Security forces veterans convicted of Troubles-related crimes in Northern Ireland are eligible to apply for early release, the Northern Ireland Secretary has indicated.
Karen Bradley said “anyone” convicted of such an offence and serving their sentence in Northern Ireland would be covered by the terms of the controversial element of the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, which enabled hundreds of convicted terrorists to walk free on licence after serving just two years behind bars.
Her answer to a parliamentary question comes days ahead of an announcement by prosecutors on whether the soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday killings in Londonderry will face court action.
The scheme, which saw around 500 loyalist and republican paramilitaries walk free from prison, currently would not include Bloody Sunday, as it only covers offences committed between 1973 and 1998.
However, legislation proposed by the Government to give effect to a range of new legacy mechanisms – set out in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement – includes a provision to extend the early release scheme to cover offences committed before 1973, changing the start date to January 1968.
So, if that becomes law, anyone convicted of an offence related to Bloody Sunday (January 1972) would be covered by the early release scheme.
Those proposals, which have been subject to a recent public consultation, would also extend the provision to those serving sentences in Great Britain.
In the past there has been debate on whether the early release scheme was meant to include convicted security force members.
On Thursday, prosecutors are to announce whether 17 ex-soldiers and two former members of the Official IRA will face charges for their involvement in Bloody Sunday – a day that saw 13 civil rights protesters shot dead on the streets of Derry.
Conservative MP Julian Lewis asked for clarification of the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 in a written question to Mrs Bradley earlier this month, specifically asking whether the two-year cap applied to members of the armed forces, police and security services.
Mrs Bradley replied on Monday.
“Under the early release scheme that formed part of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and was given legislative effect by the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, qualifying prisoners may apply for early release (subject to certain conditions) after they have served two years in prison,” she wrote.
“Currently anyone convicted of Troubles-related scheduled offences and serving their sentence in Northern Ireland would be eligible to apply to the scheme.
“Release is on licence, such licence being subject to revocation for non-compliance with certain conditions – as has happened in a number of cases. When a licence is revoked an individual is liable to be returned to prison to serve out their original sentence.
“The provisions set out in the draft Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill, on which we recently consulted, would amend the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 to extend this two-year accelerated release scheme for Troubles-related offences to those serving sentences in Great Britain.
“The Sentences Act does not cover offences committed before August 1973, so the draft Bill proposes to extend the early release scheme to cover the start of the Troubles (January 1968-August 1973).
“The Government has no intention to extend early release to offences committed after the date of the Belfast Agreement in April 1998. There is no proposal in the consultation to do this and the Government is not contemplating it.
“The legacy consultation concluded in October and we expect to finish our analysis of the 17,000 plus responses shortly. It is right we take the time to consider each response fully and I will set out the next steps in this process as soon as I can.”