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Terrorist Prisoners (Release)

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many persons convicted of terrorist offences have been released before the expiration of the period of the sentence apart from ordinary remission for good behaviour; and how many will be released during the remainder of the year under the same scheme.

While prison records do not separately identify persons convicted of terrorist offences, all special category prisoners have been convicted of offences connected with the civil disturbances. Since June 1972, 128 such prisoners have been released under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which is exercised, for example, when there are exceptional compassionate or medical circumstances, or when releases would otherwise occur over the Christmas period. It is therefore impossible to forecast how many such releases there may be in future.

Is the Minister aware that the security forces, or at least some of them, are concerned about the release of terrorists before the expiration of their sentences, and that they should be allowed only the ordinary remission and not the increased period put in by his right hon. Friend's predecessor? Will he look into this? It is very worrying that all these people, perhaps hundreds, are coming back into the streets and engaging in terrorist offences.

I said that since June 1972 there have been 128 such prisoners. In most of these cases of release under the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy the period was about two weeks, or even less, over the Christmas period. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has asked the right question, and whether he is referring to this scheme or the other scheme that we have in Northern Ireland in place of the parole system.

Are the Government aware that as soon as resources and new accommodation make it possible to wind down, sooner than is anticipated at present, the mistaken special category status, that will have the full support of my hon. Friends and myself?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues, and also my hon. Friends, for the support that we have had concerning the ending of the special category status. It has certainly not been easy. We have been able to do it only when, logistically, it has been possible—that is, when cells have become available.

In 1968 we were running the penal system only with Crumlin Road, where we had about 600 prisoners at the most. At this moment we have a prison population of 2,700. We had only 300 prison officers in 1968. Now we have well over 2,000. This is the extent of what has happened.

Will my hon. Friend indicate the total number of persons convicted of terrorist offences who have not been given special category status, and say how many have conformed in Long Kesh, how many are not conforming, and the amount of remission that has been lost by those not conforming to the new prison regulations? How long has it been since they have received visitors from outside?

Those who are not conforming will not receive visitors. Since the ending of special category status, 300 people have been convicted through the courts. Of this number, as of yesterday, 101 were not conforming. We have, therefore, nearly 200 who are conforming. The loss of remission of those people not conforming now totals over 16 years.