Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Bill, 1998: Second Stage.

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.

It is regrettable more time was not made available to allow Deputies participate in the debate and examine the legislation in the manner required. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the Government and the Minister for agreeing to amend the Order of Business to allow for a greater level of discussion.

The Fine Gael Party supports the Bill which is in accordance with the British-Irish Agreement.

It has been expressly provided for in the Agreement. It is extraordinary the Government felt there was no need to enact any legislation, having committed itself to such a course of action at an earlier date. The Bill is in accordance with the Agreement. Fine Gael will table a number of amendments dealing with matters of some importance — the manner in which the programme of release will be accelerated.

I acknowledge the contribution of prisoners to the ceasefire and to the advances made towards the peace process in recent years, particularly in the build up to August l994. The contribution of prisoners was of great significance and should be acknowledged. Similarly, in mid l997 their role was important in the context of a renewed ceasefire. I express satisfaction at the repatriation of prisoners and appreciate the efforts of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Government in processing the transfer arrangements which have allowed for some 22 republican prisoners to be repatriated to date. The release of paramilitary prisoners is a confidence building measure, integral and fundamental to any peace process and fundamental to the building of a lasting settlement. Obviously the greater concern on the prisoner issue is centred in Northern Ireland where there are more than 700 paramilitary prisoners: there are 47 here and 13 or 14 in Britain. The peace process must be all inclusive and failure to include prisoners as part of the resolution of the conflict would lead to further violence.

I agree with much of what the Minister said in his Second Stage speech. It is important the prisoner issue is not looked at in isolation but as a fundamental component of what is an interesting, exciting and historic Agreement. It should be noted that hundreds of ex-prisoners have already been released, having served time and in the main their contribution has been positive. They have been accepted in their respective communities as ex-prisoners. I acknowledge they have a significant role to play in rebuilding what is a torn society.

The release of prisoners will undoubtedly upset many people, none more so than the victims of violent acts perpetrated against them and their relatives by those about to be released under the accelerated process. It is a high price but if construed as an integral part of the peace process it is a price worth paying. The acts of terrorism committed by some of these prisoners are shocking, striking as they did at the heart of the democratic process and undertaken by those who had absolutely no regard for the rule of law or order. However, the Agreement on 10 April presents a real opportunity for peace. Therefore the price of prisoner release is one worth paying, albeit high and fraught with difficulties.

I acknowledge the contribution of prison welfare groups, particularly NIACRO — Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. They have performed an important role in the reintegration and resettlement of ex-prisoners. I acknowledge the contribution on this side of the Border of the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation and its seeds of hope programme and the feasibility study which facilitates the establishment of self help, social inclusion and possibilities by and for pre and post release prisoners, who have been involved in terrorist activities. Each of these projects to date, be it in areas of creative writing, drama and music or craftwork and arts, is designed to become self sustaining and will be financed separately. They have been enthusiastically received not only by the prisoners and their families but also by the communities.

Many prisoners, particularly those who have served long periods realise their only future path is to reconstruct their lives and those of their families and work towards an effective re-entry into society. While there is little data on reoffending among paramilitary or politically motivated prisoners, the indications are that there is a reoffending rate of about 2 per cent. The seeds of hope project and similar endeavours are essential if this reintegration process is to be complete and worthwhile.

Prison can have varying effects on people, some positive and some negative. On the positive side there is the opportunity for second and third level educational attainment, an opportunity to renounce violent activities and a strong sense of personal and corporate discipline. On the negative side there will be the fear of re-entry to the family and society structures, low job satisfaction, peer group association having been severed and rejected, low self esteem and low career expectation. It is important, therefore, that appropriate rehabilitation projects would address these problems and they are, therefore, essential.

The Bill is weak and clarification is required on a number of issues. Victims and relatives should be informed if and when offenders are about to be released with full particulars regarding their release and the reasons. This is a matter we will consider in greater detail on Committee Stage. How transparent will the release programme be? What factors will be considered by the Minister in determining a release? What factors will be employed by the commission in advising the Minister?

The Bill is strangely silent on the role and function of the commission, other than to advise, without any real or adequate power. If a release constitutes a threat to the community, will that be taken into consideration? Is it reasonable to grant some form of release in view of the nature or seriousness of the offence? Will the behaviour of the offender while in prison be taken into consideration? Are there any grounds to merit special consideration in the absence of such criteria or is the Government merely unlocking doors and opening the gates in an unconditional manner? Will a calendar of release dates be set in advance in respect of qualifying prisoners, taking into account the seriousness of the offence and the need to protect the community? Will there be a fixed timeframe within the two year period? To whom shall the legislation apply? There is no adequate definition of a "qualifying prisoner". What is it or who might it be? Our legislation does not contain a categorisation of political or paramilitary prisoner, although these terms have been and are widely used. The Minister should have been more specific in defining who may and may not qualify. He said that prisoners affiliated to groups which continue to engage in or return to violence will not be given early release, and this has been included in the Schedule to the Bill, which quotes from the section of the Agreement dealing with prisoners.

I thought prisoners would be released on licence but the Minister has a difficulty with that. Perhaps he will explain to the House in some detail the conditions he proposes to attach to any release. A recall procedure will be put in place in the event of a released prisoner engaging in terrorist activity. Will that procedure be without warrant or court hearing, or will there be an avenue of appeal? What is the precise nature of the due process in the event of a difficulty? Perhaps we will have more time to explore these matters on Committee Stage.

I am disappointed at the lack of safeguards in the legislation. Will the Minister have the power to suspend the operation of the scheme in its entirety, should circumstances so require? In such a case, can the arrangement be called off and no new cases considered? Does the Minister consider the scheme to be an amnesty for those convicted of terrorist offences? I would like clarification of the operation of the release — whether it is a release, a licence or an amnesty — and the safeguards he envisages introducing, as these have not been included in the Bill.

Another matter the Minister must clarify before concluding the debate is the difficulty regarding the affiliation of persons to certain organisations. A number of prisoners are affiliated to organisations which have not clearly called a ceasefire, but there may be former members of such an organisation who wish to break away from it. Are they to remain prisoners of their organisation? How does one cope with people who wish to break with the group to which they were attached at their conviction — can the Minister clarify their position? Status has been accorded and recognition given to prisoners who describe themselves as non-aligned, and this description has been accepted by the Department. However, a person may wish to leave an organisation and renounce violence but not wish to join the non-aligned group because it has its own accepted regime and structures. A person who wishes to renounce violent activity should not be a prisoner both of the State and of the organisation of which he was once a member. I assume most eligible prisoners will be released within a two year period, at which point any prisoners still in custody will receive automatic release. Should the date not be put in legislation while giving the Minister power to bring it forward or put it back, depending on the degree of progress towards a peaceful society?

The Bill is weak on the role and function of the commission and the Minister said nothing to convince us it was other than window dressing. I look forward to Committee and Report Stages and I support the Bill, weak as it is.

Dr. Upton

On behalf of my party I welcome the publication and enactment of this Bill. Its importance arises from its context. The Government was party to the British-Irish Agreement, which was arrived at on 10 April. All the constituent elements of that agreement must, in present circumstances, be regarded by all parties as of equal and binding significance. There can be no room for any of us to cherry-pick.

The point my party leader, Deputy Quinn, raised with the Taoiseach over the last few weeks may be dismissed by some as a technicality. There is legislation available to this Government, as there presumably must be to any Government in the world, under which it can make unexpected arrangements for the release of prisoners. I can therefore understand the argument that no new law was required and if one could rely on the correct exercise of administrative discretion, using powers already available, there would be no need for a new law. The commitment made by both Governments was that, first, mechanisms would be put in place to provide for accelerated release; second, prisoners affiliated to organisations not observing a complete and unequivocal ceasefire would not qualify; third, the position in regard to the ceasefire commitment would be kept under review, and fourth, the Governments would seek to enact the appropriate legislation to give effect to these arrangements by the end of this month. On any objective reading, it was intended to be understood by both the electorate and, more importantly, all the parties who signed up to the Agreement on Good Friday that this process would be governed, in both jurisdictions, by legislation introduced specifically for and tailor-made to this purpose, so it was not good enough to say that no such legislation was necessary. The expectation had been given to everyone involved that it would be introduced.

It would have been an expected and valid criticism of the Government's position to say that it stood in breach of an explicit commitment which it made in the multi-party talks. It was important to have this issue rectified by Members of the Oireachtas rather than being exposed to criticism from Northern Irish opponents of the Agreement who could point to avoidance on the part of the Republic of aspects of the Agreement which it does not like. While we may understand the reluctance of the Department of Justice to legislate — it prefers administrative discretion rather than being "hampered" by statute — it would be easy for others to impute to them bad faith.

The British-Irish Agreement made specific provision for a prisoner release programme and setout criteria, which the Minister has scheduled in the Bill, as to how this should come about. Paragraph 4 of the Schedule contains the commitment that "the Governments will seek to enact the appropriate legislation to give effect to these arrangements by the end of June, 1998". I am happy to acknowledge that the commitment was made and is being kept, even if it is marginally late.

The Bill provides for the establishment of an advisory body, the Release of Prisoners Commission, and stipulates that it should be independent in the performance of its functions. Its powers relate solely to the giving of advice in relation to those categorised as "qualifying prisoners" for the purpose of the British-Irish Agreement. Has the time come to put in place a thorough over-haul of the system of prisoner release in this jurisdiction? Some aspects of the system amount to a running joke — the Minister knows what I am talking about. The "revolving door" still operates but I do not attach personal or political blame to the Minister for that fact. Both sides of this House must acknowledge that issues relating to prisoner management, rehabilitation and release have received entirely inadequate and unsystematic attention. The majority of prisoners do not leave our prisons in a state which ensures they can be fully reintegrated into society. For most of them life outside prison does not open new opportunities for progression into employment and movement into stable and decent accommodation. The revolving door syndrome means that offenders leave prison without adequate rehabilitation and enter a world without the support required to ensure reintegration into a stable society.

Unless we address the patterns, the system of prisoner release in this jurisdiction will remain inadequate. I call on the Minister to examine and act on the inadequacies to which I referred. The system of temporary release was introduced in the Criminal Justice Act, 1960, which empowered the Minister to make rules providing for temporary release subject to such rules, if any, as may be imposed in each case of a person serving a prison sentence. The Act provides only a bare outline of the scheme and the rules merely set out the formalities such as the form the prisoner must sign and the penalties for any breach of conditions.

The provision of temporary release was originally intended as a compassionate measure to be exercised sparingly — for example, attendance at a family funeral. However, it now forms the basis of a full blown parole system. We do not have an Act governing parole in this jurisdiction. Cases are determined on an administrative basis in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the granting or withdrawal of temporary release. This section of the Act is invoked on a daily basis to release prisoners when prisons become full.

The failure of the system to cope with the numbers on temporary release accounts for an enormous proportion of prisoners who are unlawfully at large because they have not adhered to the terms on which they were granted temporary release. In the past, the Department got away with using temporary release for purposes for which it is not intended. Prisoners are hardly likely to object and nobody else is really watching. The power to commute or remit sentences is referred to in the Constitution as being vested in the President but is capable of being conferred by law on other authorities. Under the Criminal Justice Act, 1951, these powers are exercised by the Minister.

Under that Act, the Minister may commute or remit, in whole or in part, any punishment imposed by a court exercising criminal jurisdiction subject to such conditions as he may think proper. Although the 1951 Act vested this power in the Minister, it does not set out any rules as to the manner of its exercise, nor does there appear to be any non-statutory guidelines governing the power to commute or remit.

Commutation or remission is essentially the substitution of a lesser sentence for one imposed by a court. In capital cases, it is the power which the President used to exercise to reduce a death sentence to one of 40 years' imprisonment. In the absence of legislation, therefore, everything rests on the nature of the terms which the Minister, at his discretion, thinks fit to attach to each grant as and when, at his discretion, he decides to make such a grant.

My party supports this Bill. The onus on this House was to produce legislation which would ensure our compliance with the Agreement. I am satisfied that the Bill does that. Accordingly, my party is reluctant to see the legislation amended in a fashion which goes beyond the express commitments in the Agreement.

I agree with Deputy Flanagan that it is important to recognise the role of the prisoners in bringing about the Agreement. I echo the sentiments of the Minister about the pain and anguish relatives of gardaí who were murdered in the course of duty are experiencing arising from this proposal. I agree with the Minister that we must understand this concern and not underestimate its importance. The Minister was right when he said that a difficult judgment has been made. I hope it works out.

I welcome the fact that the Government has agreed to honour the commitment given in the British-Irish Agreement to enact appropriate legislation to give effect to the arrangements contained in the agreement for the release of prisoners — although the Government will have to acknowledge that it has done so only as a result of intense pressure from the Opposition parties. I am disappointed with the legislation in that the Government has taken the absolutely minimalist approach and has established a commission with few real functions and powers.

It has to be acknowledged that the release of prisoners is one of the most difficult and controversial areas of the British-Irish Agreement. It could not be otherwise given the history of shocking crimes committed by paramilitary organisations over almost 30 years. One can only begin to imagine how the widow of a murdered garda or RUC man, the child who saw a parent murdered by a sectarian gunman, the man or woman whose partner was blown to pieces by a bomb must feel at the prospect of those responsible being freed to walk the streets, without having to complete the sentence imposed by a court of law.

One can only imagine how those who were injured or maimed and continue to suffer from the effects of violent acts must feel at the prospect of the mass release of prisoners. For those convicted the slate will be wiped clean — the victims will continue to suffer. These victims will have to dig deep within themselves to find the courage and tolerance to cope with the release of prisoners. The pursuit of the common good of all the people requires that there should be no more victims of politically motivated violence and that the prisons should never again be filled with young men and women, sucked into paramilitary violence.

The early release of prisoners has been part of the settlement of virtually every political conflict throughout the world and it can be no different here. There is evidence from previous decades — as I know from personal experience — and more recent times that people can and do change in prison. Prisoners from all sides appear to have been a positive force for good in recent developments. It was striking to see the number of former paramilitary prisoners, both loyalist and republican, involved in the talks in Castle Buildings, and who have now been elected to the new Assembly who were quite determined to ensure that their children would not suffer the same drift into paramilitarism, violent crime and long jail sentences.

I welcome the recent decision of the Government to establish a victims' commission, which will be led by the former Tánaiste, Mr. John Wilson, to conduct a review of the services and arrangements in place to meet the needs of those who have suffered as a result of violent action arising from the conflict in Northern Ireland. I join the Minister in welcoming the fact that Mr. Wilson was willing to accept that role. In any dealings I have had with the former Tánaiste, I found him to be reasonable, kind and gentle.

While the numbers involved are considerably fewer than in Northern Ireland, the personal suffering of individuals or families has been no less intense. One has only to remember the families of those who died in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974. I hope that the commission will report back at the earliest possible date on measures that may be taken to support and sustain those who have suffered.

I welcome the Minister's announcement of the terms of reference. They include provision for those who have suffered and been killed and the surviving relatives of those who have been killed in the service of the State. I am concerned about the first term of reference which is 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. It goes on to identify further measures needed.

Unfortunately there are republican and loyalist splinter groups, of which the republican element has demonstrated its capacity in recent days to destroy the hearts of towns. Perhaps it would be wise for the Minister to amend the terms of reference to enable the commission to deal with victims in the future — we hope there will not be any — because of the likelihood of the continuation of violence for some time.

We must make every effort to ease the hurt of the victims of violence, but nothing will wipe out the sense of pain they will feel at the release of prisoners. A public expression of remorse on the part of those responsible might ease it somewhat. While nothing can ever by done to bring those who died back to life, the paramilitary organisations could demonstrate their bona fides by revealing the location of the bodies of those who were kidnapped and murdered, and whose families were never allowed to give them a decent burial. What possible cause or interest can be served by continuing to make these families suffer?

As I said earlier, I am disappointed with the minimalist approach of the Bill. It is very brief, very general and very vague, especially when compared to the British legislation. The commission established under Irish legislation will have only a token role when compared to the British commission. It would have been much more preferable if the same terms and conditions applied to the release of prisoners in this jurisdiction, in so far as this can be done with our differing legal regimes. The British have introduced comprehensive detailed legislation. In this country we will continue to rely on single section provisions of the Offences Against the State Act, 1939 and the Criminal Justice Act, 1960.

I am not sure either legislation is entirely appropriate for the current situation. The Criminal Justice Act, 1960, which is used for the early release of prisoners in cases of overcrowding, was certainly not designed for this situation. In addition, I understand problems have arisen in regard to the use — by the last two Governments — of the Offences Against the State Act and that there is no provision for the rearrest of a prisoner who may break the terms of his or her release.

I regret also the Bill takes no account of the needs or feelings of victims of prisoners who are to be released. We will try to address this by tabling an amendment to ensure information on the release of a paramilitary prisoner will be made available to a victim or the family of a victim of the crime for which the prisoner was serving a sentence.

There have been complaints in the past from victims and their families that they were not even made aware when prisoners were being released. Under the amendment I am tabling, a victim or a member of a victim's family would be entitled to request a written statement from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, specifying whether the commission, established under the Bill, had been asked to consider the case of any prisoner. A victim would also be entitled to know the proposed date of any release and the terms of any conditions attached to a release. As I said earlier, the functions and powers of the commission are not set out in any great detail. It is not clear, for example, what information would be available to the commission in deciding the advice to offer to the Minister in the case of any prisoner referred to it. I am tabling an amendment to the Bill to ensure the commission would be entitled to request from the Minister or the Commissioner of the Garda details of the offence committed by the prisoner, the impact of the offence on any victim and information on the general character of the prisoner.

Tugann an Comhaontas Glas tacaíocht don Bille um Cheartas Coiriúil (Scaoileadh Saor Príosúnach), 1998. I am pleased to see this Bill in print, even if it minimalist, and questions need to be raised about its workability following the uncertainty that surrounded its publication.

For the Green Party, this legislation is only one component in a process of restorative justice which I hope is under way. It must be put in the context of proper attention being given to the plight of victims and ending the injustices which have fanned the flames of conflict for so many years. It must also be put in the context of the removal of the weapons of conflict to rust away or, better still, delivered to a metal recycling plant.

The basic principle of restorative justice is that justice should make things as right as possible and not simply punish offenders. If this Bill is taken in isolation, victims will rightly feel ignored and even trodden on by a prisoner release programme. However, if it is taken in the context of making amends for criminal behaviour and accepting a transformed and peaceful social order, the legislation can herald the beginning of a more victim centred criminal justice system.

Mahatma Gandhi was clear about how restorative justice should work. During the terrible strife that tore his country, a Hindu man asked him how he could make amends for killing the Muslim parents of a two year old boy. Gandhi deliberately and slowly thought about the issue — which for some people would mean serving a long prison sentence — and told him to adopt another two year old orphaned Muslim and raise him as a Muslim. While that may not be very relevant in the Northern Ireland context, it serves to demonstrate the depth of imagination which must be part of restorative justice in terms of the conflict. It is a stark contrast to the reality of the disgraceful and blasphemous arson attacks that happened last night in Northern Ireland. If restorative justice, as practised by Gandhi, werede rigueur in the Northern conflict, we might have seen happier times and much less loss of life on this and our neighbouring island.

Nobody claims it is easy. The nuclear bomb tests in India and Pakistan are a painful reminder of sectarian politics. On the other hand, prisoners have played a vital role — which was acknowledged by all speakers — in helping to bring about the ceasefires and the agreement reached on Good Friday. The United Nations working party on restorative justice has adopted a working definition for restorative justice. It states restorative justice is a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future.

I pay tribute to the people who worked on the Maracycle for 15 years in an attempt to bring about a solution to the conflict. I also express my sympathy to the families of the two cyclists who were killed last weekend.

Deputy Ó Caoláin is offering. Deputy McGahon also wishes to speak. Will Deputy Ó Caoláin share some of his time with Deputy McGahon?

I have a restricted time limit and such an approach was not made to me. However, if there is time remaining I will make every effort to accommodate Deputy McGahon.

I stand in this House today to support the passing of this Bill, to accept the amendment tabled by the Minister and in opposition to the amendments proposed by Deputies Flanagan and De Rossa. This Bill has been drafted with the clear remit of giving effect to the release of all those imprisoned in this State as a consequence of the conflict that has been waged on and between these islands during the past three decades. This is in line with the outcome of the recent multi-party talks at Stormont and the ratification by the electorate throughout the island of the agreement reached on Good Friday.

During my first year as a TD, I have visited jails in every State where Irish republican prisoners are held, in this State, in the Six Counties, in England and in the United States of America. I have met with prisoners who have maintained their political integrity and personal dignity through the worst ravages of abusive regimes, some incarcerated for well in excess of 20 years. I was greatly impressed by their understanding of, and support for, the efforts of my party to set in place and develop the peace process that brought us to the first day of the new Assembly in Belfast yesterday. This is another step on the journey to a final settlement of the injustices we have all suffered for so long.

Irish republican prisoners, as political activists and not as hostages, have played a key part in the peace process. I welcome the acknowledgment of that by Members during the course of the debate. I pay tribute to those prisoners, especially to their families who have endured so much.

The debate on the new British legislation on prisoners was skewed in a most negative direction. I hope that will not be the case today. We have seen the cynical, selective political and media manipulation of the views of a section of victims of the conflict. This has been done to resist the principle that in conflict resolution the release of political prisoners is an essential. Republicans have acknowledged time and time again, and I do so once more, the hurt and pain for which we have been responsible. We, more than most, know the reality of loss, as we have suffered loss, and more, ourselves. However, to set victims against prisoners and their families, who have themselves suffered much, is to return to the old mindset of conflict.

If the conflict is to be resolved and lasting peace achieved then all political prisoners must be released. No ifs, no buts and no preconditions. Just as there should be no apartheid between victims, there should be no apartheid between prisoners. Sinn Féin will continue to work for the return to their families and communities of all those imprisoned as a result of the conflict.

A number of outstanding matters need to be addressed, however. They include the need to end political extradition, the plight of the prisoners in the United States, the uncertainties and fears of those and their families facing deportation from the United States, and the regularisation of the status of prisoners already released here — those on licence.

Only a general amnesty can finally resolve these and the other outstanding matters that come under this broad and important area of concern as we move towards a final resolution of the differences that have divided us as a people on this island and that have coloured our relationships with the peoples of the neighbouring island of Britain.

A spirit that matches the hope and expectation of the overwhelming mass of the Irish people is required here today; not a begrudging, minimalist or selective attitude towards this critical issue.

Molaim an Bille don Teach.

I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for giving me a few moments of his time. I want to express a different view, certainly from that of Deputy Ó Caoláin and perhaps the majority of Members in the House. Like everyone else I welcome the cessation of violence that has occurred but I will not congratulate men and women for having stopped killing their fellow men, as they have done for the past 30 years, both in the North of Ireland and in this country.

Given an opportunity to vote, if I am only in a minority of one, I will vote against the Bill. For 30 years we have witnessed the appeasement of terrorism and, in my book, murder is the ultimate crime. The Bill, which is being brought forward in accordance with the British Government, makes a mockery of the rule of law. It is a gangster's or terrorist's charter. Is anyone in this House naive enough to believe that the last person has been killed in this country?

In the history of this State 16 gardaí and five soldiers have been murdered by the IRA. Unfortunately, with the arrival and growth of liberalism we seem to have forgotten the victims of the most appalling crimes that have been committed in Western Europe since the days of the Gestapo in Germany.

There must be a voice for the victims of crime, of all creeds and denominations, who have suffered horrendous deaths. We are giving a clear signal to people who will undoubtedly engage in violence in the future. One has only to look at the bomb in Newtownhamilton last week and the death of a Protestant person who was battered to death in Bangor. There must be some sensibility to the business of ruling.

In recent years we have witnessed the total appeasement of terrorism. People who have committed atrocious crimes have their own command structures in jail. I refer in particular to that day in September 1979 when 19 young boy soldiers were butchered in Warrenpoint, County Down. On the same evening, Earl Mountbatten, two 14 year old boys and an old lady were done to death on southern Irish soil. Twenty three deaths in the one day from an organisation that has besmirched the name of Ireland.

Punishment must always be kept for people who commit crimes. Some deterrent must be maintained by the governing body for those who take life by murdering.

I will comment briefly on the case of Mr. McArdle, the Crossmaglen man who received two years imprisonment for taking the lives of two unfortunate coloured men who were selling newspapers. A year for each life; is that what we are coming to? People in England receive higher sentences for fiddling their taxes. Lester Piggot got three years in prison, yet this gentleman got only two. He coldly plotted this premeditated crime. He went on a dummy run to England, three weeks before he committed that crime, to ensure that everything was in order. Those two men are in their graves along with hundreds of others in this country. Will nobody stand up and speak for them, except in an ambivalent way by cloaking it all up and saying that we must accept this for the sake of the peace process?

We all welcome the peace process, but I will hold a watching brief for many years before I am convinced the participants in that peace process are sincere and genuine. I hope they are, but we are still left with the question of justice for the victims — the forgotten people. I knew some of them, like Tom Oliver who was butchered and done to death in County Louth. He left seven young children. Did that family ever receive an apology? While I know the Minister is only part of the system which produced this Bill, how can he or I explain it to them? What can one say to those people? Fancy words were expressed at the victims' funerals. We deplored the violence but now we are now preparing to let people out of jail who conspired to take people's lives every week of the year in recent years in the North of Ireland and occasionally here also.

I object to that and I object to murder. I do not believe anybody or any cause has the right to wrap the green flag round them and say they did it for Mother Ireland. This assembly should have the guts to realise that. I realise that had my party been in power, somebody else would have been bringing the Bill through the House. As an individual who has consistently expressed opposition to all forms of terrorism — there is no difference between orange and green — I record my opposition to the Bill. If I am given the opportunity to vote, I will vote for sanity and the rule law and order to be upheld by voting against the Bill.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed to this debate. There was widespread welcome for the Bill. We can tease out the reservations expressed about some of its detail on Committee Stage this afternoon. Deputy Flanagan said a wide range of questions must be addressed and dealt with on Committee Stage. I assure him we can tease out whatever suggestions he makes at that stage.

The Bill does not give any new power of release to the Minister or the Government. Existing powers of release have proved adequate in the past to allow successive Governments to deal with such releases. It is difficult to see any valid reason to call them into question now. One possible approach would be to list a set of detailed criteria on releases but that would involve needlessly seeking to define in law what is meant by particular provisions of the Agreement. That is neither necessary nor desirable.

We have taken the straightforward approach by specifying that the releases in question should be made only by reference to the terms of the Agreement, which allow account to be taken of the seriousness of the offence and the need to protect the community. Many of the specific factors people mention might be taken into account or subsumed by those concepts. I agree with Deputy Upton who recognised that it is not desirable to seek in the Bill to go beyond what is in the Agreement. Deputy De Rossa suggested there should be a change in the terms of reference given to the former Tánaiste in relation to victims. I will look at that suggestion to see if it can be taken on board.

The Bill represents just one element of my Department's continuing involvement in the peace process. The British-Irish Agreement has significant implications for my Department across a range of policy areas for which it has primary responsibility within the public service. These derive from those provisions of the Agreement dealing with rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, decommissioning, security and the constitutional changes presaged by the nineteenth amendment of the Constitution, in addition to the provisions for prisoners. A number of commitments made by the Government in these areas will, therefore, fall to my Department to take forward. It is appropriate to detail some of them briefly in the context of this debate.

Progress has been made in giving effect to a number of commitments made in the Agreement. The Employment Equality Bill has been enacted and regulations were made on Monday of this week under the Decommissioning Act, 1997, which provide for the decommissioning schemes recommended by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and endorsed by the participants in the multi-party negotiations. Other issues related to the Agreement currently being addressed by my Department include the establishment of a human rights commission, which is intended will be a statutory body underpinned by legislation, and the review of the Offences Against the State Acts, 1939 to 1985, on which I intend to bring proposals to Government in the near future for the purpose of establishing a review mechanism.

Speaking in this House on the motion approving the Agreement on 21 April last, I stated my belief that it could prove to be a turning point in the history of this island. I also indicated that I believed it offered a unique opportunity for all sides to put their past differences behind them and to work together for the future development of the island as a whole. Events since then, including the overwhelming endorsement of the Agreement in referenda North and South on 22 May and the outcome of last week's Assembly elections, have confirmed my view. It would be foolish to pretend that everything will go smoothly at first on the long and difficult road on which we have set out, but it is important that the Agreement continues to be implemented in the spirit of partnership, equality and mutual respect in which it was negotiated. This Bill is another step on that journey. I look forward to progressing this matter on Committee Stage.

It would be remiss of me if I did not take this opportunity to congratulate Mr. David Trimble on being elected First Minister in the North and to extend warm congratulations to my friend, Mr. Seamus Mallon, on his election as Deputy First Minister. Mr. Mallon has played a crucial role in bringing about peace on this island and he can safely be regarded as one of the greatest Irishmen of his generation.

Question put and agreed to.

Acting Chairman

The Bill will be considered in Committee later today.