Thursday, 22 November 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
6. Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has had discussions with the British authorities regarding reports that persons wanted for paramilitary offences in Northern Ireland have been allowed to return without being arrested; if the Government has sought any similar undertaking from the political parties associated with paramilitary organisations, that persons exiled by these organisations under threat of death or violence should also be allowed to return; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29237/01]
Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Cowen): I have had a number of discussions with the British Government on how best to resolve the issue of persons wanted for paramilitary offences committed prior to 10 April 1998. As the Deputy will be aware, the Good Friday Agreement provided for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners convicted of scheduled offences.
On 29 September 2000 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced that persons who had been sentenced to imprisonment for offences committed before the Good Friday Agreement, but who had left Northern Ireland before completion of their sentences could also benefit from the early release scheme. This meant that they could make an application to the sentence review commissioners for their case for early release to be considered. If successful, normal licence conditions would apply, including their liability to be recalled to prison if they became involved in terrorist activity. I understand that, as a result, a number of individuals have been able to return to Northern Ireland.
A further category concerns individuals commonly known as “on-the-runs.” These individuals were not covered by the Secretary of State's statement because there were outstanding prosecutions and, in some cases, extradition proceedings against them. Both Governments recognised at the Weston Park discussions in July that this issue needed to be addressed.
In pursuit of this, and following the decommissioning event carried out by the IRA in October, the British Government announced that it would take “such steps as are necessary as soon as possible, and in any event by March 2002, to resolve the issue about supporters of organisations now on ceasefire against whom there are outstanding prosecutions, and in some cases extradition proceedings, for offences committed before 10 April 1998.”
On the separate issue of “exiles,” the Government unequivocally condemns the abhorrent practice of paramilitary “exiling.” There can be no justification for any group in Northern Ireland to override the right of all citizens to choose their place of residence freely. This fundamental right has been recognised in the Good Friday Agreement. I again call for an end to this unacceptable situation and urge the political parties associated with paramilitary organisations to make every effort to ensure all “exiles” can return safely to their homes.
Mr. B. Smith: The Minister has given a detailed response concerning the repatriation of certain individuals who committed paramilitary offences. One issue which has been most hurtful for many families in Northern Ireland has been the practical exile of family members by paramilitary groups. We have all seen television programmes on RTE, the BBC and UTV detailing the shattered lives of many families whose loved ones had to depart these shores and are still afraid to return. Could the possible return of the individuals concerned be kept on the political agenda in the context of North-South co-operation and the advancement of the political structures?
Mr. Cowen: As I said, the plight of those who have been forced to leave their home areas as a result of paramilitary threats or intimidation is a cause of serious concern, a point on which I agree with the Deputy. The right of those concerned to have the threats against them lifted and to return home is fully endorsed by the Government. In our communications with parties with influence on paramilitary groups, we have called on them to do everything possible to help resolve this unacceptable position, and we will continue to do so. The information on numbers is all but impossible to obtain given the nature of the problem. Neither the groups involved in making the threats nor those who receive them are likely to help to rectify this.
Regarding the putting in place of measures to facilitate the return home of those exiled or to assist those who wish to remain in this jurisdiction, as recommended by the victims commissioner, Mr. John Wilson, who noted in his report that a number of those affected by paramilitary exiling reside in this jurisdiction, the Government is examining measures to alleviate their plight. This is being carried out in the context of the Government's consideration of the commissioner's report.
Work has already commenced on implementing a number of the report's recommendations. The remaining ones cover a wide range of areas which fall within the competency of a number of Departments and agencies. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has taken the lead on this issue. Work based on consultations between that Department and other Departments and agencies on developing an implementation plan in respect of these remaining recommendations is coming to a conclusion. This plan should be submitted to the Government for approval shortly.
Mr. B. Smith: Another issue which runs alongside the report of the former Tánaiste, John Wilson, in his role as victims commissioner is his work on the commission for the disappeared. Given the heartache suffered by many families in the North of Ireland because of the failure to locate bodies, will the Minister ensure every effort will be made to try to gather information from the paramilitary organisations which carried  out the heinous and evil deeds of murdering the individuals concerned? The heartache still remains for families after many years. Perhaps the work of the commission for the disappeared could be augmented by seeking further information from persons in contact with paramilitary organisations to try to relieve some of the distress families have suffered for many years and, in some cases, decades.
Mr. Cowen: I agree with the sentiments the Deputy expressed in this matter. When information becomes available which may yield results and a resolution of some of these tragic situations, all resources of the State are put at the disposal of the Garda and others. Exhaustive attempts have been made in a number of areas to try to locate the remains of victims who were murdered. This issue clearly remains as one in which many families would like to see closure by affording a Christian burial to their relatives who have been shot or murdered. The Government will work with the victims commissioner.
I commend John Wilson for the outstanding work he has done in all these matters. He has extensively pursued every opportunity to try to relieve the heartache many families suffer on a continuous basis because of the failure to locate the remains of their loved ones. We will continue to pursue this matter. It has, as the Deputy said, in some cases been a matter spanning decades, not years. We will not reduce our efforts in trying to resolve this outstanding issue which is a result of violence in the North.
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