Draft law axing early release of terrorism offenders ‘offers no hope of reform’

Michael McHugh, PA
·2-min read

A law proposing to abolish early release from prison of dangerous terrorism offenders in Northern Ireland offers no hope for reform, a watchdog said.

It is part of UK-wide draft Government legislation intended to strengthen rules governing the sentencing, freeing and monitoring of paramilitary offenders.

Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Jonathan Hall QC said setting longer custodial terms sharply contrasted with accelerated release of republican and loyalist inmates following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Returning prisoners convicted during the 30-year conflict to the community was a key aspect of the peace process deal for Sinn Fein and hugely unpalatable to many unionists.

Mr Hall said: “The logic of that unique dispensation does not apply to current offending and does not provide a basis for distinguishing between the treatment of terrorist offences in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

“However, the speed with which some convicted terrorist offenders embraced peaceful politics following the Good Friday/Belfast Peace Agreement is inconsistent with sentences which offer no hope for reform leading to early release.”

The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill 2019-21 is being considered at Westminster at present and aspects of it will require the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Under the proposals, the custodial part of serious terrorism sentences must be followed by long licence periods, from a minimum of seven to a maximum of 25 years’ duration.

The state can monitor behaviour and return them to prison during a licence period.

For serious terrorism offenders who do not receive serious terrorism sentences, the maximum extended licence period is increased from eight to 10 years.

Certain terrorism offences are to carry additional fixed licence periods even when the offender is not dangerous.

Mr Hall said: “The purpose of these additional licence periods is to ensure greater and longer opportunity for the authorities to manage the risk posed by released terrorist offenders.”