Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has described the process as lawful? Will he confirm that it was overseen by the Law Officers, including the Attorney-General? The fact of the matter is that the process was designed to address 200 or so individuals. The whole situation was an anomaly. To achieve and lock in the peace process following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, 400 prisoners were released, some of whom had committed terrible atrocities. That angered victims at the time, which I understand, but it was an essential part of getting to where we are now. Similarly, addressing the question of the 200—that anomaly—was part of that as well.
As for the idea that this was some secret thing out of the blue, I told the House on 11 January 2006 that, in withdrawing the legislative approach to addressing the anomaly,
“the Government still believe that the anomaly will need to be faced at some stage”—[Official Report, 11 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 288.]
No one should have been surprised that we had to do that. It was necessary to get to a position in which Northern Ireland could escape its hideous past of evil and terrorism and enter into a period of almost universal peace and stability, with old enemies negotiating and governing together. That should be welcomed and our role as a Government in achieving that should be commended, and I hope that the Attorney-General will do so.
The Attorney-General: I am extremely mindful that the right hon. Gentleman and others on both sides of the House worked hard during the peace process. Indeed, they continue to do so, as this process is by no means complete. I am the first to pay tribute to him for the work that he did.
There is an important distinction between releasing prisoners under an exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, as part of a peace settlement, and any suggestion of an amnesty. Those two things are rather different. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there was no such amnesty. Indeed, any suggestion that we might move towards an amnesty was firmly rejected by widespread views expressed in Parliament.
Mr Hain: And by the Government.
The Attorney-General: And the Government accepted that. For those reasons, we have a system. The right hon. Gentleman says that he explained to the House—he certainly did—about looking at other methods. I think that it is best for him to explain what publicity or otherwise that may have attracted. He is quite right that the system of giving an assurance to an individual that they are not wanted because they are indeed not wanted and there is no current basis for wanting them is not an unlawful process in which to engage.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman raised the oversight of the Law Officers. He is quite right that, during this process, the office of the Attorney-General operated as the co-ordinating point, because the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland could not and would not communicate directly with Northern Ireland Office, and therefore collated the information that was supplied. In fairness to my predecessors, it is probably right to say that they would have had no independent means to verify whether or not someone was wanted, and reliance for that was placed on the PSNI and its links with other police forces in the other jurisdictions of this country.