealt with in isolation because even if it is dealt with absolutely fairly, the fact that it was chosen rather than another issue which may be of concern to other communities creates the possibility of a potentially politically unbalanced choice being made. It should be remembered that in dealing with Northern Ireland we are dealing with a community that is profoundly divided on grounds of allegiance, and what is seen as beneficent to one community is seen as malignant to another. Therefore, one needs to be very careful in choosing one issue.

Another concern that must be borne in mind — and this has been highlighted by the family of Karen Reilly — is the perspective of victims. The perspective of victims of all offences must be taken into account. It is for those reasons I do not favour a motion that singles out one issue. The Government amendment puts the prisoners issue in context an does not deal with it exclusively fror any other issue.

I wish to refer to the peace process in general terms. Listening to some of the reactions from north of the Border in recent days where, for example, dire predictions have been made by one politician of a return to violence, the peace process was always going to be uncomfortable; an agreement, by definition, is going to be uncomfortable for everybody. Everybody, including the parties in this House, will have to make concessions that are uncomfortable if we are to have an agreement.

There is a tendency in political debate on Northern Ireland for people to hark back to the old certainties, just as people in the United States harked back to the old certainties of the Cold War and wished the world was simple, as it was in the 1980s before the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is a similar tendency in some cases in Northern Ireland for people to hark back to the old certainties of 25 years of violence when you did not have to think very much before you made a comment because you knew what you were against and what you were for.

The whole essence of the peace process is that people will have to change their approach to these matters. On the comments by Mr. Ken Magennis, to whom I already referred, predictions of violence are dangerous because they infer an acceptability that if something happens it will not be so surprising because it has been predicted. People should be very careful before making such predictions. There is no justification for them. The leaders of Sinn Féin, the republican movement, and the loyalists are committed to the peace path and no security information available to me suggests there is a foundation for the predictions of the kind made by Ken Magennis, a view have conveyed to him.

The most difficult and important step in the peace process was achieving the ceasefires. However, while extremely difficult, it was comparatively simple in the sense that it involved a focus on the republican movement and the loyalists and on what could be done by the Governments. There were three or four parties involved and, once they made the right moves at the right time, there was the hope that the peace process would be achieved. I am not taking away from the immense achievement involved, it was the most important step to stop the violence, but it had a certain degree of simplicity. We are moving into a phase where progress must be made on a much wider front and a larger range of issues which are more complex through not as important individually as the decision to declare a ceasefire.

I wish to comment briefly on the 14 issues — that list is far from exhaustive, I am sure other Members can add other items to it — upon which we need to make progress. In the early stages of the peace process in getting the republicans and the loyalists to stop violence, basically four parties had to move forward, the two Governments and the two sets of paramilitaries. Now we must get simultaneous movement by eight to ten parties, not only the two Governments and the paramilitaries, but also five or six constitutional political parties which have a legitimate and an essential role in any overall agreement. We are trying to move not only four, but eight to ten players, in the same direction at the same time on up to 14 issues.

The first issue, the one which has been mentioned most frequently, but is far from being necessarily the most important one, is that of the decommissioning of arms. We must recognise not only the perspective of the republican movement, that its members were not asked to agree to decommissioning in explicit terms at the time of the Downing Street Declaration, but we must understand also the feelings of the Unionist community and its parties. If we are to get them to sit down with Sinn Féin we must achieve progress on decommissioning. The Unionists are going to feel a certain reserve about sitting down with Sinn Féin as long as the latter is connected with the IRA which still has arms. The Unionists will feel that without Unionists there is not parity at the negotiating table. That is a reality, regardless of the views of the British Government. Even if the British Government changed its views on decommissioning in the morning, that does not guarantee that the Unionists will change their view. In a sense the Unionists are able to hide behind the British Government on this issue as long as it holds its present line, but it is wrong to assume the converse, that if the British Government changed its view, the Unionists would change theirs. That does not necessarily follow. That is a difficult issue.

The next issue is what should be done about legal weapons. There are many licensed weapons in Northern Ireland, mostly in the majority community which are available for use. The justification for issuing many of them was self-protection at a time of violence, but that justification does not exist any longer. If paramilitary arms are to be decommissioned, legitimate questions will be asked about calling in some legally issued weapons.

The third issue is that of policing. This issue feeds in directly to the issue of punishment beatings. There is a sense in some communities that the RUC is not fully accepted and that is offered, as what I would regard, as a spurious justification for punishment beatings. One may not agree with that — I certainly do not — but that is the explanation advanced. It must be recognised that it is not easy to solve the policing issue. The question arises even as to what to call the constabulary. If, for example, we were to cease to call it the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the dropping of the word "Royal" would have all sorts of negative implications for Unionist opinion. Conversely, if we continue to call it the Royal Ulster Constabulary, that would have all sorts of negative implications for the Nationalist community. Perhaps, it is possible to find a new name for it. The argument has also been advanced that we should localise the police service, but the political map of Northern Ireland reveals that Northern Ireland is not made up of neat parcels that could be locally and separately policed. There are pockets of Nationalists among the Unionist community and vice versa. A large number of police services would be required to specifically police the religious map of Northern Ireland. The idea of localising the police service thus is not necessarily easy, but progress must be made on this general issue. There must be a coming together on the police issue if we are to make progress on all the other issues. The policing issue feeds into the decommissioning issue and into the legal arms and other issues.

The fourth issue, the focus of this motion, is the important issue of prisoner releases. I strongly agree that there should be a higher rate of remission as there is less likelihood of re-offence as a result of the existence of peace. That is an objective fact and justifies earlier release on objective grounds. There can be no argument about that. Why is it not happening? One of the reasons it is not happening is that there is a fear that, as it involves introducing legislation in Westminster, difficulties may arise in getting agreement on it. All we can do in this House is use our influence in Westminster, as I have done by talking getting agreement on it. All we can do in this House is use our influence in Westminsters, as I have done by talking to members of the Government and Opposition, to urge them to agree to the idea of a 50 per cent remission in prison sentences.

The fifth issue is that of the courts and justice system. Emergency powers legislation, which is quite severe, is still in place in Britain. We have got rid of our state of emergency. The courts system is open to some question, an area where a good deal of progress could be made and many changes are needed. If we could make progress on one of those issues, that could help solve other problems as it would create a climate of confidence.

The sixth issue is that of parity of esteem, the issue of flags and emblems. Any time Nationalists visit an RUC station they see a Union Jack flying and emblems that represent a majority but not a minority view in Northern Ireland. It could be suggested that they should be taken down and not have any emblems but it must be recognised that emblems are part of people's lives. Unionists consider they are part of the United Kingdom and that their flag should fly, but would they accept the flying of the Union Jack and the Tri-colour? How can we resolve the problems of emblems? We must find a solution if there is to be parity of esteem because symbols matter. In some senses they matter more than practical realities because symbols touch people's emotions. The symbolism of partity, of esteem is extremely important.

Deputy Ó Cuív correctly mentioned the issue of the Irish language and some progress has been made in that regard. The first issue I raised with the British Prime Minister when I met him last December was the position of mean scoil Báil Feiriste. More progress needs to be made on the recognition of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. It would do a great deal to advance the process, but one must recognise that as of now most of the majority community in Northern Ireland do not identify with the Irish language in the same way as the minority community. That may change.

A major historical review is taking place among the Unionist community. Many of them are rethinking who they are, their sense of being Irish, but also British. That is the seventh issue, the need to change our thinking on this side of the Border. We have worked on an assumption that there was only one type of Irish person, an Irish person who owed allegiance to a united Ireland and that was the only way of being fully Irish. We are beginning to change that view. The late Gordon Wilson, who was justly praised on all sides of the House, said only last week that he was proud to be British and Irish.

We are beginning to recognise that there are many people living on both sides of the Border who are proud to be Irish, but who are also happy that they have a little bit of British heritage and do not want to reject it or bury it completely. They want to be comfortable with it while also being comfortable with their Irishness. That type of mental and psychological change is needed here. We need to come to terms with the complexity of our history. It was not always simply a monochrome colour green and we need to change our view about that. That mental change is almost or perhaps more important than changes in words in the Constitution. What is in the Constitution is one thing, but what people think in their hearts and minds and how they behave vis-ávis Unionists or people of a different allegiance is perhaps more important than the words in the Constitution. That is not to diminish the need for constitutional change which I accept.

The eighth issue that needs to be looked at is the question of consent. Arguments that are somewhat theological and semantic have been put forward about whether Sinn Féin has fully accepted that concept of consent. I believe it has because its members have said they are looking for agreement and agreement must be given by consent. That argument has been clouded somewhat by the suggestion that the British should also be persuaders for agreement. The term "persuade" is ambigious. Does it involve more than soft words? Would there be an element of pressure involved? How much pressure is legitimate? What degree of pressure makes the consent unwilling as distinct from willing? Clearly, if there is to be agreement, there must be willing consent but, on the other hand, people need some incentive to move forward. Perhaps that is a somewhat theological semantic argument which, at the end of the day, may not be very important if we can reach agreement on other issues. However, it will be probed a great deal.

The ninth issue on which there must be movement relates to cross-Border institutions, and all-Ireland institutions. Unionists must recognise that if we and Nationalists accept that Northern Ireland is to remain within the United Kingdom, there must be a substantial all-Ireland dimension. Unionists have tended to want one and not the other, but if there is not an all-Ireland dimension Nationalists will not get the reassurance and security for which Unionists are craving. Both communities must get reassurance and security if there is to be peace and stability. Progress also needs to be made on that issue.

The tenth issue, one on which Irish Governments by a self-denying ordinance have not debated, relates to the internal governance of Northern Ireland. What are the appropriate powers of the Assembly? What powers should it have relative to all-Ireland institutions or Westminster? What powers should the panel have relative to the Assembly? Will the panel consist of a small, closed group making all the important decisions with the Assembly being basically a rubber stamp or should the Assembly be the focus of power? What implications will that have for the balance between the two communities? What will be the relationship with the existing local government system in Northern Ireland? Will it have to cede power to the Assembly? While we accept that there cannot be an internal settlement alone, we agree that government at the level of a sovereign state — Westminster or Dublin — would not be sufficient and would not engage the attention of people in Northern Ireland adequately. One has only to note the low poll in North Down to recognise that people in Northern Ireland are not fully engaged by what happens in Westminster. If they are to become engaged, power must be exercised closer to them. If they do not become engaged the talented people needed to solve the problem will not become involved in political issues.

The eleventh issue is who will negotiate? Obviously it will be the Governments and the parties, but how does one test the mandate of the parties? How will new parties come into the process? In what forum should negotiation take place? Should there be bilateral discussions between Governments and individual parties or must round table discussions take place at some stage? There should be round table discussions, but at what stage?

The next issue relates in particular to Unionists who fear proposals for new constitutional arrangements. They consider any new arrangements proposed as a stepping stone on a road to a united Ireland and nothing more than a stratagem to bring them a little further along that road. They believe that if they agree to some new arrangement they fear Nationalists will make further demands later, and if they agree to them then even further demands will be made. Unionists believe they are being asked to go down a road with an uncertain destination or one they do not like. How can we reassure them? Can we tell them that if they agree to, say, something along the lines of the proposals in the framework document, that that will be all they will be asked to agree for a certain period of time or until certain demanding conditions are met? Can we offer them a degree of permanence? People will not make a final concession unless they know that when the deal is struck further demands will not be made of them. Unionists have I believe tended to hold back because they are not certain that what is on offer is a permanent settlement.

I have outlined 13 or 14 areas in which a great deal of work must be done. The British and Irish Governments are engaged in a process of serious discussions on all those issues and have set out in great detail our understanding of many of them in the framework document but there is, of course, room for change in that document. However, it is tragic that the parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the Unionists, are not engaged in dialogue on those issues either with their neighbours or with the two Governments. Unless they become involved in such dialogue, it will be difficult to move forward. It is not simply a matter of doing what is necessary to keep Sinn Féin and the loyalists on board. The Unionist community, the Alliance Party, the SDLP and so on must also become fully engaged. Unless they engage in dialogue it will be impossible to offer the political agreement necessary to underpin the peace process and prevent the recurrence of violence. The concept behind Sinn Féin giving up violence was that Sinn Féin believes agreement can be reached through political methods. However, unless the talks involve everybody, including the Unionists, there cannot be such an agreement and if agreement is not reached then the basis on which the political talks on the peace process commenced will be difficult to achieve. We must recognise the great complexity of the issue.

The matter cannot be addressed solely by referring to the prisoners' issue. That is one of a large number of issues. If we can make progress on any of the other issues to which I referred, progress on the prisoners' issue will be easier. If progress is made on the prisoners' issue, progress on other issues will become easier. We need a process in which everybody can put their cards on the table, a process of comprehensive dialogue and to talk to each other in an open manner. That is not happening in Northern Ireland at present. The Governments are talking to each other but the parties are not talking to each other. Of course, the road block of decommissioning must be overcome to get Sinn Féin engaged in the process, but that is not an excuse for other parties not being involved in dialogue on those issues. The aim of the Government is to have all-inclusive dialogue working towards an agreement, involving Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Official Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the loyalist parties, all of whom must be involved, commensurate to their electoral mandate, in comprehensive talks on the range of issues I outlined. This is a complex process and will not be concluded, or even begun, overnight. There will be discouragements, disappointments and moments when people will fear that the peace process is in danger of derailment, but I do not believe that will happen. People are now convinced that the way of violence has been tried for 25 years and failed and that the only way forward is through peaceful means. I will share the remainder of my time with Deputy Boylan.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I compliment the Taoiseach on his broad review of the peace process and support the sentiments he expressed.

I know of a person who has served 20 years of a life sentence. If there had not been troubles in Northern Ireland this family would not have been involved in that way of life. At the young age of 18 people were caught up in a situation in which, under similar circumstances, any of us could have been caught up. Yet they find themselves in prison serving life sentences. I contend that, having served 20 years of a life sentence, they have paid their debt to society and are entitled to be released. I fully endorse what Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív said, that the costs incurred by families visiting their relatives in prison render it almost impossible for them to visit them regularly. Therefore, the first move should be their transfer to prisons here with a view to their early release.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Gallagher (Donegal South-West), Matt Brennan and Síle de Valera.

I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed.

We have just heard the Taoiseach outline the complex nature of the range of issues involved in the peace process. One must agree with his analysis but what this motion seeks to do is home in on what can be done in the immediate future, by way of a confidence-building measure, towards resolving the range of issues of which he spoke.

As a member of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, having listened to the many representations made there over the past few months, it was clear from the submissions of loyalist, republican and church groups there is one issue which commands support across the board, a confidence-building issue, on which immediate action can be taken if the political bona fides and goodwill exist.

We are talking about a peace process we must translate into a political process and we must apply political logic. That also means that the release of Private Lee Clegg should not be portrayed as some quasi-judicial decision that is a political decision. When there is a political decision of that kind, there should be political decisions taken across the board. The one issue on which there is agreement across the board — from which both communities in Northern Ireland will benefit — is the release of republican and loyalist prisoners, after a careful examination of each individual case. This is suggested in our motion, one component of which calls on the British Government to investigate and order judicial review as a matter of urgency of all cases where a prima facie miscarriage of justice may have occurred.

That is for a start. Then we must make the dramatic gesture of confidence-building incorporated in another of the recommendations which calls on the British to legislate, as a first step, to restore 50 per cent remission to prisoners in the North to come into effect before Christmas. That should apply to both loyalist and republican prisoners.

It was also quite clear from the many submissions to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation that it was from the prisoners, both loyalist and republican, that the main thrust for the peace process emerged in the first instance. They were the leaders, the pace setters in inducing their colleagues, outside the prisons, to become involved in the peace process and endeavour to make progress in that way.

We have had ten months of peace and, as the Taoiseach said, that is a tremendous achievement, but we must remember that that achievement will be annulled, and worse, unless that peace process is translated into a political process. Unless political progress is made within this period of peace the whole purpose of the peace process itself will become meaningless. We must remember we are talking about establishing a permanent framework of justice in Northern Ireland, within its internal relations, its relations with the Republic and those between the Republic and Great Britain. That is what we are talking about in the overall settlement.

We must begin to take steps to contribute to the building of trust so that that eventual settlement can become a reality. It cannot become a reality unless we start building the bricks of trust. One resolves conflicts only when one recognises that a conflict or conflicts exist and must be resolved. One resolves conflicts through paying great political attention to areas of agreement between the various parties to the conflict.

Here is an area of agreement, on which there is no doubt both loyalists and republicans agree. This should be the major gesture we make to rendering peace permanent and establishing a political settlement, something dramatic in the form of release of prisoners. I mentioned that those prisoners were primarily responsible for the initiation of the peace process in the first instance.

I will mention another good reason, which was the tenor of a number of submissions to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. In every sense of the word these are political prisoners. The application of criminal prisoner criteria to them during the period of peace is nothing short of political madness because these people are in prison for political offences. Over the years their high degree of leadership, on release, has been well proven within the Northern community. There is no doubt that these are the people who can give leadership to their communities at grassroots level. On their release, they can provide the required leadership because they are the highly regarded political heroes of their respective communities. They are not people who will engage in crime, in drug-pushing or anything of the like, on release. Rather they are the people to provide the requisite leadership of their respective communities which can translate the peace process into a political one. By releasing them, not alone would one be doing something right and proper but also something that would be politically constructive for the future development of a political process within Northern Ireland. They are prisoners who should be released and who are not criminal prisoners in any shape or form. They are acknowledged political prisoners who command the loyalty of and can provide leadership within their respective local communities.

On that analysis I rest my case and advocate concentrating on that single issue in accordance with the tenor of our motion. I do not agree with the Taoiseach that we need to range over the whole field in this debate. The purpose of our motion is to focus attention on something that can be done now to restore political confidence, to build a real political process, moving on to the eventual political settlement which will involve the whole range of complex issues the Taoiseach mentioned.

(Donegal South-West): Cuirim fáilte roimh an rún seo agus tréaslaím le mo chomhlachtaí Fhianna Fáil a thug deis dúinn an cheist thabhachtach seo a phlé.

The release of those in prison, resulting from the Northern Ireland troubles, wherever they may be, is an integral part of the peace process. We should look back to the initiative taken by our Government prior to Christmas last in the welcome release of a number of prisoners, followed through in Germany a few days ago when they, too, played an important role in the peace process.

Our recommendation to restore 50 per cent remission to such prisoners is a very sensible, practical one which could be implemented very quickly if the political will existed. The British authorities should take immediate legislative action and release such prisoners. This would signal the earnestness of the British Government in their efforts to ensure that we have a lasting peace on this island.

I had a number of opportunities to visit British prisons in the past, which I hope gave me some little insight into the system there. For example, it was not unusual for families to leave remote parts of this country to visit their relatives in British prisons only to discover, on arrival, those prisoners had been transferred to prisons, sometimes as far away as the Isle of Wight. Their families could have been so informed in advance. They were told that these transfers had been made for security reasons whereas it was really to inconvenience their families. That practice continues and should be terminated by the British authorities.

The release of prisoners is a key issue and must be handled very sensitively. There should be no room for the double standards we have observed this week. Equal treatment should be the guiding principle in dealing with the release of all such prisoners. The British Government should address this issue in a clear and open manner. It should do so urgently and arrive at a speedy resolution, because the longer it is left unresolved the more of an impediment it will be to the peace process.

The decision to release Private Clegg, who was responsible for the murder of Karen Reilly and who has spent only a few years in prison, was insensitive. There was not any regard for the family of Karen Reilly or the consequences of the decision on the peace process. It is absurd to suggest that the events in Northern Ireland yesterday were orchestrated. They were a spontaneous response by many people in the North who were aghast at the decision. The crowing of the tabloids should not deafen the British Government to the error of judgment it committed in releasing Private Clegg. This unilateral decision, in the midst of the Conservative leadership crisis, was insensitive and unhelpful to the peace process.

Equal treatment must be given priority when dealing with the release of prisoners. If the peace process is to be a success, it is vitally important that the British Government makes a decision on the release of prisoners as quickly as possible.

I welcome the Tánaiste's response to the Fianna Fáil motion in writing to all of us today. Fianna Fáil must be given full credit for putting down this sensible motion but it is unfortunate that the Government could not agree to accept it.

Like all Members, I was delighted with the announcement of the ceasefires almost one year ago after 25 years of violence in Northern Ireland. The release of Lee Clegg was a black day for the peace process. It is imperative that all political prisoners, particularly those serving long sentences in the United Kingdom, be transferred to prisons in Northern Ireland, if not released, making it easier for their families and friends to visit them.

Some people have served more than 20 years in British prisons and it is time for them to be released or, at the very least, transferred to prisons in Northern Ireland. This Government must not allow anything to happen that will jeopardise the peace process which has greatly benefited Border counties and promoted the cause of peace. The success of the peace process will also result in a great boost for our tourism industry.

I call on the Government to put pressure on the British Government to release all political prisoners, republican or loyalist, from British prisons. I ask the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to ensure that all political prisoners serving sentences in the UK are either released or transferred to prisons in Northern Ireland.

All of us have listened to radio and television reports today or read newspaper articles on the violence on Northern Ireland yesterday. Throughout today, the British establishment has attempted to place the blame for the riotous behaviour throughout the North last night on various organisations and individuals. That riotous behaviour — and once again we have seen the use of plastic bullets in the North — is not the fault of any one party or element in the North but due solely to the action the British Government has taken in releasing paratrooper Lee Clegg. The British Government has a duty to acknowledge that its decision has been responsible for the sad developments witnessed in the North last night.

We have had ten months of peace since the two ceasefires were declared. Last night was the first occasion on which violence erupted on the streets of Northern Ireland and responsibility for it can be laid at the door of the British Government. It is disingenuous of the British Government to claim that these riots were orchestrated; I would go so far as to say that it is simply untrue. Groups within Ireland, North and South, and indeed our Government, warned the British Government that if Private Clegg were released, it would cause major problems in the North. Anyone familiar with the sensitivities of Nationalists and republicans in regard to the question of prisoners will understand the frustration and bewilderment at the British Government's decision to release Private Clegg.

The British Government's attempt to lay the blame for last night's events on others is simply an attempt at diversionary tactics, which cannot be accepted by anyone. It is incorrect for the members of the British Government, or indeed the British establishment, to claim, through its media or otherwise, that the decision to release Private Clegg was a judicial and not a political one. Paratrooper Clegg was convicted under the British system and judgments were made on two occasions by British courts.

I hope I will be excused for cynically suggesting that the decision to release Private Clegg, which was taken during a leadership crisis in the Tory party, came about because of British domestic politics. That decision cannot be claimed to be anything other than highly political. The resignation of Ms Gadd, which I believe was a principled action as she regarded the decision to release Clegg as "a major deviation from normal procedures", is another demonstration of the fact that the decision was political.

Prisoners must be treated fairly and equally. I ask the House to contrast the Clegg case with the cases of two County Clare prisoners serving sentences in British prisons. Mr. Joe O'Connell, from Querrin, in Kilkee and Mr. Harry Duggan from Feakle, have both served 20 years in prison in the UK. Their relatives and friends have endured great hardship and incurred much expense in visiting them. Members of families visiting their relatives in British prisons are often subjected to hostile and degrading treatment. Prisoners are also moved without the knowledge of their families. The British Government must recognise that this action causes tremendous problems and it must, in the broader political sphere, be prepared to move forward on this issue and do so willingly.

Must Ireland suffer from the interparty wrangling within the British establishment? Are we once again to be the pawn in a power play among the political parties across the Irish Sea? Now that the British Government has decided on the leadership of the Tory party, I hope it takes the necessary steps to ensure that it does not squander the delicate and sensitive opportunity for political resolution which will lead to a lasting peace. Mutual confidence is needed to move forward and I believe that the action taken in the Clegg case has broken that trust. The British Government now needs to rebuild that trust. This will not be done by finding excuses to stall real discussion and debate. Inclusive talks must commence immediately.

Debate adjourned.