One of the Greysteel murderers Torrens Knight was convicted last week of assaulting two women in Coleraine. Shaun Woodward is now to consider whether or not his licence should be revoked. Another of the Greysteel murderers Stephen Irwin has already been returned to serve his eight life sentences after being convicted of slashing a football supporter with a knife.
This incident again throws into sharp relief one of the most unpopular parts of the Belfast Agreement of 1998: the extremely early release of people convicted of extremely evil acts. We are usually told that the purpose of prison is deterrence, punishment, protection of society and rehabilitation. However, here in Northern Ireland with the terrorist prisoners those concepts were thrown out of the window. Knight has been convicted of the murder of a total of 12 people. In practically any other legal system he would have been looking at spending most if not all of the rest of his life in gaol; as it is he has only spent 8 years in prison. Hence, the deterrence function seems to have been largely ignored though the suggestion that crimes in the future will be punished by prolonged imprisonment may have some effect. However, since early release had always been ruled out in the past it is unclear how seriously one should take tough talking now.
Society has very clearly not been protected. The Quigley Hamilton working group report which Eames Bradley suggested giving the force of law has interesting things to say about the danger of released terrorists to society and hence, the protection which society should be afforded:
2.9 It is worth noting that the (then) Mr Justice Kerr argued in a successful legal case by a former prisoner challenging a decision not to grant a taxi driving licence to the applicant:
The Agreement contemplated that mechanisms would be put in place for the accelerated release of prisoners and that those prisoners who benefited from that programme would be reintegrated into the community. It appears to me, therefore, that particular attention should be paid to the fact that a prisoner released under the terms of the Northern Ireland Sentences Act 1998 has been adjudged not to be a danger to the public.
2.10 Whilst this judgement related to those risk assessed and released under the Agreement, the working group view is that this is an important principle on which all conflict-related convictions arising from the most recent period of conflict should be considered.
Clearly the two women assaulted by Knight or the man attacked by Irwin might beg to differ on the dangerousness of released terrorists.
Punishment has also been pretty ill served as Knight has so far served 9 months for each life he took: as such he has spent as long in gaol for each murder as it took for conception to birth for each of his victims; not long when an average life expectancy now is almost 80 years. Finally on the topic of rehabilitation the fact that Knight has returned to violence seems indicative of a failure on that score as well.
Of course at the time of the releases we were told that the prisoners actually only committed these crimes because of the circumstances of the troubles and in other circumstances they would never have done anything illegal. That deliberately and dishonestly ignored the gravity of the offences but was also clearly nonsense in the case of the the likes of Knight who seem to be demonstrating a further penchant for criminality: a tendency in which he is not unique. Clearly, however, we cannot admit that in reality a small group of deeply unpleasant and dangerous individuals committed the criminal acts of the troubles and that these people are actually different from the rest of us in society in that they and not we are guilty. Of course such a thing would never do: best to stick with Eames Bradley and have us all to blame for the troubles except of course the terrorists as, had the troubles not happened, they would (unlike us bad responsible people) have been utterly decent and non violent.