I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank Deputies for agreeing to take this measure today. This is a practical indication of the willingness of every Member to play his or her part in supporting the British-Irish Agreement. As the House will be aware, there were briefings of party leaders about this matter. As part of that process the leader of the Labour Party very helpfully let the Taoiseach have a copy of a draft Bill dealing with this matter. I appreciate that and, while the Bill before the House goes beyond the approach in the Labour Party draft, the Bill which I have introduced reflects the central approach proposed in that draft.
The Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Bill represents just one element of my Department's continuing involvement with the peace process and I will deal briefly with some of the other elements later. There can be no doubt one of the most contentious aspects of the British-Irish Agreement has been the part of it which deals with the accelerated release of prisoners. It is easy to understand why this should be so. On one level many people find it difficult to reconcile the early release of prisoners with their basic concept of justice. They remember truly terrible events which have taken place and instinctively react against the idea that some of the people involved in those events should be released from prison early.
The issue of prisoners was one of the most difficult issues which all the participants to the negotiations had to address. We were faced with a situation where the Agreement would not have provided the basis for a fresh settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict and a fresh start unless the issue of prisoners was addressed in the manner in which it is.
I know from my contacts, particularly with the relatives of members of the Garda Síochána who were killed in the course of duty, the difficulties which many of them have with what is being proposed. Sadly, there is nothing any of us can say which could be expected to ameliorate the sense of hurt and loss of the families involved. The reality, however, is that a very difficult judgment had to be made about what set of circumstances would bring about the best chance of ensuring peace would prevail on this island; that might prevent future needless death and destruction and that could mean those families grieving at present would not inevitably be replaced by generations of newly bereaved. In short, we were trying to ensure that in future people of the island would not be imprisoned by history in a hopeless cycle of violence.
For all the understandable concerns many people have about the prisoner issue, the position now is that the Agreement has been accepted by the vast majority of the people of the island and it falls on all of us to give full effect to all its terms. The Bill before the House today is part of that process.
I am sure all Members will agree it is vital that we do not overlook the concerns of victims of such violence. It was precisely in that context that the first initiative I was able to take on foot of the Agreement was directed to the concerns of victims of such violence. That involved obtaining Government approval for the appointment of former Tánaiste, John Wilson, to conduct a review of the services and arrangements in place to meet the needs of those in this jurisdiction who had suffered as a result of violent action associated with the conflict in Northern Ireland. I am very grateful, as I am sure we all are, to the former Tánaiste for agreeing to undertake this task. Those of us who have the honour of knowing him on a personal level will be well aware of the special characteristics which he will bring to this difficult task.
His terms of reference have been finalised and it is particularly appropriate in the context of the present debate to inform the House of them. First, to conduct a review of services and arrangements in place, in this jurisdiction, to meet the needs of those who have suffered as a result of violent action associated with the conflict in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years and to identify what further measures need to be taken to acknowledge and address the suffering and concerns of those in question. This includes, in particular, consideration of the following: the provisions of the British-Irish Agreement in regard to victims; the needs and concerns of persons who sustained serious injury and members of the immediate families of those who have died or sustained serious injuries in the service of the State as a consequence of violent acts ensuing from the conflict; the needs and concerns of victims and the families of victims of major outrages including those of the Dublin, Monaghan and Dundalk bombings. Second, to advise on how the support given to victims by their families in helping them to cope with the immediate aftermath and continuing consequences of violence can be acknowledged and sustained. It is important that the message goes out from the House today that we are fully aware of the plight of victims and will continue to address their concerns as best we can.
The central requirement of the part of the Agreement dealing with prisoner issues is for both Governments to put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of certain categories of prisoners. The Governments also indicated, in paragraph 4 of the relevant part of the Agreement, that they would seek to enact the appropriate legislation to give effect to these arrangements by the end of June 1998. At the time of the negotiations it was already clear that legislation would be required in Northern Ireland and it also appeared possible that legislation might be required in this jurisdiction to deal with certain categories of prisoners who might be affected by the proposed arrangements.
This commitment has been addressed by the introduction in Westminster of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill. In addition, as part of the normal legislative process, a detailed examination has been carried out by my Department in conjunction with the Attorney General's office with a view to analysing and, if necessary, preparing any further legislative measures which might be necessary in this jurisdiction to give effect to the commitments contained in the Agreement in relation to prisoners.
That examination concluded that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has already appropriate and sufficient legislative powers — in particular, the Offences against the State Act, 1939, and the Criminal Justice Act, 1960 — available to him to allow full effect to be given to the commitments contained in the Agreement relating to the release of prisoners without the need for specific additional legislation to be introduced.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the primary legislation necessary to give effect to the British-lrish Agreement was passed by the Oireachtas in the form of the Bill to make the necessary constitutional changes which was subsequently passed by the people in the referendum. That measure will allow the State to consent to be bound by that Agreement in which, in turn, the Government reaffirms its commitment, inter alia, to implement the provisions of the Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations. This will, therefore, give a particular legal status to the terms of that Agreement including, of course, those relating to prisoners, although there will be a lapse of time before the State will be in a position to indicate its consent to be bound by the Agreement.
While specific legislation is not necessary to allow effect to be given to the releases envisaged in the Agreement a broader political issue is at stake. There is agreement on all sides of the House that we should do nothing which might be open to the perception that we are not complying fully with all the terms of the Agreement and in those circumstances there will be general support for the Bill.
Before turning to the detail of the Bill it is worth reminding ourselves of the main features of the relevant part of the British-Irish Agreement. It provides that both Governments will 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. Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements. Both Governments will complete a review process within a fixed timeframe and set prospective release dates of qualifying prisoners while allowing account to be taken of the seriousness of the offences for which the person was convicted and the need to protect the community. In addition, the intention is that should the circumstances allow it, any qualifying prisoners who remained in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme will be released at that point.
Members will be aware that the British Government has introduced legislation to give effect in its jurisdiction to this part of the Agreement. Any comparison between the approach in that Bill and the measure before the House should take into account the fact that we are operating in different legal environments which make it inevitable that different approaches have to be taken. In particular, the Bill does not contain any new powers of release in regard to prisoners.
The intention is that prisoners released under the Agreement in this jurisdiction will be released under existing legislative provisions. These are the same provisions that successive Governments have used in releasing prisoners in the context of trying to bring about a settlement. We do not in our law have a system of "on licence" release but we have an equivalent power to impose conditions on releases. That has been done in terms of the release of the relevant category of prisoner in recent years and that is what will be done when releases fall to be authorised under the Agreement. The central condition of such releases is that the person concerned will keep the peace; the person will not become involved in any criminal activity while on release.
There has been public comment to the effect that the criteria in the Bill relating to the releases are not specific enough; I reject that. There is no more straightforward and appropriate approach that could be taken to this matter than to provide, as the Bill does, that such releases will be considered by reference to the relevant part of the Agreement. That in turn sets out the criteria to be taken into account.
I will now deal briefly with the detail of the Bill. In essence the Bill will establish a commission to advise the Minister, by reference to that part of the Agreement, in regard to the exercise of those powers in the cases of prisoners whom he deems to be "qualifying prisoners" for the purpose of the Agreement. Section 1 is a standard provision providing for certain necessary definitions. Section 2 provides that on a day to be appointed by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, a body will be established to be known as An Coimisiún um Scaoileadh Saor Príosúnach, Release of Prisoners Commission. The commission will be independent in the performance of its function.
Section 3 sets out the function of the commission. Under subsection (1) its function will be to advise the Minister, when so requested by him or her, regarding the exercise of any power of release, as defined in section (1), in regard to those whom the Minister specifies as qualifying prisoners for the purposes of the terms of that part of the Agreement reached in the multi-party talks which relates to prisoners. Subsection (2) provides that the Minister will request the commission to give advice on the exercise, by reference to the relevant provisions of the Agreement, of any power of release in relation to such prisoners. The subsection further provides that the commission will comply with such a request. Subsection (3) states that the reference to "relevant provisions" is a reference to the provisions of the Agreement reached in the multi-party talks under the heading "Prisoners". These are set out in the Schedule to the Bill.
Section 4 provides that the Minister or the Government in considering whether to exercise, by reference to the relevant provisions of the Agreement, any power of release in regard to a qualifying prisoner will have regard to the relevant provisions of the Agreement and the commission's advice. This section particularly reflects the approach taken in the draft Labour Party Bill to which I referred earlier. The membership and procedure of the commission are set out in section 5. Subsection (1) provides that the commission will consist of a chairman and two ordinary members appointed by the Minister. The person appointed to be chairman will be a solicitor or barrister who has practised for at least seven years prior to appointment. The other members of the commission will be a member of the probation and welfare service and an officer of the Minister other than a member of the probation and welfare service.
Provision is made in subsection (4) for the appointment by the Minister of a person to act as chairperson of the commission in certain circumstances. Such circumstances could arise where a case falling to be considered by the commission is one in which the original chairperson considers that he or she should not be involved because of any professional advice which he or she had given previously in his or her professional capacity. A person appointed in such cases must also fulfil the criteria for eligibility as chairperson. The section also provides that members will hold and vacate office on terms and conditions determined by the Minister, provides for the filling of casual vacancies, removal or resignation of members and payments to members. Subsection (11) states that the commission will regulate its own procedure and business.
Section 6(1) requires the commission to make a report in writing to the Minister of its activities since its establishment. The report is to be made not later than two years after its establishment. A copy of the report will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas by the Minister. Under subsection (3) there is provision for the Minister to make an order at any time after the expiry of two years from its establishment for the dissolution of the commission where he or she is of the opinion that it is no longer necessary that it should remain in existence.
Sections 7 and 8 are standard provisions providing for the payment of expenses arising under the Act and the Short Title. The Schedule reproduces that part of the Agreement reached in the multi-party talks which deals with the issue of prisoners.
I commend the Bill to the House.