I beg to move,
That this House condemns the alarming increase in the numbers of terrorist beatings, mutilations, shootings, cases of intimidation and instances of people being forced to leave their homes in Northern Ireland; notes that these are being carried out by organisations whose political representatives backed the Belfast Agreement; further notes that these continued attacks are clear breaches of the Belfast Agreement that required a commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful methods and that terrorist ceasefires had to be complete and unequivocal; recalls that the Prime Minister said that for terrorist organisations to benefit from prisoner release schemes there must be an end of violence including bombings, killings and beatings; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to use its powers contained in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 to halt the early release of terrorist prisoners until violence in Northern Ireland has ended in all its forms.
It is the duty of the House to debate the serious issue of the mutilations, torture and beatings, which are increasing in Northern Ireland. I know that I speak for every hon. Member who has taken his or her place in the Chamber in saying that this House unequivocally condemns those horrendous, nauseating and brutal attacks.
I shall set the scene by giving some statistics that have been prepared by Families Against Intimidation and Terror, a non-sectarian organisation that is doing marvellous work to help the victims of such mutilations and beatings, giving them hope, succour and, at times, protection and, sadly, at other times, spiriting them out of the country to safety.
By 23 January this year, there had been six so-called loyalist shootings and four IRA shootings, 15 loyalist terrorist beatings and 12 IRA terrorist beatings, 37 loyalist terrorist instances of intimidation and 22 IRA intimidations, and the loyalists had forced 33 people into exile away from their homes in Northern Ireland, and the IRA, 29. Those figures illustrate much, but illustrate first that there is absolutely no difference in the evil and violence, whether from republicans in the shape of the IRA and splinter groups, or so-called loyalist paramilitaries, and that they commit their dreadful acts in roughly equal number.
Some suggestion has emanated from Downing street today that, somehow, the beatings, mutilations and torture have been reduced in number and are diminishing. I wish that that were so. Families Against Intimidation and Terror tells us—I have no reason to doubt its figures—that, in 1996, there were 501 such attacks; in 1997, 388; last year, 500; and, by 23 January this year, already 158.
I shall in a moment; I want to finish this point. The discrepancy arises from the fact that, as the Secretary of State and others will be aware, following many cases of intimidation and torture, people dare not go to the authorities or the police, and certainly do not go through the courts. Therefore, FAIT has more accurate and up-to-date figures than, sadly, the Royal Ulster Constabulary can possibly have.
Another point needs to be made at the beginning of the debate, on which I know there will be no dispute between the Secretary of State and myself. We are not talking about punishment beatings. For my constituents in Bracknell, the term "punishment beating" sounds like a modest extension of neighbourhood watch—at the very worst some vigilante group modestly beating up drug dealers or vandals. Let us make absolutely clear what is going on in Northern Ireland. We are talking of mutilation, and of beatings in which every bone in the victim's body is deliberately broken. It is intimidation of the very worst sort, and often leads to exile. Let us ask the media and anybody else discussing those foul acts not to call them punishment beatings, or even so-called punishment beatings.
Paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide—those evil men—would like us to believe that the victims are often drug dealers, paedophiles or others of an antisocial nature. That is occasionally so, but, more often, it is not. They are innocent victims of brutal, evil men.
Even if that were not true, and even if the majority of victims were not innocent, it cannot be right in a democracy, and in our country, for any group to take it upon itself to be the police, the judge, the jury and the executioner. I know that all hon. Members in the Chamber will want to send that message, loud and clear, to those evil psychopaths.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that those allegations should not be discussed across the Dispatch Boxes of this House, but should be deposited with the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Does he also agree that the agreement that was signed up to on Good Friday gives the best prospect for the people of Northern Ireland to have such matters settled in the way in which they are settled in the rest of the United Kingdom, or is he saying that his contribution is to try to pull away one of the planks of that agreement, at the risk of bringing the whole lot down? How would that serve the people of both parts of Ireland?
I shall answer the hon. Gentleman directly: I believe, and have said so continually since Good Friday last year, that the Belfast agreement is the best hope for lasting peace and a settlement in Northern Ireland. That is why my party whole-heartedly supports it.
The second question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett)—
No, there is a second question, which needs to be answered.
Of course, in a perfect world, I would require any victim of crime to go to the police. If a constituent came to my office in Bracknell and said that something had happened to him, I would immediately say, "Go down to the police station." With the greatest respect, I say to the hon. Member for Erdington, "Life ain't like that in Northern Ireland." I could take him to a significant number of people, in both communities, who dare not go to the police and who have been brutally beaten. That is a sad fact.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that, somehow, I am wrong to raise those matters on the Floor of the House, I profoundly disagree.
Is there not a curious dichotomy? On the one hand, we hear Martin McGuinness claim on the radio this morning that those people who are being mutilated and viciously beaten up are in some way criminals, without any form of trial having taking place. On the other, the Secretary of State says, understandably, that she has no evidence and cannot bring the perpetrators of those crimes to court. Does that not reveal that the rule of law does not run in large parts of Northern Ireland? There is a rule of fear, and the Secretary of State knows as well as we do that it is enforced by people who are pretending to talk peace.
My hon. Friend gives another good example of Mr. Martin McGuinness and his friends misleading the public and this House by giving the impression that they are merely a vigilante group that is trying to do good for its community. All right hon. and hon. Members who have taken their seats in this House know better than that gentleman, who has failed to take his seat.
Since 23 January, matters have got worse. There was a brutal double kneecapping in east Belfast by loyalist terrorists on Monday night. An equally obnoxious crime was committed, almost certainly by republican terrorists, in west Belfast last night. News is coming in of the death, outside Newry, of Eamon Collins, the author of "Killing Rage". The House will recall that he was a senior member of the IRA command who turned informer and had to flee to the mainland for a number of years. Eighteen months ago, he courageously returned to his home town of Newry, but he has now been killed. So it goes on, and it gets worse.
Let me be more specific about a few recent cases. The House will recall that I raised the case of John Brown during a debate in the autumn. John Brown is 79 and lives in a small flat in Belfast. Members of the IRA came to his flat and kneecapped him because, they alleged, he was a paedophile. Unfortunately for Mr. Brown, the IRA had gone to the wrong house: the alleged paedophile lived in a flat next door. That poor man will never walk properly again.
More recently, there have been other dreadful cases. One occurred within the last fortnight, in Strabane. Let me read from an article by Martin Fletcher, published in The Times on Thursday, 14 January.
Six masked IRA men burst into Noel Diver's house last Saturday, pulled the 24-year-old from the sofa and beat him with baseball bats and an iron bar. It was several minutes before they realised that they had the wrong house and the wrong man.
They left without a word, went next door, seized 22-year-old Michael Brennan, and offered a running commentary as they smashed his limbs.
'Wait till you hear this one break,' one shouted as he swung a baseball bat down at Mr. Brennan's arm. 'You're a big man now,' said another as they left their victim groaning on his kitchen floor.
This is the story of everyday life on one of the many housing estates in Northern Ireland where republican or loyalist paramilitary groups rule through terror, where the police venture only in armoured Land Rovers, and where neither the ceasefire nor the Good Friday accord has made a jot of difference.
No one, but no one, here will have been other than moved by the pictures of Andrew Peden, who—brutalised beyond belief, and left for dead—somehow survived, but lost both his legs. The Times reported on Wednesday, 20 January:
The Pedens have received no compensation…Mrs Peden has given up her job to nurse her husband round the clock. 'I don't know what it's like having a night's sleep,' she said. 'He cries out every night for help. He relives it every night. If he gets an hour's sleep that's it. It's wrecked our family.'
She knows the men who attacked her husband, and sees them when she shops. 'When they see me they drop their heads or go to the other side of the streets,' she said. 'They are ashamed. They are just evil men. I just hope God repays them."'
Everyone condemns such acts by so-called freedom fighters for republicanism or unionism. They are outright thugs, as everyone recognises, and as is recognised in the Government amendment. However, what guarantee can there be that, if the policy advocated by the Opposition were implemented by the Government, the beatings and thuggery would slow down or end? Is there not a danger that they would increase, and that the peace agreement could be torn to pieces? Surely we should exercise judgment and recognise that the present position is better than a return to bombing, while ensuring that the police use every effort to hunt down thugs who commit the kind of intimidation about which the right hon. Gentleman has been reading?
The hon. Gentleman and I agree that such beatings and mutilations are abhorrent. Like me, the hon. Gentleman has spoken out in debate after debate in the Chamber. It is indeed a matter of judgment, as the Prime Minister has told us from the Dispatch Box several times in recent weeks. Our judgment—I shall say more about this shortly—is that it is far more likely that the beatings will stop if the terrorist prisoners are no longer released. The pressure in the terrorist communities on both sides of the sectarian divide to "get the boys out" will be huge, and we know from past experience that they can turn the tap of violence on and off to suit themselves.
I want to make some progress, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in due course, because he takes a keen interest in debates on this subject.
Who is to blame? In a BBC Radio Ulster interview on 15 January, the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said:
I've always said it's not my business to define a cessation of violence or a cessation of military operations, and therefore it's not my business to determine what constitutes a breach of such cessations".
That, incidentally, shows that the Prime Minister inadvertently misled the House last Wednesday when he said that the Chief Constable had said that the ceasefire was still intact. Sir Ronnie went on to say:
But you will think the wording of these organisations in terms of their announced cessations and they are cessations of military operations. So perhaps they have some distorted, perverted view that this sort of activity doesn't come within the term, 'military operations"'.
He also said:
But there is no doubt whatever that all of these organisations [IRA, UVF, UDA, UFF] including those who purport to be in cessations of military operations, are engaged in this repugnant activity".
In a separate article in Police Review on 22 January, he said:
Notwithstanding the fact that they are adhering to what they define as 'cessations of military operations', this does not mean that the threat they pose has been permanently disposed of. This does not mean that they are inactive. I have no doubt that these 'mainstream' groups continue to be involved in the barbaric activity of mutilations through paramilitary assaults".
There we have it confirmed by the Chief Constable. Those who are responsible for those evil, nauseating acts are the same people who signed up to the Belfast agreement on Good Friday. The House needs no reminding whatever that an essential part of that agreement was the renunciation of violence in all its forms.
I should like to quote from the Prime Minister during the referendum campaign. I, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and other colleagues campaigned for a yes vote in that referendum and would do so again because, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Erdington the Belfast agreement is the best way forward for the people of Northern Ireland. When the Prime Minister made his speech at the Balmoral showgrounds in Belfast on 14 May last year, he said
that, again as the Agreement expressly states, the ceasefires are indeed complete and unequivocal: an end to bombings, killings and beatings, claimed or unclaimed; an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence".
That is also our definition of a cessation of violence. It is clearly not happening. He went on to say:
These factors provide evidence upon which to base an overall judgment—a judgment which will necessarily become more rigorous over time".
I concur entirely and the Secretary of State has made similar remarks at the Dispatch Box in response to me and to other hon. Members.
In the same speech, the Prime Minister said:
the only prisoners whose cases can even be considered by the Independent Review Commission are those belonging to organisations which are observing a total and unequivocal ceasefire".
That is why, in a supply day on a similar subject before Christmas, we moved a motion on the Floor of the House saying that terrorist prisoners should not be released any more until there was substantial and verifiable decommissioning. It is absolutely clear that the ceasefire is not holding because violence is continuing at pace and increasing. Violent, dreadful crimes are being committed.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that, only eight days before the speech to which he has just referred, the Prime Minister said in response to questioning by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition:
It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.]
In the light of the fact that that commitment has not been honoured, is it not essential that those releases should be halted until terrorism stops and decommissioning starts?
There are many people who voted yes in the referendum—whom we rightly encouraged them to do so—because of the assurances freely given from the Dispatch Box by the Prime Minister to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in May and to the people of Northern Ireland in the speech at the agricultural showground to which I have just referred.
I am trying to keep this speech as low key as possible, but I have to report that many of those people feel badly let down by the Prime Minister, and I can understand why. I believe that there is no choice for the Government but to have the agreement, which we support, implemented in full. An absolutely vital aspect of that agreement is that violence should be renounced for good and that crimes should not be committed. Instead, violent and vicious crimes are still being committed.
The Opposition's motion ends with a demand for a halt to the early release of terrorist prisoners until all violence ends. Will the right hon. Gentleman specify what groups of prisoners should be denied early release or is he talking about all scheduled prisoners?
I apologise for getting the hon. Gentleman's constituency wrong again. I do not know what happened to Port Glasgow, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will tell me privately. The answer is straightforward. The Chief Constable and other observers believe that all the paramilitaries who signed the Good Friday agreement, both loyalist and republican, are involved in those awful beatings and mutilations.
The evidence is coming from the Chief Constable. The hon. Member for Erdington may shake his head, but I do not intend to repeat myself because many other hon. Members want to participate in the debate. I have quoted extensively from the Chief Constable and I thought that he had made the position abundantly clear. The evidence comes not just from the Chief Constable but from other interested observers whose reputations are high and whose courage is outstanding. Nobody doubts that the evidence is there.
My right hon. Friend has talked about the desirability of the Government recognising that those who claim to have signed up to peace are not carrying out their pledges in practice. Will he include in the description of those people not just those who claim to be the official IRA? Will he confirm that, in fact, Continuity IRA and the Real IRA are nothing but a mask to allow certain people in Sinn Fein to claim that the beatings are not carried out by the IRA when we know full well that Sinn Fein-IRA, Real IRA and Continuity IRA are one and the same?
I am not sure that I can confirm that. That is a matter that my hon. Friend will have to pursue with the Secretary of State and Ministers. However, it is important that the House does not discriminate in any shape or form when condemning terrorism, from whatever side of the sectarian divide and whichever misguided organisation is involved.
We have now established without any reasonable doubt that republican and loyalist parties that signed the Good Friday agreement are behind the atrocities, beatings and mutilations. They are in breach of the agreement. Last summer, we passed the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Section 3(9) says that, when specifying organisations, the Secretary of State shall take into account whether that organisation
(a) is committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means to achieve its objectives"—
clearly, that is not so—
(b) has ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence"—
(c) is directing or promoting acts of violence"—
they clearly are—
(d) is co-operating fully with any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 in implementing the Decommissioning section of the agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland, set out in Command Paper 3883"—
they are clearly not doing so.
The Secretary of State and I were in dispute when the Bill went through. I shall not rake over the arguments, but she knows that I should have preferred the Bill to have said that she had to stop the prisoner releases if any of those conditions were breached. She persuaded the House, mainly thanks to the Government's majority, that it was better that she should just take those conditions into account. That is why we voted against the Third Reading.
I warned in July that there was a real possibility that all the conditions would be breached by the paramilitaries, but the Secretary of State would still be within her rights to say that she was not convinced and that it was better on balance to allow prisoners to be released. That is a great pity. I have shown that the paramilitaries are in breach of the agreement on all four counts, so there is no excuse for letting any more terrorist prisoners out early.
In the five months since the Act became law, the Government have released nearly 250 terrorist prisoners early, out of a total of approximately 400 who might be eligible. I suggest that the Government have been more than generous. I did not oppose the early release of some terrorist prisoners, because that was part of the agreement, which we supported. I fully understood that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister had to show the paramilitaries their good faith and demonstrate that they were prepared to implement their side of the agreement.
However, once that had been done, some sign was needed that the violence had stopped and the decommissioning had started. Neither has happened. Not an ounce of semtex or a single gun has been handed in by any of the paramilitaries that signed up to the Belfast Good Friday agreement. As I have shown—more importantly, so have the Chief Constable of the RUC and Families Against Intimidation and Terror—the number of beatings and mutilations has increased. We believe that there should be a halt to prisoner releases until there is substantial and verifiable decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives and until it is clear that violence has ceased once and for all.
It is the duty of the Opposition to speak out when there is a fundamental wrong. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister know that we understand the advantages to Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom of a bipartisan approach, which has been in place for several years, but we have always said that we cannot give the Government a blank cheque, just as the Labour Opposition failed to give us a blank cheque when they did not support us on the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act year in and year out. We shall speak out if we believe that the agreement, which we and the Government support, is not being implemented.
I shall speak out loudly when the victims are innocent people, often with a limited education and difficult job prospects in the poorest estates across the Province. Do Labour Members honestly believe that action would not have been taken if there had been mutilations, tortures and beatings in some of the leafy suburbs of south Belfast or the commuter lands of north Down? Of course action would have been taken, because there are articulate and important people there, but the poor bloody infantry are being brushed under the carpet and ignored.
Through the work of Families Against Intimidation and Terror and of several journalists, the House can now bring the matter to wider attention. It is time for the House to demand that the Government act. The best way of acting is to stop any further release of terrorist prisoners.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
'condemns absolutely the barbaric practice of paramilitary attacks in Northern Ireland, condemns the human and material cost of these assaults and the contempt they demonstrate for the rule of law; notes the commitment made by all parties who endorsed the Good Friday Agreement to "the protection and vindication of the human rights of all"; welcomes the Government's determination to fulfil its responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement in this as in every other area; and calls on all people, parties and organisations to use all their influence to bring these attacks to an immediate stop, to help the police in any way they can, and to work to build on the Good Friday Agreement to create a society in Northern Ireland where such attacks are a thing of the past.'.
I presume that the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) would apply his point about working versus middle class to the previous Government, too, as the policy has not changed, so it is not in that sense a party matter. I assure him that the Government have done more to help victims than the previous Government did. We put money into a memorial fund; we set up an educational bursary to help children; and we are putting together a trauma unit. Through concrete, specific actions, rather than words, we are doing everything that we can to ease the pain and suffering that families are going through.
I say to the right hon. Member for Bracknell, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to the Leader of the Opposition last week, that I completely share his disgust at those attacks and that I share many of his concerns. There is no difference between us, nor indeed between any Members of Parliament, in our condemnation of those barbaric acts. The question that we all face is how best to bring them to an end.
I would argue that the Government are doing everything that they can to answer that question in good faith. There have been thousands of those attacks during the past 30 years. Punishment assaults, beatings, shootings and mutilations have been an unacceptable feature of life in Northern Ireland for far too long, but condemnation alone is not enough. Words are not enough; action is needed on the underlying problems.
For 30 years, Governments of both parties have tried to stop paramilitary assaults, through extra security measures, appeals to the public to help the police, and television advertising. Governments have condemned, but the attacks have continued. The numbers that are available do not tell the full story; as the right hon. Gentleman said, many people are too frightened to report attacks and go to the police with the evidence.
Northern Ireland has suffered from a crisis of confidence: a lack of confidence between communities, between politicians, and among the institutions of Government and those charged with maintaining law. Groups have been committed to violence to achieve their ends. That crisis of confidence has to be addressed, and that is what the Good Friday agreement is designed to do, by creating structures that will give the communities the confidence to say no, once and for all, to those who mutilate and to the vigilantes carrying out the acts that the right hon. Gentleman described.
With the Good Friday agreement, the people of Northern Ireland are now closer than they have ever been to achieving that, and that is what we risk losing if we go down the route suggested by the right hon. Gentleman. He made it clear that the motion is based on the view that the paramilitary assaults mean that the ceasefires are not intact. The status of the ceasefires is a judgment that I have to make in the round, taking full account of the best security advice available to me.
My judgment is that the ceasefires are being maintained, a view that the right hon. Gentleman accepted when we last debated this issue in the House. He said:
The Secretary of State has the benefit of the best security advice available, and it is that those organisations are maintaining a ceasefire. I accept that".—[Official Report, 9 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 330.]
I discuss these issues frequently with the Chief Constable of the RUC, and while the overall judgment is mine—I take responsibility for it—I have no reason to believe that he disagrees with my interpretation.
The motion argues that one aspect of the agreement—early prisoner releases—should be halted until all forms of violence end, and that it would then be more likely that the attacks would stop. I do not believe, given the advice that I have that the ceasefires continue to hold, that if I rewrote the agreement, unilaterally stopping one part—prisoner releases—the process would stay intact. I could also, I believe, face challenges in the courts. I accept that the balance is difficult and, like my predecessors, I have difficult judgments to make.
How does the Secretary of State reconcile what she has just said with her statement in this House on 10 June last year? She said then that
if circumstances deteriorate in Northern Ireland, the programme of release will be stopped and no prisoners will be released…during the referendum campaign, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that if parties are to benefit from accelerated release, their commitment to democratic, non-violent means must be established in an objective, meaningful and verifiable way".—[Official Report, 10 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 1083.]
We are talking about a process that will not happen overnight—it is not like turning a switch on and off. It takes time for the process to develop, and I believe that that is what we are doing now. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nine months."] Yes, nine months—a short time in terms of the years of violence that have gone before.
Decisions in terms of the agreement and the ceasefire are based on evidence from the security forces, the police and elsewhere. I have to make the judgment, and I have judged that the ceasefire is intact. I have no reason to believe that the Chief Constable disagrees with that interpretation.
I get evidence from the police and other security organisations, but I make the judgment myself. It is not the Chief Constable—I take responsibility. I consult the Chief Constable regularly, and I have no reason to believe that he disagrees with my conclusions. My hon. Friend mentioned how difficult it is for the police to do their job, and there is no doubt about that. We ought to commend the police. In the Markets area of Belfast recently, for example, the local community police officer received a UK-wide award. Efforts are being made to break the vicious cycle, and that is the difficulty that we are faced with.
The Secretary of State is right to say that the final decision ought to be hers and not the Chief Constable's—the whole House accepts that. However, does she accept that I gave direct and detailed quotes from Sir Ronnie Flanagan's interview with Radio Ulster during my speech? He said again and again, categorically—as he did in the Police Review—that the paramilitaries who had signed up to the Belfast Agreement were the perpetrators of the dreadful tortures, attacks and beatings that we are debating today.
Sir Ronnie said that those groups were involved, but he did not go on to say that there was evidence to charge individuals, organisations or members within those organisations. If there is evidence, the Chief Constable will use it to initiate prosecutions. However, there is no evidence. I must work on evidence, and that is my judgment. I deal not in hearsay or in rumour, but in evidence. I have not seen evidence to support a conclusion different from the one that I have reached.
I wish to make a little more progress, but I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman later.
I readily accept that the balance is a difficult one. I, like my predecessors, have difficult judgments to make. Did the noble Lord Mayhew abandon his new law—as I am being asked to do—letting terrorist prisoners out early in 1996? He did not, even though that was the worst year on record for paramilitary assaults, and even though the IRA ended its ceasefire and we had the bomb at Canary Wharf, the London bus bombing, the explosion at Osnabrück and other incidents.
Lord Mayhew could have abandoned that law. He could have reversed his earlier decision. He did not, because his judgment told him that the process of working for a lasting peace required a different course of action. We supported him in that judgment, because we thought the same—and we still do.
However, I do not want to dwell on the past. It is better to face up to the future.
It is very important for the House to be absolutely clear about everything that is said today, as many people will be listening to the debate. The Secretary of State said a moment ago that she had to have evidence before there could be convictions. That is not anybody else's interpretation of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which provides that she has to make a judgment on the information that she receives from the security forces and elsewhere.
Will the Secretary of State correct what she said, as it is not true that she can decertify paramilitary organisations only when there are convictions in court? She knows full well how difficult the intimidation of witnesses and victims makes it for the police to get convictions. I should be grateful for a clarification, as I think that she inadvertently misled the House.
I did not inadvertently mislead the House. I said that, if there was sufficient evidence to permit prosecution, I have no doubt that the Chief Constable and the RUC would prosecute. I am not saying that the evidence presented to me by the Chief Constable has to go to a court of law, but I have to make a judgment about it. I have made my conclusion clear.
We must rely on the facts, not delude ourselves with half-answers. The task facing the RUC, with Garda support, in attempting to bring to book and to court those responsible for the Omagh bomb is difficult enough. It does not need to be made all the more difficult by someone threatening to act unwisely under the privileges of this House. Equally, it is difficult enough for both the police and the Government to deal with the issue of paramilitary assaults without having to cope with unhelpful or misleading speculation.
As I have just made clear to the right hon. Member for Bracknell, we must stick to the facts and to the rule of law, not to the law of the latest rumour.
On the "Today" programme this morning, the Secretary of State said that she did not really know whether she had the legal powers to deal with the type of situation that we are discussing. However, at Question Time, the Prime Minister said emphatically that she had that legal power. What is the legal nature and character of the problem that she was talking about this morning? Why does she not agree with the Prime Minister?
I do agree with the Prime Minister. What I said this morning was that I have legal powers, but they are limited. If a person breaks his or her licence, I can, under the powers of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, work with the independent sentences review commission and get the licence revoked by resubmitting that person's name. Under the Good Friday agreement, if I think that the ceasefire is not intact, I can name specific organisations or groups and none of their members who are in prison will be released.
Those are two of my specific powers. It is also possible, under the Good Friday agreement, to stop the whole process. That is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to, and he outlined clearly the implications if we took that course of action. If I have evidence against organisations, I will act similarly, but I need that evidence—[Interruption.] I need the evidence before I can act.
In response to the debate, I have tried to put the issue in the proper context, but that does not in any way reduce the Government's condemnation of the appalling assaults. I am determined that they should be brought to an end.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary will continue to have the Government's full support in its efforts to bring those responsible to justice. If there is clear evidence that any released prisoner on licence is carrying out attacks, I will suspend the licence and the prisoner will be returned to prison. If I judge that any group's ceasefire is at an end, based on that information I will stop its releases. At present, that is not my judgment and that is why the Government cannot support the Opposition motion.
I hope that I will not be too repetitious on some of the points that have already been made, although it is inevitable that one will be. Like the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), I begin by congratulating Families Against Intimidation and Terror, which has done a tremendous amount of good for many individuals who have been trying to free themselves from the influence of terrorist organisations. It has also done a tremendous amount of good by bringing to the public's attention the full horror of the intimidation, social terrorism, beatings and mutilations that have been going on in parts of Belfast, and from which various elements of polite society have been averting their attention for too long, as the right hon. Gentleman said. Class elements are involved and Labour Members might like to reflect on that too.
I shall start by referring to the death overnight of Mr. Eamon Collins, although it is not yet clear exactly what happened. It is one of those situations in which the police, on discovering that there is perhaps more to it than meets the eye, are rightly taking their time. Mr. Collins's background is well known. He is a former member of the IRA, who gave evidence against them, broke from them and published a book, which has been mentioned. In recent months, he has been an increasingly brilliant critic of the Republicans, particularly in the columns of the Irish News, the main nationalist newspaper in Northern Ireland. Only a few months ago, that resulted in his home on the outskirts of Newry being burnt down under suspicious circumstances, so fears that the death was also suspicious are inevitable, but we must not jump to conclusions.
At this stage, it looks as though it is another killing and that the republican movement is responsible. It follows on from other killings, in particular the Kearney killing, towards the end of last year; and I wonder about the timing, given the way in which the Secretary of State was snubbed by Sinn Fein-IRA earlier this week.
A few weeks ago, I had the honour—I use the term advisedly—of meeting Mr. Kearney's mother. She is a lady of republican views, from a republican background, but I take my hat off to her for the courage that she displayed when she went to a shopping centre in west Belfast to confront the man—one of the IRA's leaders in north Belfast—who ordered the killing. She confronted him there in the street and mentioned his name—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Name him."] No, I will not give his name, although I did mention it in the House some years ago. She went up to him and said, "Why did you order my son's killing?" From what she told me of her dealings with the IRA leadership in Belfast in general, there is no doubt about the fact that that killing was ordered by the IRA leadership. It was not some low-level activity. It was not even the work of that north Belfast commander. The action was approved at what the IRA would call brigade staff level in Belfast.
I am sure that the facts that are known to Mr. Kearney's mother are also known to the police and are part of the reason why the Chief Constable of the RUC told society in Northern Ireland that he has no doubt that the organisations—as organisations—are engaged in such attacks. Although there is a tendency to focus on the Republican movement because it is failing to carry out its other obligations, we must remind ourselves and the House that Loyalist organisations are also involved.
In recent months, the number of beatings and shootings by Loyalist organisations has outstripped those by Republicans. I have my suspicions as to the motives, particularly of the Ulster Volunteer Force. I think that I am right in saying that the majority of Loyalist beatings, shootings and murders—including a recent murder—were carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force. I suspect that there is a particular political motivation for the escalation of UVF beatings and shootings. However, that will not be news to the Secretary of State, who is aware of these matters.
I should like to comment on three things said during Northern Ireland questions last Wednesday that disturbed me greatly then and have been repeated here today. First, I shall quote the Secretary of State. She has qualified the position somewhat today, but last Wednesday she said:
I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Chief Constable's words were generic and that he said clearly that, in his opinion, all groups were still on ceasefire."—[0fficial Report, 20 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 898.]
That is a more categoric misleading of the House than the subsequent words of the Prime Minister to which the right hon. Member for Bracknell referred. As the Secretary of State said today, that is not the position nor is it what the Chief Constable said.
Last week's questions referred to what the Chief Constable had said in an interview that was broadcast on 15 January. I apologise for the repetition, but I remind the House of his precise words:
I've always said it's not my business to define a cessation of violence or a cessation of military operations; and therefore it's not my business to determine what constitutes a breach of such cessations. But you will think of the wording of these organisations in terms of their announced cessations and they are indeed cessations of military operations. So perhaps they have some distorted, perverted view that this sort of barbaric activity doesn't come within the term 'military operation'.
The Chief Constable was saying two things. First, he said that it was not his business to determine what constitutes a breach. I am glad that the Secretary of State has clarified that. The Chief Constable does not determine. He gives views as to the circumstances and informs people of the intelligence that he receives. The Secretary of State was in error last week when she said that the Chief Constable had said that the IRA and others were not in breach of the ceasefire. Furthermore, on 15 January the Chief Constable was saying that the organisations—particularly the IRA, as the terms of the Loyalist declaration were slightly different—in declaring their cessation said that they were ceasing military operations.
One can say that the IRA's cessation is intact only if one accepts that the present actions of the IRA are not military operations. The organisation is carrying out beatings, shootings and killings. One can say that there is not a breach of its cessation only if one classifies those beatings, shootings and killings as not being military operations; and that is what the Chief Constable described on 15 January as a "distorted, perverted view". So the view that the Secretary of State expressed at the Dispatch Box today is tenable and justified only on the basis of what the Chief Constable has described as a "distorted, perverted view".
I cannot judge what the Chief Constable has said to the Secretary of State in private, but only what he has said in public. He has described the only possible basis of the view that the Secretary of State has expressed as distorted and perverted.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a thoroughly compelling case. Anyone who does not live in Wonderland knows perfectly well that there has indeed been a breach. Will he tell the House what, in his view, would be the consequences for the Good Friday agreement if the proposal of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), that the release of terrorist prisoners be slowed down, were carried out?
That is the primary issue we are debating today and, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall develop my argument as I wish, although I shall deal with that serious point in turn.
The second matter that has been mentioned is the question of evidence and how one should act. By the end of the Secretary of State's speech, we were beginning to get a clear picture of the position, which is quite simple. To bring criminal proceedings in court, one needs evidence in the normal way; that evidence is difficult, albeit not impossible, to obtain and few prosecutions have been brought. However, what we are debating today is entirely different: it is a question of the exercise of a discretion under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.
That Act refers to several criteria and gives the Secretary of State a discretion. That discretion has to be exercised on some reasonable basis and with regard to the existing circumstances but, in exercising that discretion, the Secretary of State is not limited in any way to legally admissible evidence; and she is entitled to have regard to the commonly known circumstances in Northern Ireland. In addition, she ought to have regard to the information that reaches her from the police and the security services.
If the police are saying to the Secretary of State, as the Chief Constable has said to the public, that those organisations, as organisations, are involved in acts of violence, there is clearly a sufficient basis in law under that Act for her to act. I repeat, if the Secretary of State is receiving from the Chief Constable an assessment that is consistent with what he says in public, under the Act there is sufficient material to enable her to exercise her discretion to slow down, halt temporarily or even take more comprehensive action in respect of prisoner releases. There is no doubt whatsoever about that.
We need to be clear. Those who talk about there being no evidence are obscuring the picture. They might not fully understand the situation, but they are focusing on the wrong point. We must focus instead on the discretion that the Secretary of State has under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act and that she can exercise. I note that she said a few moments ago that, if there was evidence against organisations, she would act. I trust that that is the case.
In the current situation, "evidence" does not solely mean legally admissible evidence; the term includes the intelligence that the Secretary of State receives from the police, the Army and the security services. The right hon. Lady would have great difficulty convincing anybody in Northern Ireland that she is not in receipt of intelligence that indicates that the organisations are involved in acts of violence.
I can confirm that the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary has personally stated to me on several occasions that he has not the slightest doubt that the Provisional IRA and the UVF are responsible, as organisations, for the vast number of beatings, shootings and mutilations that are carried out in the communities they dominate.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for reinforcing what we all know to be true and what the Chief Constable has stated publicly. The Chief Constable has made similar comments to my colleagues and me on a number of occasions. We cannot know exactly what has passed between the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State, but we have difficulty reconciling what we have been told here with statements that are in the public domain.
My third point relates to what would happen if the suggested action were carried out. I regard as chilling the suggestion made by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that, if prisoner releases were slowed down or stopped, the agreement would collapse. It is appalling to suggest that that is the state of affairs. Prisoner releases are part of the agreement, but they are part of the whole, which includes an end to violence and decommissioning. That is why, in the legislation last year, the Government linked releases to decommissioning and an end to violence. If the Government say that they fear that slowing down prisoner releases will jeopardise the agreement, they are saying that the republican and other terrorist organisations can rewrite the agreement at will and that they can continue their illegal activities, including beatings and killings, with impunity. That is an appalling state of affairs to have reached.
The statements made last week and repeated this week chill the heart of many people in Northern Ireland. We have been here before. We were here a year ago. The present situation is similar to the situation then. We know what the terrorists are doing. They are trying to push out the envelope and see how far they can go. They are trying to lay a basis for an attack on the RUC later in the context of the Patten report. They are also trying, as they did a year ago, to unnerve Unionists and bounce them out of the process.
I remember the killings last year by Direct Action Against Drugs. The Secretary of State twisted and turned, trying to avoid what was obvious and tried to avoid taking action against republicans. Eventually, after a murder in Dunmurry, action became unavoidable and the Government screwed themselves up to take action. They excluded Sinn Fein from the talks, regrettably only for two weeks. I ask the Secretary of State to recall the positive consequences that flowed from acting last year. The tap turned off. The DAAD killings stopped. We had a more positive and serious attitude inside the talks, and that contributed to the agreement.
The terrorists are pushing out the envelope again. They are testing the Secretary of State's resolve. So far, she has not shown any resolve or willingness to tackle the situation. If she continues to allow the terrorists to push her around, the challenge that will face us all in another month or two will be more difficult. If she follows the good precedent of last year, when the Government resolved themselves to act after the DAAD killings, she will find that the next month or two will go more smoothly.
I hope that the Secretary of State knows that I hope that we manage to maximise the opportunities for society that the agreement presents. I welcome what the right hon. Member for Bracknell said about the need to maximise and take forward the opportunities. The Secretary of State knows that my colleagues and I will make any effort that can be made to carry those opportunities forward successfully.
The Secretary of State should also know that many people in Northern Ireland who have invested hope in the agreement also have a nightmare. The nightmare is that the paramilitary organisations, rather than turn their backs on violence and cross over into democratic society and thus create a new situation in Northern Ireland in which people can live together at ease, will come into the process and corrupt it, continue with their violence and continue the dominance and racketeering that not only affects estates in certain parts of Northern Ireland but goes much wider than that. People have a nightmare that they will then see the very heart of society become corrupted. That nightmare is reinforced by the fear that the RUC will be so emasculated that it is incapable of acting to restrain the paramilitaries.
The paramilitaries have grown quite arrogant and confident. One has only to look at the behaviour of some of their political spokesmen to see that.
May I first put in context the remarks that I want to make this evening, and have been making for many years, about violence and all its manifestations. I personally abhor the violence that is under discussion today, all violence that has taken place and the mindset that encourages people to use violence for political means.
Sometimes it is necessary to repeat that because, when one listens to debates, particularly on this issue, it is as though there are different rungs on a ladder corresponding to one's own rectitude or self-righteousness on the issue. However, that has not permeated this debate. I have seen no evidence of the self-righteousness or self-indulgence that is sometimes displayed on this issue. There is genuine concern, which I share. It is right that the issue is debated and that Members are able to put their views, and I have no problem with that.
I also have no problem with coupling my remarks with a gentle word of advice for our discussion on punishment beatings. To lob a petrol bomb through people's window when they are in bed is also a punishment, and it can be lethal. There have been a number of such incidents over the past few weeks. I also gently remind the House that, sometimes, the real punishment meted out by paramilitary groups in the north of Ireland is not physical. People, especially the young, are put under different psychological pressures in a way that is devised to protect the turf, influence or corrosive power of paramilitary groups in their organisations.
I question the wisdom of the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. If that motion were passed and implemented, how would a Secretary of State and a Prime Minister solve the problems of such brutality? How would passing the motion, with the best and most sincere motives, solve the problems? How would that change even the context in which the problems should be solved? Would we or others be debating more and more of those acts of barbarity or different acts of barbarity? I am opposed to the motion for that and other reasons.
The motion has a subterranean political context, which is already evident. Is it not the supreme irony that, at a time when the business and process of politics has been re-established in the north of Ireland, all concentration is on violence? One would have hoped that, in the context of the new agreement, the new beginning and the new approach, we could have been debating other issues—mundane issues, perhaps—such as education, welfare, carers or young people.
Another irony is that when, for the first time in the past 30 years—the lifetime of most people in the north of Ireland—we have a future, concentration on that will be overshadowed again by acts of barbarity. Ask anybody what is happening in the north of Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman might be aware that I asked the Library to research Opposition day debates on Northern Ireland in the previous Parliament. I am concerned because bipartisanship is very important to people in the peace process, and I recognise the importance of that process to people in Northern Ireland. The only Opposition day debate on Northern Ireland held during that time was the joint SDLP, UUP and Conservative Members' debate on the Northern Ireland economy. Is that the sort of debate that the hon. Gentleman wants to happen?
I thank the hon. Lady for that valuable interjection.
It is right to point out that, at a time when the primacy of politics and the political process should be establishing itself apace, the political process is actually partially dormant. What is the focus of concentration? It is the acts of barbarity, a throwback from the past; it is the violence that we have lived with for so long. As politicians, we have to ask ourselves how, in effect, the business of violence is overcoming the business of the political process in circumstances in which the political process should be leading in every sense.
We can ask the same question about the will of the people of the north of Ireland, expressed in a vote of 72 per cent. in the referendum on the agreement. Is that will the will that is being heard in this debate? Is that the will that has been heard in media terms, or is it the will—[Interruption.]
I am sure that extra time will be added, as they say. The reality is that, by carrying out punishment beatings, or whatever we want to call them, those with hoods—the faceless people—are able to grab attention in a way that the legitimate political process is not. Let us not all fall into the trap that is being set by those in paramilitary organisations.
I am asked whether the passing of this motion would end the brutality. If the release of prisoners were ended, would that end those acts of brutality? I do not believe that it would; I do not believe that any hon. Member believes that it would; and I do not believe that there is anyone in the House who does not believe that, in those circumstances, it would be the next excuse for a vast escalation of the type of violence that we have seen down the years.
I agreed with the Prime Minister when he said—or implied—that, if one breaks one of the key provisions of the Good Friday agreement, the agreement is in effect broken and finished with. If that is the case, what is the vehicle to be used to solve the problem of these beatings? What, then, is the vehicle to solve the issue of decommissioning? Let us ask ourselves that and answer ourselves truthfully—there is no vehicle left for the political process.
Of course, there will be those who say that we can solve the problem through policing. If it could have been done that way, those who are carrying out the attacks would have been behind bars long ago, and we all know that. Could it be done with new security measures? They have been tried for 30 years, and the problem has not been ended. Could it be done with new legislation? All of us should think what legislation that is not on the statute book but that might be on it would solve the problems of violence. Could it be done by political exclusion? If that is the feeling and the mood in some quarters, I warn that to exclude people from the political process is not the way to wean them from violence and arms.
I have limited time, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and I want to finish my contribution. I always give way, but not this time.
The motion presents the House with a choice: we can swap the agreement, with all its difficulties, for another political vacuum. By so doing, we acknowledge the failure of our political process and throw away the keys—the keys to our future, the keys to peace. We throw those keys inexorably into the hands of the leaders of all the paramilitary groupings. Is that we want to do? Can we do it? Can we even contemplate it?
Right at the core of the Good Friday agreement is a crucial fact that is often overlooked. The central importance of the agreement is the fact that, for the first time since partition, the people of Northern Ireland—Unionist and nationalist—agreed how they would solve constitutional, political and social issues. They agreed to solve them by peaceful means, through the political process, for the first time since partition. It took almost 80 years to get to that point. To throw that out and to throw the keys away would jeopardise any hope for the future. I cannot contemplate the House doing that, and I do not believe that it will.
I want to make one last point in relation to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State. All the issues surrounding violence in the north of Ireland are highly sensitive. We can all bleed within ourselves about them, and we can all blame everybody. I want to put on record my admiration for the courage, the compassion and the concern shown by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram). I get tired listening to them being bashed.
Those are the people at the coal face, soaking up the vitriol that comes in their direction—for doing what? For doing exactly what I agreed they should do when my party signed the agreement, and for doing what other parties asked them to do when they signed the agreement, and for standing as a bulwark between the political process and the future, and a return to the awful past that we have experienced for so long.
I want that to be put on the record, because it is grossly unfair that, when we charge the Secretary of State and her Ministers to pursue a line of policy contained in an agreement that we have reached, we start to complain and bitterly, publicly hold those people to ransom because they have carried out their commitment to that agreement.
I ask the House not to put at risk the consensus that exists, however tenuous it may be. However difficult it is, do not risk it—the risk is far too high. At risk is the future, and future generations who will have to live with it. Do not make this or any other issue a make-or-break issue for the agreement. Agreements are much more easily broken than created.
I have spent the years from Whitelaw to Mowlam in negotiations. That is only one part of one lifetime. Do we start again on another 30 years of negotiation, to try to reach the point where we are now, or do we preserve it, with everything under our control? We should never make this issue—I know that it has not been made so—a party political one. I recognise that it has not because people feel deeply about it. If we start playing with an agreement, which had to be created and took so long and so much effort from so many people to create, we are playing with fire. And that fire will be not just the awful barbarism of the beatings that have occurred, but the type of violence that we all know exists.
Mr. Lembit Ã–pik:
I shall suggest another way of looking at the issue, detaching the political element from the criminal behaviour. I shall be interested to hear what other hon. Members think about the suggestions that I make. At the very least, I hope that I provide a different perspective.
I add my tribute to Families Against Intimidation and Terror and other organisations that try so hard to help victims of organised assaults and, on occasions, even stand up to those who perpetrate the crimes. If it were not for the likes of Vincent McKenna, who showed great courage and determination in ensuring that there are several directions in which victims can turn, the situation could be unimaginably worse than the very grave circumstances in which they find themselves at the moment.
Let us be clear that the term "punishment beatings" has been put to rest today. I certainly agree with the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) that "punishment beatings" is an inappropriate term. Perhaps we shall no longer hear it used in the Chamber. We are talking of organised assaults; simple criminal action in a criminal underworld which has no legitimacy on either political or legal grounds. In some ways, the tactics are similar to those used in the Chicago turf wars in the 1930s, when there was great commercial and political unrest among gangsters. We are talking of racketeers who seek, not just to protect a political interest, but to ensure that coercion keeps them at the top of their pile in Northern Irish life.
Let us define what is going on: intimidation, injury and, occasionally, death. Indeed, it sounds as if there has been another tragic death among the people in Northern Ireland. Such events occur in a way that we simply do not see on the mainland, where I imagine that, from time to time, there are localised incidents, but, when they occur, the police come down very hard. As the Conservatives have suggested, such things would not be tolerated on the mainland for any length of time.
It is difficult to assess the incidence of such events in Northern Ireland. The fact that figures—even the statistics quoted today by the Prime Minister and others—vary shows that, due to the intimidation wielded among those who could otherwise come forward to make statements, reliable statistics are difficult to gather. The rule of fear is so great that we cannot know exactly the extent of injuries and problems. I suspect that FAIT' s statistics are pretty accurate because it speaks informally with victims, something that the police cannot always do.
Who is to blame? It is not the Government, the Good Friday agreement or the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Obviously, it is not the victims. The only people who are to blame for these terrible evils are the paramilitaries and others who commit such crimes. It is the perpetrators who should be called to account, not any other groups of people. Our role is not to attribute blame among ourselves in this Chamber, but to ask what we can do to prevent the perpetrators from carrying out their barbaric acts.
On that basis, the Conservatives' proposal is inappropriate. Making a connection between prisoner releases and beatings will not resolve the issue, as the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) pointed out.
The important distinction that I seek to make is that it is inappropriate for us to regard the large proportion of the attacks as motivated primarily by politics. They must be regarded as being motivated primarily by nothing more than criminal aspiration—an attempt to coerce a community simply by breaking the law, thereby breaking bones, destroying lives and intimidating individuals, and all that clearly pervades in large areas of Northern Ireland.
To pretend that there is a consistent and specific link between the political peace process and that criminal activity is to misunderstand the solution that we will ultimately have to implement. I draw an analogy with Estonia, a country that I know well and that also experienced enormous political upheavals, as it shifted from being a satellite state in the former Soviet Union to becoming a free and independent state liberated from the Soviet Union.
The KGB, which was primarily a political organ for the former Soviet Union, converted itself into a criminal organisation that was primarily motivated by cash interest and by maintaining the power of those near the top of the organisation. It stopped being a political organisation, but carried on many of its coercive activities in the criminal interests of those involved. There was a surge in black market activities as well.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the criminal activity that is going on is carried out by organisations that were party to the Belfast agreement? Surely what they are doing contradicts what they professed that they would do under that agreement: give up all violence—whether they carried it out for political or other reasons—and take on the democratic process.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I shall return to it. I am suggesting that we should look at that issue differently and that it is, in large part, up to us to define the extent to which we should regard the beatings and the intimidation as politically motivated and the extent to which we should regard them as organised crime.
I return to the KGB analogy. The KGB, which was no longer a political organisation, carried on working, as a criminal organisation, in Estonia and elsewhere. The Estonian authorities converted their approach to it into a criminal approach. As a result, they managed to reduce the criminal and coercive activities to a point at which things were much improved.
In the same way, we should seriously consider whether it is now appropriate to detach elements of the activities of those paramilitary organisations from the political process—which I hope will deliver peace—and treat those beatings simply as thuggery and crime. We may have to increase massively investment in the police services to destroy that criminal activity and, at the same time, recognise that there is a distinction in motive. There is not necessarily always a political motive, or a motive associated with the peace process, behind such activities.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving away some of his time to allow me to intervene. Although we can accept that each act may be criminal, does he not see that such acts are also part of a political programme? Paramilitaries on both sides want influence over the outcome of the Patten commission. They have a crucial role now; they are increasing the amount of violence to show that certain parts of the Province cannot be policed so that the Patten commission will suggest proposals that would break the national police force. Those activities are criminal, but they are also highly political.
I want to move on to that issue. Although what I have described may take account of a large proportion of the activity that takes place—I sincerely believe that a lot of it is motivated by criminal, not political, interest—it is nevertheless reasonable to assume, as two hon. Members have done, that some activity is politically motivated.
We could have made the whole situation a lot simpler, if we had thought about that at the time of the Good Friday agreement. The issue was considered, but it was not specifically included in the agreement, which is why we now face problems of definition in respect of categorising beatings. In fact, I think we made a mistake; last April, we should have expressed a specific view on the issue. Still, we could debate that until the cows come home, but we cannot rewrite the agreement. Therefore, the question is merely of historical interest rather than practical application.
We should consider the consequences of accepting that some of those activities might be politically motivated. That is the issue that the Secretary of State must address in deciding what to do about them. If the paramilitary organisations made an overt effort to proceed with their political intentions, and to move towards their stated goals, through coercive means, we would get into a grey area. There might be a case for reassessing everything, from prisoner releases to the status of the Good Friday agreement.
I do not have the same information as the Secretary of State, or as hon. Members from the Province, who are much better informed than I am, so I cannot be sure whether any such move is taking place, but my judgment is that the agreement is—at the moment, at least—maintaining a ceasefire that I can regard as intact and a peace process that is our best hope for peace for more than 30 years.
I recognise that others may have different views. Perhaps Conservative Members and other hon. Members think that the Good Friday agreement has been breached in an unacceptable fashion, but therein lies the path to great danger. The Secretary of State made the point—as did the Prime Minister at Question Time today—that implying that the Good Friday agreement has in some part failed is a much worse option.
Rather than taking that approach, and rather than the Government specifically and overtly showing that the process is failing by slowing down or stopping prisoner releases, we should handle the beatings in a different way. First, we should find a process that would make it easier for victims to come forward with information. I know that that has been said before, and I shall not suggest such a process now; I may not even be able to do so, and certainly could not do that in three minutes. It might be expensive, but we may have to invest in seeking an alternative to what people are faced with at the moment: either silence or the terror of coming forward.
Secondly, we have to accept that implementation of the correct rule of law is an expensive business in the face of racketeers and powerful paramilitary organisations. The Government should say that, whatever the cost, since human liberties are involved, the need to normalise law enforcement in Northern Ireland is so great that this is an area for legitimate additional investment in those communities.
To an extent, there is lack of faith in some of those communities that the law can protect them or even reach them. That has to be dealt with. There are areas where the RUC has a poor profile and, as a result, the mountain that we must climb to institute normal law enforcement activities is great. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State should make a specific commitment, putting this point of principle above cost.
We must consider the political element on an on-going basis. If it looks as though some of those organisations are specifically using beatings and organised assaults to try to further their political aims, we must think long and hard about whether they are breaching the Good Friday agreement. Here, I do not think that we are arguing a point of principle; we are arguing a point of judgment. The view of the right hon. Member for Bracknell is different from mine, and other hon. Members sitting behind me share a different view, but that is why it is useful for us to have a rational debate.
Where do we go from here? As I have said in the past, there are elements of brinkmanship in the process, and there may be elements of brinkmanship as we seek to turn off the tap on these beatings. We have to be courageous. Once again, the Secretary of State is in the invidious position of attempting to decide how to be tough, what is the most effective way to be tough and what investment should be made to implement a tough policy.
We must recognise that simple solutions, such as slowing or stopping prisoner releases, make a statement without necessarily taking account of the consequences. Such solutions would have the wrong consequences. It is far more difficult to detach some of those activities and put them into the criminal context, assess the others on an on-going basis in a political context, and provide the investment to make sure that both kinds of activity are controlled. But, if we took that more difficult option, I would be fairly confident that we could not only win the respect of communities, but achieve our long-term objective of normalising Northern Ireland.
No one should have to live with those beatings, but we must do nothing that would fundamentally jeopardise the peace process, which has gone a lot further than many of us expected.
Members of the campaign Families Against Intimidation and Terror have visited the House many times since the campaign's inception in 1990, but its visit just before Christmas constituted a major breakthrough.
People in Britain find it difficult to appreciate the degree of intimidation that exists in Northern Ireland estates. That extends to many of my colleagues in the House. The campaign, however, managed to bring a good many people together during its visit, and I think that had some influence.
I agreed to table a number of early-day motions whose content was drawn from information that the campaign supplied about the beatings. The motions, which were signed by members of all political parties, expressed the genuine concern felt by all hon. Members. I went further, however, and tabled another early-day motion suggesting that there should be a link with the issue of the release of prisoners. I argued for a slowing down of their release, rather than for a complete stop, because I thought that many might interpret a complete stop as a breach of the Belfast agreement, and I wanted to avoid that. I accepted that the word "slow" could mean "very slow indeed", and could be understood in that way by the pal-militaries.
As a result of that argument, I have been the subject of favourable comments in editorials in The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Independent, and have even had an honourable mention from the Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister's Question Time. I would much prefer to receive support in the editorials of "Socialist Campaign Group News", Tribune and the Morning Star, which reflect my political stance, and I would sooner be praised by the Prime Minister. I may not agree with him about "third way" politics, but I am full of admiration for all that the Northern Ireland team has done, for the establishment of the agreement and for the role that the Prime Minister has played in the process.
I am trying to encourage and develop that process, and to ensure that it works. I know that the beatings and other troubles in Northern Ireland pose a massive problem, and that the release of prisoners alienates many people there. We must hold on to those people in our support for the process. The problem is probably greater in the Protestant community than in the Catholic community, because the majority in support of the agreement was smaller there. We must try to sustain the position of the Ulster Unionists who are involved in the process, whichever avenue they follow.
I thought that the debate was about the link between punishment beatings and prisoners, but some have suggested that certain people should be excluded from the Assembly. I want to avoid that. If people take on board what is said about so-called punishment beatings, it will be easier for us to advance our views.
I have always argued that we should look for ways in which the paramilitaries can be encouraged to involve themselves in what they call concessions. If the IRA would only tell us where the bodies of the disappeared are, Christian burials could take place. That would represent movement—movement that could be associated with, for instance, the ending of exile. It has been said that we do not want politicians in Northern Ireland to be exiled, but many people are exiled from Northern Ireland. They cannot return until the beatings stop; even if they are told that they can, they will not feel safe. The involvement of paramilitary groups in smuggling and protection rackets also needs to be tackled.
If we can achieve some movement in the areas that I have mentioned, the prize will be concessions in terms of decommissioning, which is the major issue. A small amount of decommissioning would be fantastic, because it would be contrary to all the IRA's traditions. When people were told to rob a bank in order to get some guns to engage in future terrorist activity, they would say "Get lost. You have given the guns away." Those are serious issues, and the concern of Families Against Intimidation and Terror is justified.
Nancy Gracey, who helped to set up the campaign, was involved with Protestant families although she was a Catholic. She had experienced similar problems to theirs. She began by looking for support. One of my proudest memories is of seeing her on television with an early-day motion of which she was obviously proud. I had tabled the motion, congratulating her on the establishment of the campaign. It has taken a long time for the campaign to reach centre stage, and to be mentioned other than in parliamentary questions and Adjournment debates. It is not alone, however: there are many other worthwhile organisations, many of which receive Government funding.
I have a problem with the Government amendment. I have no problem in voting for it, because it expresses all the right sentiments, but where does it go after that? Citrine—whom we in the Labour movement often quote—might describe it as pious. It contains no proposal or strategy for the ending of punishments. Whatever may be wrong with the Opposition motion and my suggested amendment, at least they involve some sort of strategy, albeit perhaps inappropriate or weak.
We all support what has been done by the Northern Ireland Office, and the recent discussions with the leaders of the three political parties in the Assembly. They have laid it on the line. However, we want solid progress: we want all the stops to be pulled out. People in Northern Ireland need that more than anyone else. They need to be drawn into the process.
Although the Opposition are allowing us to have a good debate, I do not know what their motion means or why it is there. I fear that it is there because some Opposition Members have threatened to name names in the House, and have pressurised their party into adopting a stronger position. The Conservative leadership has come up with this motion in the hope that such matters will be dropped.
Some Conservatives supported the "No" campaign, and want the agreement to be wrecked. I entirely oppose that position, and oppose Northern Ireland Members who support it, although I agree with them about other matters of a social and economic nature.
Let me put the record straight. The overwhelming majority of Conservative Members fully support the Belfast agreement and the process, as I have clearly outlined. Only a handful do not. There is one simple reason why we tabled the motion, and I think that it has been proved to be worth while from the high standard of the debate: to draw attention to the dreadful plight of those innocent people who are victims of terrorism of the worse sort. I can put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest.
I am pleased to hear that. I have a suggestion in connection with that: when we get to 7 o'clock, the Opposition should not press their motion because we will have had the debate. They might say, "We have not quite found exactly the deal that gets the paramilitaries to do these things. We are applying our mind to it. We are arguing with the Government about it. We will listen to their responses and we are encouraging a certain development to take place."
I tried with an amendment; obviously, it was not going to be selected. I hoped that the Conservative party might have backed it. I am in no sense jumping on any Conservative bandwagon. In fact, I had a little bandwagon going for about 10 years, although it mainly reflected what Families Against Intimidation and Terror was doing. The Conservative party should come on board in terms of my amendment.
Within politics, there is politicking. Perhaps some members of the Conservative party feel that it would not be all that much of a loss if the process fails because it would do so under a Labour Government, rather than a future Conservative Government. I still want to say many honourable things about certain people in the Conservative party.
We passionately want the agreement and the process to work, but let me explain why, although superficially attracted to the hon. Gentleman's amendment, I feel that there is a problem with it. His proposal would be illegal, as I think the Minister will explain in his winding-up speech. There is only one of two options. We either do not decertify the various parties, so prisoner releases can continue, or we do. We cannot slow the process down. It is not an option, even though the House might like to have it. It is not possible under the law.
I picked up that there was a problem. Some people seemed to say at first that halting early release, the Opposition's position, was legally possible and that there were problems with slowing it down, as my amendment proposes. However, "slow down" was introduced to try to get around the problem of people saying that halting early release would violate the agreement. Therefore, we can look for something else, but I still think that it would be a great advantage if the Opposition did not press their motion when we come to the end of the debate.
I agree that there are many genuine Conservatives who support the process and who were there at its birth. At the moment, I should be in a meeting of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which is discussing exactly the type of economic and social affairs in which we should be engaged in.
The Chairman is the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). I know that he is solidly behind the process because he produced the form of words initially that started the whole process going, so those elements are there. Let us have the debate, but not then go further by pressing for a Division. We are looking for matters of substance to try to solve these particular problems.
From a left-socialist position, I always believed that something like the agreement should be established. In the Labour party, we used to have a policy of a united Ireland by consent. It was an inconsistent policy because we could not have a united Ireland by consent; a united Ireland could happen only without consent. It was much more sensible when we developed a position where the parties could be facilitated to come together to agreement.
We nudged the parties on occasions. Headings of agreement were drawn up on what they had said. The two Governments got together to move in that direction, but it always seemed that that was the right sort of thing to do. I have great disagreements with many people who go for centralist politics in relation to economic and social matters—I disagree even with the Prime Minister in connection with those—but when it came to Northern Ireland's constitution or political matters, there was an obvious area for an almost artificial centre.
We have got that going and we have to keep it going, but, at the same time, we have to do things to protect people in communities from being beaten, battered and all the other problems that are associated with that. We should act in ways that assist them to get out of those problems.
I appeal to certain of my colleagues who are very much on the left: if they have any links with Sinn Fein, they should put the strongest pressure that they can possibly on it. We should not be ambivalent in any way about violence or the new violence that is happening now in terms of the beatings, their spread and the fact that there is a political strategy behind them—as well as all the other considerations. It is fully understood that parties are organising to further their own ends in connection with the beatings. We should not have it.
Therefore, we have to look for methods, more police expenditure and improvements, and ask where the peace dividend is going to be spent; there is no peace dividend if we look at the statistics. Those things should be used to create a situation in which we achieve what everyone wants to be achieved.
The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) always makes an idiosyncratic and amusing speech. I hope that his political credentials have not been utterly ruined by praise from both The Daily Telegraph and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, on the same day.
I support wholeheartedly the bipartisan approach and the Good Friday agreement. I think that everyone knows that; I know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland knows it. However, that does not mean—it is rather offensive to be told this by some Labour Members—that we cannot and must not criticise.
The definitive remark came from the Secretary of State herself. She may remember that, when we appeared on "Question Time" some years ago, when our roles were reversed, I defended a particularly controversial thing that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) had just said. She tore into me, and told me that I was talking rubbish and defending the indefensible, whereupon Mr. Dimbleby said, "But I thought you had a bipartisan process." "Of course we do," she said, "but that does not mean that we cannot criticise the Government when they are wrong." That is what we are doing. There is no discredit in that. I am sure that she will agree.
I hope that the Secretary of State will agree too that, apart from the small print in the Good Friday agreement and all the other bits of legislation that we have had, the words of reassurance that have been spoken by leaders are also important. In the summer, when the releases started—when the process started—there was much concern that the IRA had not moved an inch. To reassure those people who were worried about the process being one-sided, the Prime Minister said clearly and unequivocally, "I shall insist on parallel movement through all stages of the agreement."
In all honesty, that remark should be withdrawn. There has been no parallel movement. One side has been totally stationary, while the other side—the Government—have pressed ahead, honouring the letter and spirit of the agreement. I do not criticise that, but there must come a time when the Prime Minister has to say either, "I do not insist on parallel movement any longer," or "There is none and I am going to stop moving until someone catches up."
It is an illogical statement to have made as it simply has not been applied by the IRA in any way, shape or form. It is not particularly honest for that remark still to be on the record if the time of it has passed.
I come to another remark, which was made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, to which I noticed the Secretary of State shake her head. He asked what the Prime Minister was doing saying that, if prisoner releases stopped, that would be the end of the Good Friday agreement. He said that last week and I thought that he said it again this week.
Last week my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said:
Is it not time that we put on hold the release of convicted terrorists, when they have not yet given up a single gun or bomb?
The Prime Minister answered by saying:
The right hon. Gentleman is, in effect, asking us to bring the whole Good Friday agreement to an end."—[Official Report, 20 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 901–902.]
That is at the heart of the matter. It would bring the Good Friday agreement to an end. That is what Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness have threatened. They have said that if there is a slowdown or deviation in anything that the Government do, the whole thing is off. They are proceeding by implied threat while doing absolutely nothing. They are trying to bring the blame for any breakdown upon the Government and not themselves.
Nobody has yet called their bluff. The Secretary of State was, uncharacteristically, wringing her hands on the radio this morning when she said, "I could not do anything about it even if I wanted to." That is a counsel of despair. She will run out of options if she continues with this line. All the prisoners will be out and not one bullet, one bomb or one gun will have been handed in. What will she do then? Will she say, "Isn't it dreadful. They have not done anything. We have another year under the agreement and we will press on"? If that happens, the beatings will continue, as will the punishment and the violence, which has not decreased. The right hon. Lady will have lost what I see as her only card in restraining them and calling their bluff. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has tabled the motion. We have had a useful debate.
I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way. I have only a short time and I have another point to make.
We now have a situation in which the Government are proceeding with the agreement in letter and spirit, and the IRA are not proceeding with the agreement in either letter or spirit. Even worse, there are implied threats day after day, week after week, that they will not be told when they have to move in the direction in which the Prime Minister has insisted and on which the spirit of the Good Friday agreement is based.
The crunch will really come over decommissioning. The Secretary of State continues to say that it has to happen because it is in the agreement. The IRA and Sinn Fein continue to say—I believe them—that it will not happen under any circumstances. At the start of this process, Mr. McGuinness said that there would be, "Not one bullet." Mr. Adams keeps saying that the, "IRA is still there." The Ard Fheis held by the IRA general council or army council—whatever it is called—said that the IRA would not give up its arms or surrender its weapons under any circumstances.
Why are we in any doubt that the IRA means that? Why do we keep saying, "It is in the agreement so it will have to happen"? The leaders of the IRA are not in a position—I doubt they would be willing anyway—to force the IRA to hand over their weapons. They do not want to do it because of their attitude of no surrender, which is always in the thoughts of the IRA. It will not happen.
What will happen when the time comes, according to the agreement, for the setting up of the Executive? Will the right hon. Member for Upper Bann have to go back on his declared intention not to sit down with those people until they have made a move in that direction? I do not believe that that is a tolerable position for him. I do not think that his party or his people would let him do it and I would think less of him if he did. That is the position that has been taken not just by the leadership in this place, but by all right-thinking people and all the people in Northern Ireland who voted for the agreement. They voted for both parties to move out of the impasse in which they have found themselves.
We have had no movement whatsoever. If the Government do not take some action to call that bluff, the right hon. Lady will probably say, "It is not down to me. I am afraid it is down to the Ulster Unionists." That is what the IRA is already saying. It is saying that it is the intransigence of the Ulster Unionists that is causing the problems in the setting up of the Executive.
I know that the Secretary of State takes her responsibilities seriously. She must not just sit back, wring her hands and say that she cannot do anything about it. The crunch will come on 10 March. Perhaps we can delay that, but we cannot delay it indefinitely because the day will not come when the IRA will decommission its weapons. It has said that clearly and unequivocally.
Such cards as the Government had in what was a skilful and difficult series of negotiations are being dropped one by one. The right hon. Lady needs to take note of the genuine concerns that have been raised on both sides of the Chamber. The time is running out. She must not go on pandering to the IRA—I do not use that word lightly—allowing the wives of IRA killers to come in and see Ministers and providing more money for the resettlement of prisoners than for the victims of crimes.
I know what the right hon. Lady is doing. She is trying to persuade them that our cause—hers and mine—is genuine. It is genuine, but it needed some persuading at the beginning. With respect, I suggest to the Secretary of State that the boot is now on the other foot. She must start persuading decent Unionists that her determination to make the terrorist organisations honour the agreement is just as strong as her determination to honour it herself. If she does not do that, I fear that what set out to be an exciting adventure may end in tears.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to participate in the debate. I shall be brief, so that other hon. Members can contribute. The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) moved the motion in an eloquent and emotive way. He described graphically the trauma, torture and torment suffered by individuals and families. He gave us a litany of data about the terrorist offences visited on those people and on the communities.
At every Northern Ireland debate in the House since last Easter, whether it was on the Northern Ireland Bill, the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill or any other opportunity, I have tried to make the point consistently that the communities in Northern Ireland, even those that are totally opposed to violence, have endured and suffered violence for over a generation—30 years. I have urged the House to consider the fact that it would not be possible by any agreement to switch off immediately the use of violence for political and personal purposes because such violence is endemic in certain parts of our community. That does not mean that we excuse or condone it. There is not a single person in the House, the country or Ireland who, in civilised terms, would condone or excuse any act of violence that has taken place.
Those of us who live in those communities can see a complex pattern of what is happening. Many of the beatings are rooted purely in criminality. That does not mean that they are different or that people suffer any less. Many of the beatings involve people mixed up in the drugs racket, the protection racket or in territorial claims. Some of them are personal vendettas, many of which can be superficial. It may be that the godfather's car has been damaged and he sends out the thugs and hoods to teach someone a lesson.
That is what much, although not all, of this is about. The sinister fact to which I want to draw the House's attention is that that is the habitual criminality that our society has to address from now on. We must show that we are determined to work together. We must show leadership in delivering a civilised society based on good social and economic order if we are to cut that cancerous growth out of our society once and for all. Basically, that is what the agreement is about. It is about living together for the betterment of our communities.
I have no evidence, but I suggest that there may be another agenda. Paramilitary influences in Northern Ireland are very complex. I am convinced that some of the beatings and killings are aimed at discrediting those elements of the paramilitary organisations and their political representatives who are in favour of a continuing ceasefire, even if they cannot yet deliver all that is required of them. There are certainly elements in the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force or the Ulster Defence Association—we can give them any name that we like; I could name 10 or more paramilitary organisations that most people have not heard of—that are committing acts of violence. Their purpose is to drive us towards doing what the motion asks.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell referred eloquently to the tragic event this morning involving Eamon Collins just outside my constituency. My information is that he was killed in a hit and run accident. That may be true, but assessing the situation without evidence risks inflaming the situation. Some of those involved in paramilitary beatings and killings are trying to drive the agreement on to the rocks.
People knew that we were going to have this debate but, far from there being a reduction in such incidents, they have escalated. That may be a coincidence, but I doubt it. The purpose is to drive us towards the decision that the motion calls for.
Let us consider the practicality of stopping the release of prisoners. The Secretary of State can do that, given the proper evidence. So what? It would not have much effect on paramilitaries' attempts to control communities by beatings, maimings and killings. We have to address that in a more difficult, more complex and, unfortunately, longer-term way. That requires strong local government by local people.
There is a political agenda. Almost the entire speech of the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) was a political contribution. It was about not the criminality of what is happening, but the political drive behind it. He put decommissioning in an interesting context. The debate process is part of the decommissioning debate. The parties in Northern Ireland who support the Good Friday agreement and the 18 December agreement, on the bodies to be established, are within 20 days—I hope; the relevant date should be 15 February—of signing up to that. Decommissioning has been put up as an obstacle to that. I shall not argue the pros and cons of that debate today. I want total decommissioning, but I also want the complete dismantling of all paramilitary organisations for ever. It does not concern me that a gun is buried in a pit somewhere if no one goes to that pit and gets the gun to use it against someone in my community. As I said in an earlier debate, we could put a gun on the Table in the Chamber and come back in 1,000 years, during which it would have done no harm if the human element had not touched it. We must be careful not to exclude that possibility.
We are 20 days away, in my hopeful opinion, from a major breakthrough. There is a difficult balance to strike between those elements of the paramilitaries that are trying to destroy the agreement, which has been carefully nurtured and brought to this point, and other elements that are trying to sustain a ceasefire and keep the process going with their political representatives.
That is a judgment. I have no hard evidence on who is in one camp and who is in the other. It is just an observation and an interpretation of what is happening around me in my community. Today's debate is not dangerous, but it would be dangerous for the motion to be passed or used as ammunition by the paramilitary opponents of the agreement to disrupt the process further. The exclusion of some members who were elected to the Assembly from participating in the democratic process would be equally dangerous. Whether we like them or dislike them is irrelevant; they have been voted in under the terms of the law that was passed by the House. There are many people whose history I know and do not like, but I have to work with them. That is the price that we have to pay for peace in Northern Ireland. I am prepared to work with them on the understanding that there has been at least an element of conversion that has given us a prospect of establishing an enduring peace in our community. I am a middle-aged man and I have not known enduring peace in my lifetime. We are aiming at a prize beyond compare.
We should not give ammunition to those who are trying to destroy the agreement by violence or by putting up obstacles in the political process to prevent us from coming to the conclusion that I hope for on 15 February. The right hon. Member for Bracknell said that the purpose of the debate was to draw attention to an evil cancer in our society. That is right and proper, and I have no problem with it; but if he is just drawing attention to the issue, he cannot follow that by asking the Government to stop prisoner releases, because that would immediately give the paramilitaries who oppose the agreement an excuse to take a dominant position and re-establish violence in our society. I sincerely hope that the motion will be withdrawn.
The events since the Omagh bombing and the increase in paramilitary attacks have shown how Governments react to such atrocities. First there is a general outcry, in which everyone joins, and solemn pledges are made by political leaders that the perpetrators will be hunted down ruthlessly. In the case of Omagh, our Prime Minister and Mr. Ahern responded with so-called draconian legislation, even suggesting that suspected bombers would be gaoled—on the word of a senior police officer alone, if necessary. We have had the Prime Minister's word and it is not enough. We have seen the special powers and they are useless. Those who carried out the Omagh atrocity walk free.
You will remember the recall of Parliament, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will remember the strong words that were spoken and the fact that, in Dail Eireann, the new offence of directing terrorism was introduced, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. When the threat died down and the survivors' suffering no longer reached the front pages, the condemnatory words evaporated, and little has changed.
The laws that were to have the terrorists quaking in their boots have failed. They are laughing. Suspects flout the new laws, which are either ineffective or unused. Paramilitaries are getting out of gaol and some of them are very much behind what is going on. In January, we heard that some of the prisoners released had been charged with new offences.
The Belfast agreement, which brought about their release, promised that the gun would be taken out of Irish politics and that the gunmen would be banished. That has not happened. The Prime Minister acknowledged today that it was not a perfect peace, yet we were told that it would be.
Many other released prisoners are suspected of involvement in the wave of attacks, including arson and intimidation, that has beset Northern Ireland. We have heard a catalogue of what is taking place. In my constituency, a move is afoot to put the gangsterism out of control and demoralise the police. I think that it was the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who said that the RUC was being hit and that pressure on the Constabulary was encouraging the commission to move.
Some think that the wild men, as they are called, have suddenly come into being; but the wild men of the Republican movement, and of other movements, have not suddenly come into being. They are there today because of the failure of Governments to deal with terrorism and to put it down.
Some of us will remember that, 23 years ago, there was a massacre in Kingsmills. It sparked off one of the greatest revulsions against terrorism that I have seen in the Province. Ten Protestants were gunned down in cold blood when the bus in which they were travelling was stopped by an armed gang. An 11th Protestant, Alan Black, survived, but was maimed for life. The only Roman Catholic on board escaped with his life after the killers told him to flee.
At that time, we were told that steps would be taken to bring those responsible for the atrocity to trial. If the Government of that day had done their duty and gone after those men ruthlessly, we would not be reaping other atrocities, and perhaps we would not even have had the sorrow of Omagh. There are hard men in the republican movement who can fly flags of convenience whenever they like. I believe that the IRA leadership condones their actions, and allows them to return to the ranks after a time. There are all sorts of flags of convenience.
It is interesting to note that a police dossier carefully prepared on the Kingsmills massacre has recently come to light. It shows that the police did thorough work, had definite evidence and could, if they had been encouraged, have got men into the courts; but that did not happen. Now we are told by the police officer investigating the Omagh atrocity that he knows the identity of the bombers but he cannot secure a conviction.
The Tullyvallen massacre, another terrible atrocity, was thought to be the work of some group calling itself the South Armagh Republican Action Group; but that, too, was undoubtedly a cover name for a gang of cross-border PIRA terrorists. The fact must be faced that, under the surface, there are those who are ready to act, whose actions will be condoned and who will probably be reincorporated into the republican movement after they have acted.
There is something seriously wrong with any country—and any Government—that permits known killers to walk the streets with impunity while their victims lie in cold graves. The fact that the killers could operate both inside and outside the IRA name, according to political circumstance, is no comfort to the community. It is an indictment of the Government's and the legal system's failure to address the problem.
The documents that I have mentioned reveal that top PIRA players are free to operate as PIRA, or under any other name during times of ceasefire, in the knowledge that they will be accepted back into the PIRA fold when they are required. The futility of those who believe that the IRA ceasefire is foundation enough on which to build the peace process stands exposed.
According to the dossier, Eugene Reavey, a well-known republican,
set up the Kingsmills massacre
and transported Malachy McParland to the site. It says that Brendan Ferris of Drumcraw was seen to be diverting traffic away from the Kingsmills crossroads before the tragedy took place. It says:
Ferris is sourced as being seen in the area of the massacre shortly before it took place.
The dossier says:
The same terrorists are involved in these incidents
under a cover name for a gang of cross-border PIRA terrorists. It says that some of those people are
formerly of McKinley Park Tullyvallen. He has been reported several times for his involvement in explosions and shootings.
The dossier says that on 31 December 1975,
at Road House",
14 PIRA men were holding a meeting—Michael McKevitt, Tony Magill, Brian Smith and 11 others were there.
Those are well-known PIRA men. It says that the Kingsmills ambush was
carried out by some of the top PIRA…Brian Smith, Arnold White, Brian Hearty, Michael Brannigan, Tony Magill.
All that information is authenticated in the police document, which also names T. G. McVerry, Joe McSharry, Michael O'Hare, Jim Feehan, the Markey brothers, Peter McCann and the Loughran brothers as having good knowledge of what took place on that dreadful day.
The dossier says that Aiden McKeown of Whitecross and F. Mcllhaw of Camlough were there as witnesses and that a blue van containing the PIRA terrorists was driven by Michael Coburn of Blackwatertown as part of the ambush and that another Ford Cortina was driven by F. Cullen. All those facts were set out, yet nothing was done, and the men walk free.
The problem with the Government's strategy is that only a knave and a fool would believe that a few places in government handed to Sinn Fein-IRA will secure for us a long-term peace. It will do nothing of the kind. To put Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness into government is not the way to get peace. It is a way to give them even greater force to carry out their objective—to destroy Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
Sooner or later, the IRA-Sinn Fein movement will want its appetite thoroughly quenched by further concessions. None of this will secure peace, stability or reconciliation. There is no prospect whatever of securing the disarmament of weapons, or the break-up of the paramilitaries.
Theodore Roosevelt said in one of his addresses:
Peace is normally a great good and normally it coincides with righteousness. But it is righteousness and not peace which should bind the conscience of any nation as it should bind the conscience of an individual. Neither a nation or an individual can surrender conscience to another's keeping.
In Northern Ireland today, we are in danger of being victims of surrendering righteousness, justice and truth to a process that only promises a peace that it will fail to deliver, as it has failed up to this date.
I rise to speak as a Member of this House, a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee and a supporter of, and campaigner for, the Good Friday agreement. It is a shame that the modernisation process of this House has not advanced sufficiently to allow us to have time to debate on the Floor of the House some of the excellent reports that are produced by all Select Committees. I look forward to that day.
If hon. Members were to read the report on the RUC by the Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), they would have a better understanding of the linkage between the policing problems in a acutely divided society—or perhaps more accurately, in sections of an acutely divided society—and what is euphemistically called summary justice. I prefer to call it criminal assault, as would all hon. Members.
Just so that there is no misunderstanding, I want to state clearly that I carry no flag for either republicanism or unionism. I am a socialist—we are still allowed to be socialists in the Labour party—and my comrades and I often take a cynical view of politicians who wrap themselves in national flags. It is often a substitute for coherent political analysis and argument. As the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) pointed out, the poor bloody infantry are often sold down the river when flags become a substitute for political analysis.
One cannot ignore the constitutional question, but I long for the day when, in Northern Ireland—and perhaps throughout the island of Ireland—we can discuss politics that transcend the constitutional questions. I hope that we can talk about schools, hospitals and jobs—the bread and butter of politics. I hope that we can discuss the tension between left and right, and arguments in favour of individualism or collectivism. I long for a kind of politics that defines people by what they are and by what they believe in, rather than by what they are not.
The Good Friday agreement has given us the best opportunity of securing peace in Northern Ireland for 30 years or more. It involved taking risks and courageous decisions by Members of all parties, in this Chamber and over the water. We are talking about the establishment of an equality commission, cross-border bodies, the Assembly and a policing commission. There are also vexed questions, such as decommissioning and prisoner releases. The agreement is the best hope that we have, and it received overwhelming public endorsement from 72 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland.
Now is not a time for backsliding. If the British Government cannot deliver their obligations within the agreement, who can? What alternative is there to the Good Friday agreement? History shows us that, when politics and politicians fail—we in this place have often failed the island of Ireland—violence fills the space, and with political violence comes gangsterism. All those aspects bear the hallmark of a dysfunctional society, but only in elements of the north of Ireland. I will return to that point later.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell was right to say that, in Twinbrook, Poleglass, Tiger's Bay or Rathcoole, we are not dealing with the politics of Stow-on-the-Wold or Chipping Norton. An English village green mentality will not do: we must lift our eyes higher. Paramilitary assaults and gangsterism can flourish only when there is a breakdown in the fabric of society—whether engineered or otherwise.
I commend the report on the RUC to the House. It is a valuable contribution towards resolving the problems of policing in Northern Ireland and the problems of no-go areas for the RUC that create the conditions which allow the thugs to operate. It is a matter of deep regret that there is less than wholehearted support for the RUC in many of the working class and inner-city areas of Londonderry-Derry or Belfast, and that is particularly prevalent among the nationalist communities.
The point is acknowledged in the Good Friday agreement—the vast majority signed up to it—which states:
The participants recognise that policing is a central issue in any society … They believe that the agreement provides the opportunity for a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole … They consider that this opportunity should inform and underpin the development of a police service representative in terms of the make-up of the community as a whole.
An independent Commission will be established to make recommendations for future policing arrangements in Northern Ireland including means of encouraging widespread community support".
The Select Committee report highlighted the deep imbalance in the composition of the RUC, with 93 per cent. from the Protestant tradition and only 7 per cent. from the Catholic tradition. The report concluded that there were many reasons for that, including deliberate intimidation of members of the Catholic community who wished to join the Northern Ireland police service or the RUC. An RUC survey, which was appended as evidence, said that 63 per cent. of Roman Catholics
have been subjected to religious/political harassment within the RUC during their career … These levels could be higher as others who had experienced harassment did not reply".
The point I am making is that we cannot discuss the issue of criminal or paramilitary assaults in isolation.
From his vast experience of Northern Ireland and the RUC, could the hon. Gentleman enlighten the House as to what proportion of RUC officers were from the Catholic or nationalist community in 1969, and what proportion of the Ulster Defence Regiment, when it was first established, was Catholic? Why have all those people fallen by the wayside?
If the hon. Gentleman cares to read the Select Committee reports, he will find some facts in them. There has been a significant decline in the proportion who consider the RUC representative of the whole community. However, the figures have started to rise since the ceasefire, and we should welcome that.
As much as we may wish to, we cannot discuss the appalling brutality of the paramilitaries and the gangsters in a vacuum. There is an essential connection between the issues that form the building blocks of the Good Friday agreement. Like other hon. Members, I have spoken with victims of assaults, and friends of mine in parts of Belfast who dare to call themselves socialists. I remember well a taxi ride to the airport from a conference during which the driver confided in me that he had been hijacked no fewer than 16 times. His young son had been disabled for daring to do something many teenagers should not do, but do anyway: he experimented with cannabis. That is not summary justice: it is brutality.
Some assaults are political, but there is a flourishing culture of gangsterism. The Select Committee has received evidence of oil smuggling, and of paramilitary involvement in it. Corporal Gary Fenton, a constituent of mine, was the last British soldier to lose his life in Northern Ireland, and that happened when he was challenging smuggling. Crossmaglen has become the oil capital of Northern Ireland; it even rivals Dallas. There is clearly paramilitary involvement in smuggling, and we have received information suggesting that republican paramilitaries may be involved in smuggling, while loyalist paramilitaries are involved in distribution. Again, we can see the clear connection between paramilitary activity and gangsterism.
The Good Friday agreement provides the building blocks on which our hopes for a just and peaceful society in Northern Ireland rest. We cannot cherry-pick the issues that will command tomorrow's headlines. The Opposition could choose many other issues to use as sticks with which to beat the Government, but they are aiming at the wrong target. In attacking the Government tonight, they are not attacking the thugs. In many ways, they are helping to undermine confidence in the Good Friday agreement.
We have had a useful and wide-ranging debate. Is there really a need to push the matter to a Division?
The debate has touched on the reasons why it is important for people to honour the obligations placed on them. The Belfast agreement says clearly, on prisoner releases, that:
Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements
for early release.
What is meant by "complete and unequivocal ceasefire"? For a definition, we can turn to the words of the Prime Minister at Balmoral in Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign. On 14 May 1998, he said:
In clarifying whether the terms and spirit of the agreement are being met and whether violence has genuinely been given up for good, there are a range of factors to take into account: first and foremost, a clear and unequivocal commitment that there is an end to violence for good …that, again as the agreement expressly states, the ceasefires are indeed complete and unequivocal".
The Prime Minister goes on to clarify what he means by "complete and unequivocal", by saying:
An end to bombings, killings and beatings, claimed or unclaimed".
It is clear from the words of the Prime Minister that beatings and killings represent breaches of ceasefires. In his view, ceasefires that are complete and unequivocal require an end to such paramilitary activities.
The Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary has said that all the organisations benefiting from prisoner release have been engaged in such activities. Those organisations are, therefore, in breach of complete and unequivocal ceasefire. What did the Prime Minister say when he wrote his pledges to the people of Northern Ireland up on the wall during the referendum? On the prisoner issue, he wrote:
Prisoners kept in unless violence is given up for good.
Those are the Prime Minister's words, in his own handwriting.
The decent people of Northern Ireland are bewildered by the Government's recent actions. The Government say that they will not slow down or halt the release of prisoners in spite of continuing violence. The people of Northern Ireland are saying that the Prime Minister has broken his pledge, and that the Secretary of State is not fulfilling her responsibility to ensure that ceasefires are complete and unequivocal.
If the ceasefires do not meet the Prime Minister's own definition of "complete and unequivocal", the Secretary of State has the responsibility, placed on her by the House in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, to review the release of paramilitary prisoners. Yet she says that releases will continue, implying that, if she halted that release, the paramilitaries would go back to full-scale terrorist violence. In other words, she is being held to ransom by the paramilitary organisations. That is the only conclusion that I and others in Northern Ireland can draw.
Clearly, terrorist organisations have been engaged in violence. The Belfast Telegraph of 24 July, just a few weeks after the Belfast agreement was signed, ran the headline: "IRA linked to murder". We are talking not only of beatings and shootings, but of murder. Who is to know that the latest murder—that of Mr. Eamon Collins, which appears to have taken place in South Armagh, although we do not yet have the full report—did not have some republican involvement? Many will conclude that there was such an involvement.
What response do we expect from the Government? Is it their policy now to see no evil and hear no evil? Is that their policy on the interpretation of whether there are a complete and unequivocal ceasefires? Did the Prime Minister's word mean anything in the commitments that he gave to the people of Northern Ireland?
In addition to the clear indication that the IRA is involved, is there any evidence that Sinn Fein is involved? I refer to people such as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. On 1 June, did not the Secretary of State say that she had already said that Sinn Fein and the IRA were inextricably linked? What are the repercussions of that statement for the subject that we are considering?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Prime Minister has several times said at the Dispatch Box, as he did at Balmoral, that, in his opinion, the IRA and Sinn Finn are "inextricably linked". They are two parts of one organisation. Sinn Fein, when considered against the context of continuing IRA violence, is in breach of its obligations.
Sinn Fein signed up to the Mitchell principles when it entered the talks process. On punishment beatings and killings, those principles include:
To urge that 'punishment' killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions.
When the Secretary of State met the leaders of Sinn Fein-IRA, and the Progressive Unionist party and the Ulster Democratic party earlier this week, what answer did they give if she asked them what effective steps they were taking to prevent such actions? In the view of the people who live in the areas where the beatings are taking place—some of them in my constituency—no action is being seen to occur. People hear pious comments from some leaders, but they see no action being taken to prevent the beatings. Clearly, Sinn Fein-IRA and those other parties are failing in their obligations and are in breach of the Mitchell principles.
The release of prisoners is at the heart of the motion. In Northern Ireland, deep concern is felt about the ongoing releases, especially against the backdrop of on-going violence. As the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) said in his opening remarks, legislation enacted by this House places an obligation on the Secretary of State to review the situation and to consider whether the organisations that benefit from prisoner releases are engaged in complete and unequivocal ceasefires and have ceased to be involved in any act of violence. The Chief Constable of the RUC has said that they are involved in such acts, yet the right hon. Lady refuses to review, slow down or halt the release of terrorist prisoners. Unfortunately, that is because the threat of violence is holding back the Government from acting in the democratic interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
The people voted for the agreement by a majority, but they voted for an end to violence. That is not happening and it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that it does. If not, they must hold the terrorists to account. Let there be no more appeasement. We want the Government to take a firm line against the terrorist organisations and to halt the release of prisoners—whether they are loyalists or republicans does not matter, because both sides are engaged in the violence. Opposition Members condemn the violence unequivocally wherever it emanates from. The Government must bring the consequences to bear on all those organisations.
This has been an important debate for several reasons. First, it is the first time in a long time that the needs, requirements and fears of the people of Northern Ireland, who are on the receiving end of those terrible atrocities, have been expressed and debated in the House. Secondly, it has given the Opposition the opportunity to challenge the Government—rightly, as the Prime Minister agreed at Question Time—on their judgment in this critical situation.
The paramilitaries and their political representatives seem to have a twofold agenda. First, they want to control the estates in Northern Ireland, particularly those in Belfast, so that criminal activity can take place without any police intervention and the racketeering, extortion, drugs peddling and intimidation of those who do not fall into line with those peddling such views can continue. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) put forward that view and asked the Government to differentiate between those and political activities, which is impossible because the same people are perpetrating both the political activities and the acts of terrorism in the estates of Northern Ireland.
As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) pointed out in an intervention, the second part of the agenda is to undermine the Royal Ulster Constabulary by influencing, or trying to influence, the Patten commission on that body. The line will be taken that the RUC is not working on the estates—witness the beatings, shootings and atrocities—and therefore a new police structure is needed. Sinn Fein-IRA and some of the loyalist groups will then propose community policing and we all know who will undertake that—the same paramilitaries who are running the show on the estates at present.
The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) had an interesting theory that elements within the paramilitary groups who commit the violence, do so for personal motives or as a lever against their leaders to bring them into line, so that they do not make too many concessions. If that is so, why did all those activities stop—on both sides of the sectarian divide—when President Clinton last visited Northern Ireland? In Police Review the Chief Constable of the RUC confirmed:
these organisations have demonstrated an ability to bring such activity to an end when it has suited their purpose".
Several hon. Members implied that our motion was calculated, at best to destabilise and, at worst, to wreck the peace process and the agreement. I assure the House that we want implementation of the agreement in full and that includes a commitment to meaningful decommissioning, an ending of violence and an acceptance of peaceful, law abiding and democratic means to achieve political progress in Northern Ireland.
On 6 May 1998, the Prime Minister said:
It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.]
On 14 May 1998, at Balmoral in Belfast, he said that there had to be
an end to bombings, killings and beatings".
Will the Minister tell us whether the Government interpret the ceasefire simply to mean the absence of bombings, rather than including the killings and beatings, which can continue unabated? I do not think for a moment that the voters in Northern Ireland believe that. The people who gave their assent in the referendum certainly did not.
The agreement requires concessions from both sides. From the paramilitary groups, it requires decommissioning and an end to violence. In return, they obtain prisoner releases. If there is no movement on decommissioning or prisoner release, it is likely that all paramilitary prisoners will have been released with no concessions in return. That is unacceptable to Opposition Members, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) pointed out so forcefully.
The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 gives the Secretary of State the power to suspend the prisoner release scheme or to review it. The Prime Minister confirmed that today at Prime Minister's questions, although the right hon. Lady seemed uncertain about it in her interview on the "Today" programme earlier. According to that legislation, she could specify organisations and remove their prisoners from the scheme. Once all the prisoners have been released, the right hon. Lady will have no further negotiating power. She said that she had to decide whether or not there had been a cessation of violence—despite the many sources of security advice—by making a judgment. Again, I shall quote the Chief Constable, who said in a BBC interview:
there is no doubt whatever that all of these organizations"—
referring to the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters—
including those who purport to be in cessation of military operations, are engaged in this repugnant activity".
The Secretary of State confirmed this evening that she can use her discretion under the 1998 Act. She also confirmed that she had received the Chief Constable's advice—it is in the press and I am sure that she has received it privately. From her conclusions today, are we to interpret her remarks as confirming that, at this stage, she has heard the advice, but chosen to ignore it?
In summary, the motion is not merely to take note of the atrocities but, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said, to offer a strategy that is a way forward and an attempt to curtail and prevent those atrocities from taking place. There is little point in debating those key issues if we do not put the motion to the vote, which is what we shall do.
The Government response in their amendment seems to ignore the facts. We have all met the same people—from FAIT and other communities—who are doing sterling work, which is often dangerous, to give solace, comfort and help to people on the receiving end of those horrendous and atrocious acts. Intimidation means that many families have to leave Northern Ireland at short notice and be rehoused in mainland Britain.
The Government seem to turn a blind eye to the potentially damaging end game. Their amendment is frankly toothless and offers the House nothing but more of the same. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire pointed out, time is running out.
The fundamental questions are these: first, will the Government accept a position in which all the prisoners have been released, but there is no comparable movement from the paramilitaries on decommissioning or a cessation of violence? We have asked that question a number of times and it has never been answered. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked it again during Prime Minister's questions this afternoon and the Prime Minister himself declined to give a straight answer. It really is time that the Minister gave us an unequivocal answer.
Secondly, is the partial implementation of the agreement tolerable to the Government? Can the Minister explain to the House how he and his party expect the smooth operation of a devolved Government when guns remain in the hands of the paramilitaries and violence of the kind that we have discussed today continues unabated? If not, perhaps he can tell us how they hope to obtain movement on those critical issues.
Thirdly, if the agreement has not been implemented in full at the end of two years—we hear time and again from the Government and from the Prime Minister that that is their intention—will the agreement fall? Can it be renegotiated and where will the Government draw a line in the sand, if at all?
The time has come for the Government to face up to the reality on the streets and the estates of Northern Ireland. They need to plan their strategy carefully to achieve the beneficial end game that we all want and to use the law that is at their disposal and that they put on the statute book not a few months ago.
I shall respond as best I can to all the points that have been raised in the debate. Some of the concluding comments by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) send a clear message. He used the language of defeat and failure. We are trying to build confidence to ensure that difficulties from any direction are faced and an attempt is made to achieve reconciliation and find a solution. The language of defeat saps the confidence of people who have spent more than 30 years in very difficult circumstances. I am glad that my party is in government and the hon. Gentleman's party was removed at the last election.
We have had a wide-ranging and clearly useful debate. It has been useful because the issues and arguments that have been raised tonight from both sides of the House lie at the very heart of understanding the process in which we as a society are involved in Northern Ireland.
As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) got to the point at issue with clarity and precision. I thank him for his kind words to myself and my ministerial colleagues. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) who has a long-term interest in the subject. He robustly argued his point of view and he is right about the specific issue that we have debated tonight. He referred to other areas of concern—such as exiles and the disappeared—that should never be neglected. The Government do not intend to neglect them.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) alleged that released prisoners out on licence have been charged since their release. The hon. Gentleman nods in agreement, so I understood him rightly. Not one prisoner who has been released under the scheme has been charged subsequently. The RUC has no evidence that those who were released under the scheme have become re-involved. If such evidence is drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and there has been a breach of licence, clearly the Government would be obliged to take action.
It is true to say that every citizen of the United Kingdom has an interest in achieving a lasting peaceful settlement for Northern Ireland, not least because the terrorist violence over the last 30 years has not been confined to Northern Ireland, but has been visited with tragic effect upon communities and families here in Britain.
It is because of that reality that the country is united behind the Government in what has been achieved to date since the Good Friday agreement last April and what the Government are seeking to achieve for the future with the commitment of the political parties that are signed up to the process and with the support of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
Everyone in the House, with a few notable exceptions, agrees with those sentiments. The House is also united in its complete and unequivocal condemnation of the spiteful and barbaric paramilitary assaults carried out, for whatever reason, within the various communities that make up Northern Ireland.
All hon. Members who have spoken have expressed in their own way their abhorrence at what these vicious acts mean in human and family terms and the way in which they add to the sum of community division and strife in Northern Ireland. There is not a scintilla of difference between anyone in the House on that point.
The speech by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) gave graphic details of cases in which terrible things were done to individuals. I would caution him about that. It is all very well wallowing in the gory details, but, as one who speaks to many victims of violence in Northern Ireland, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that others out there do not want to hear about such grief and suffering or see it on their television screens. That is why, when the BBC and other responsible journalists show bodies and the effects of terrorist violence, they do their best to contact the families concerned.
Let me finish my point. The right hon. Gentleman spoke for half an hour. I have just 15 minutes to sum up.
There is a need for sensitivity and I regret that the right hon. Gentleman made such a graphic speech. I shall give way to him and then I shall refer to another point that he made which has been rebutted by one of the families concerned.
Both the victims concerned gave their agreement and went public because they wished the people to know just what had happened. So there has not been any irresponsibility whatever and I suggest that the Minister withdraws those comments, which are a disgrace and quite wrong.
I do not doubt for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman may have spoken to some of the families that he listed. However, other families and other victims do not like the parading of such pain and grief. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been affected over the past 30 years and I caution the right hon. Gentleman on that basis.
As the Minister with responsibility for victims, I meet many of them. I visited the pathology lab only yesterday and spoke to senior pathologists about what they do on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. We have had to put counselling support into the victims liaison unit to ensure that its staff—the people who assist me—can cope with much of the pain that they encounter. That is why I caution the right hon. Gentleman to remember that his words can have an adverse impact.
The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) spoke sensitively about Mrs. Kearney and his tribute to her was genuine. She is a brave women, who is challenging the circumstances in which she finds herself. However, the right hon. Members for Bracknell and for Upper Bann and others have referred to the Chief Constable, who has given interviews and written articles in which he tries to take a rounded approach to the subject and his comments on it. The article of 15 January has already been quoted extensively and extremely selectively, but it will be worth while for me to follow suit and quote selectively the Chief Constable's summation. He says:
Despite all of these barriers to the ultimate elimination of violence however, there remains a solid basis for optimism and hope for the future.
That is not a defeated Chief Constable, but a man who has to assess all of the problems in his society and who, even knowing what he has to interpret, still looks hopefully toward a vision of a better future.
No, I shall not.
Where division exists, it is on our response to the actions that have been described tonight and on how best to put an end to them. Clearly, there are groups and individuals at work in Northern Ireland who seek to bring an end to the whole peace process—indeed, there are some Members of Parliament who want the current process to fail. The right hon. Member for Bracknell indicated that there are those within his own party who might adopt such an approach. Such people reflect the views of a small minority and the Government are determined to ensure that they do not succeed. They are minority voices who represent the past and offer no hope for the future.
The debate has dealt with two distinct ways forward for the current peace process—two separate strands of thinking. The first, set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is to look at the process in the round. It is to look at the history of paramilitary assaults and the backcloth against which previous Governments acted as they sought to drive forward the process, as defined at the time. It is to look at the context within which such actions are being carried out and the motivation behind them. It is to put those actions in the framework of everything else that is happening to create the new building blocks for a new and better society in Northern Ireland.
There is no question that those actions pose a risk to obtaining that new future. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has pointed out what she has done to date to challenge directly those who have influence over those who carry out such acts. She has made clear her determination to base her actions on the very best of security advice as to whether or not the ceasefires are still intact. The Government and the Secretary of State have not been complacent or indifferent to the ever-changing political and security landscape we face in Northern Ireland—far from it. The judgment that has been made is that there is no guarantee that stopping the prisoner release programme will bring an end to paramilitary assaults.
It would be most unwise for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government to play brinkmanship with the Good Friday agreement. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) made an excellent point in that respect. It is the Government's judgment that for us to indulge in such brinkmanship could place the whole Good Friday agreement in jeopardy. All our efforts to date have been aimed at honouring our commitments under the agreement and pressing others to honour their commitments. We shall not tire of repeating that the Good Friday agreement offers the best way forward for all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.
However, the Government have to weigh all their decisions carefully before acting. We cannot and should not indulge in short-term fixes, as has been demanded by the Opposition and others in today's debate. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier today, previous Governments and Secretaries of State have continued a programme of prisoner releases against a backcloth more violent than the one that we face. In opposition, we judged that those Governments were right to do so, because the ultimate prize was so great, both then and now. In government, we are trying to keep on course a process that offers the best possibility of success.
Let me develop my argument. I shall deal with the points raised by Opposition Members and then we shall see whether they want to argue them.
The other strand of thinking that has been advanced in the debate is that the Government should bring a halt to the early release programme. However, no arguments have been put forward as to why it is thought that to do so will result in a reduction of such actions, or bring about a better climate, with the prospect of more progress being made on the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. The right hon. Member for Bracknell said he would establish that point—that he would set out the basis for his arguments and prove the results—but he did not do so. He did not provide evidence for what the consequences would be, but simply gave an analysis of what he thought was desirable without justifying his conclusions.
I shall give way in a moment.
Instead of the Government's strategy, which offers what we consider to be the best possibility of success, we are being urged to embark on a course of action that will almost certainly lead to failure. We know that the Opposition are genuinely committed to the Good Friday agreement, as are most, if not all, of the other parties represented in the House. However, the Opposition are advocating a punitive response, without supplying any evidence that it will produce the desired result. That response is at variance with, and contrary to, what the Conservative party did in government. The only conclusion that I can draw is that they are playing party politics with people's lives.
That is a silly comment—it is not something that can ever be said of me.
I shall quote a small article that appeared in today's Belfast News Letter. It is headed, "Hague 'using terror victims'" and states:
The wife of a man maimed by loyalist paramilitaries last night accused Tory Party leader William Hague of using the issue of paramilitary attacks for political ends.
Linda Peden, whose husband Andrew lost both legs in a UVF 'punishment' shooting, was incensed that Mr. Hague had cited her husband's case in his call for the suspension of prisoner releases.
Before I used that article, I got my office to contact Mrs. Peden to ensure that the story was accurate and that she had no objection to my using her name in the debate. She said that she was happy for me to do so, so that her message was put across.
Like the Secretary of State during our previous debate on the subject, the Minister has repeated the half-truth that was also peddled by the Prime Minister this afternoon. The release of prisoners under the previous Government is in no way the same as the current policy of the Labour Government. We simply amended the remission dates in line with those of the United Kingdom mainland. We did not include lifers, whereas the current Government have included all life prisoners, and all prisoners will ultimately be released.
I shall place in the Library of the House some of the details of those who have been released so as to set out the long-term prisoners, some of whom were involved in planning terrorist acts, who were let out under the early release programme set in motion by the previous Government.
Defining the difference between lifers and long-term prisoners—do the Opposition want us to base our judgments on that, rather than on what those prisoners plotted to do or what they actually did? The Opposition have sunk very low and it is a matter of great regret that they have done so.
I can now provide the examples that I mentioned earlier. Two prisoners who were under sentences of 18 years for conspiracy to murder were released. One prisoner was released from a sentence of 17 years for conspiracy to cause explosions. One prisoner was released from a sentence of 14 years for possession of firearms and explosives and attempted murder. One of the prisoners released had been convicted of involvement in a ghastly sectarian murder—the murder of two Catholic girls in a mobile chip shop in Portadown. Those are just some examples of the people whom the previous Government released. We never criticised. We recognised the benefit of that process.
I do not have time to deal with the other points that have been raised or further to concede the Floor. I ask that the motion be defeated and that the amendment be carried.
|Division No. 49]||[7 pm|
|Amess, David||Clappison, James|
|Ancram, Rt Hon Michael||Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)|
|Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James||Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)|
|Beggs, Roy||Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey|
|Bercow, John||Collins, Tim|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Cormack, Sir Patrick|
|Blunt, Crispin||Cran, James|
|Boswell, Tim||Curry, Rt Hon David|
|Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)||Davies, Quentin (Grantham)|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia||Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)|
|Brady, Graham||Donaldson, Jeffrey|
|Brazier, Julian||Duncan, Alan|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Duncan Smith, Iain|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Evans, Nigel|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Faber, David|
|Burns, Simon||Fabricant, Michael|
|Butterfill, John||Fallon, Michael|
|Cash, William||Flight, Howard|
|Chope, Christopher||Forsythe, Clifford|
|Forth, Rt Hon Eric||Page, Richard|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Paice, James|
|Fox, Dr Liam||Paisley, Rev Ian|
|Fraser, Christopher||Paterson, Owen|
|Gale, Roger||Pickles, Eric|
|Garnier, Edward||Prior, David|
|Gibb, Nick||Randall, John|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Redwood, Rt Hon John|
|Gray, James||Robathan, Andrew|
|Green, Damian||Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)|
|Greenway, John||Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|Hague, Rt Hon William||Ross, William (E Lond'y)|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie||Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)|
|Hammond, Philip||Ruffley, David|
|Hawkins, Nick||St Aubyn, Nick|
|Hayes, John||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Heald, Oliver||Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian|
|Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David||Shepherd, Richard|
|Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)||Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)|
|Hunter, Andrew||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|Jackson, Robert (Wantage)||Soames, Nicholas|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Spicer, Sir Michael|
|Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Spring, Richard|
|Key, Robert||Streeter, Gary|
|King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)||Swayne, Desmond|
|Laing, Mrs Eleanor||Syms, Robert|
|Lait, Mrs Jacqui||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Lansley, Andrew||Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)|
|Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Leigh, Edward||Thompson, William|
|Letwin, Oliver||Tredinnick, David|
|Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)||Trend, Michael|
|Lidington, David||Trimble, Rt Hon David|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Tyrie, Andrew|
|Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)||Viggers, Peter|
|Luff, Peter||Walter, Robert|
|Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Wardle, Charles|
|McCartney, Robert (N Down)||Waterson, Nigel|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Wells, Bowen|
|MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew||Whittingdale, John|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann|
|Maginnis, Ken||Wilkinson, John|
|Malins, Humfrey||Willetts, David|
|Maples, John||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Mates, Michael||Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)|
|Maude, Rt Hon Francis||Woodward, Shaun|
|Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian||Yeo, Tim|
|May, Mrs Theresa||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Norman, Archie||Mrs. Caroline Spelman and|
|Ottaway, Richard||Mr. Stephen Day.|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)||Bermingham, Gerald|
|Ainger, Nick||Berry, Roger|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Best, Harold|
|Allan, Richard||Betts, Clive|
|Allen, Graham||Blackman, Liz|
|Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)||Blair, Rt Hon Tony|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Blizzard, Bob|
|Ashton, Joe||Blunkett, Rt Hon David|
|Atherton, Ms Candy||Boateng, Paul|
|Austin, John||Bradley, Keith (Withington)|
|Banks, Tony||Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)|
|Barnes, Harry||Bradshaw, Ben|
|Barron, Kevin||Brake, Tom|
|Bayley, Hugh||Breed, Colin|
|Beard, Nigel||Brown, Russell (Dumfries)|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret||Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)|
|Begg, Miss Anne||Burden, Richard|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Burnett, John|
|Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)||Burstow, Paul|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Byers, Rt Hon Stephen|
|Bennett, Andrew F||Cable, Dr Vincent|
|Caborn, Richard||George, Andrew (St Ives)|
|Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)||George, Bruce (Walsall S)|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Gibson, Dr Ian|
|Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)||Gilroy, Mrs Linda|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Godman, Dr Norman A|
|Campbell—Savours, Dale||Godsiff, Roger|
|Canavan, Dennis||Goggins, Paul|
|Cann, Jamie||Gordon, Mrs Eileen|
|Caplin, Ivor||Gorrie, Donald|
|Casale, Roger||Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)|
|Caton, Martin||Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)|
|Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Chaytor, David||Grocott, Bruce|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Grogan, John|
|Clapham, Michael||Gunnell, John|
|Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)||Hain, Peter|
|Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)||Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)|
|Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)|
|Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)||Hanson, David|
|Clelland, David||Harris, Dr Evan|
|Clwyd, Ann||Harvey, Nick|
|Coaker, Vermon||Heal, Mrs Sylvia|
|Coffey, Ms Ann||Healey, John|
|Cohen, Harry||Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)|
|Coleman, Iain||Heppell, John|
|Colman, Tony||Hesford, Stephen|
|Connarty, Michael||Hewitt, Ms Patricia|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Hill, Keith|
|Cooper, Yvette||Hinchliffe, David|
|Corbett, Robin||Hodge, Ms Margaret|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Home Robertson, John|
|Corston, Ms Jean||Hoon, Geoffrey|
|Cotter, Brian||Hope, Phil|
|Cousins, Jim||Hopkins, Kelvin|
|Crausby, David||Howarth, Alan (Newport E)|
|Cryer, John (Hornchurch)||Howarth, George (Knowsley N)|
|Cummings, John||Howells, Dr Kim|
|Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)||Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)||Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)|
|Dalyell, Tam||Humble, Mrs Joan|
|Darling, Rt Hon Alistair||Hurst, Alan|
|Darvill, Keith||Hutton, John|
|Davey, Edward (Kingston)||Ingram, Adam|
|Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)||Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)|
|Davidson, Ian||Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Jenkins, Brian|
|Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)||Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)||Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Dean, Mrs Janet||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Denham, John||Jones, Helen (Warrington N)|
|Dobbin, Jim||Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)|
|Dobson, Rt Hon Frank||Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)|
|Donohoe, Brian H||Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)|
|Doran, Frank||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)|
|Dowd, Jim||Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)|
|Drown, Ms Julia||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||Keeble, Ms Sally|
|Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)||Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)|
|Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)||Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)|
|Edwards, Huw||Kemp, Fraser|
|Efford, Clive||Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)|
|Ellman, Mrs Louise||Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)|
|Ennis, Jeff||Khabra, Piara S|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret||Kidney, David|
|Fearn, Ronnie||Kilfoyle, Peter|
|Field, Rt Hon Frank||King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)|
|Fisher, Mark||King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)|
|Fitzsimons, Lorna||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Flint, Caroline||Kumar, Dr Ashok|
|Follett, Barbara||Ladyman, Dr Stephen|
|Foster, Rt Hon Derek||Lawrence, Ms Jackie|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Laxton, Bob|
|Foster, Michael J (Worcester)||Leslie, Christopher|
|Gapes, Mike||Levitt, Tom|
|Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Lewis, Terry (Worsley)||Quinn, Lawrie|
|Linton, Martin||Radice, Giles|
|Livingstone, Ken||Rammell, Bill|
|Livsey, Richard||Rapson, Syd|
|Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)||Raynsford, Nick|
|Lock, David||Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)|
|Love, Andrew||Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)|
|McAllion, John||Rendel, David|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Rooker, Jeff|
|McCabe, Steve||Rooney, Terry|
|McDonagh, Siobhain||Ruane, Chris|
|McDonnell, John||Ruddock, Ms Joan|
|McGrady, Eddie||Russell, Bob (Colchester)|
|McIsaac, Shona||Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)|
|McKenna, Mrs Rosemary||Ryan, Ms Joan|
|Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert||Sanders, Adrian|
|McNulty, Tony||Sawford, Phil|
|MacShane, Denis||Sedgemore, Brain|
|McWilliam, John||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)|
|Mallaber, Judy||Singh, Marsha|
|Mallon, Seamus||Skinner, Dennis|
|Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter||Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Marek, Dr John||Smith, Angela (Basildon)|
|Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)||Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)|
|Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)||Smith, John (Glamorgan)|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)|
|Marshall—Andrews, Robert||Soley, Clive|
|Martlew, Eric||Southworth, Ms Helen|
|Maxton, John||Squire, Ms Rachel|
|Meale, Alan||Starkey, Dr Phyllis|
|Merron, Gillian||Stevenson, George|
|Michael, Alun||Stewart, David (Inverness E)|
|Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)||Stinchcombe, Paul|
|Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)||Stoate, Dr Howard|
|Milburn, Alan||Stott, Roger|
|Miller, Andrew||Stringer, Graham|
|Mitchell, Austin||Stuart, Ms Gisela|
|Moffatt, Laura||Stunell, Andrew|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis||Sutcliffe, Gerry|
|Moore, Michael||Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)||Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)|
|Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Morley, Elliot||Temple—Morris, Peter|
|Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)||Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)|
|Mountford, Kali||Timms, Stephen|
|Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie||Tipping, Paddy|
|Mullin, Chris||Tonge, Dr Jenny|
|Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)||Touhig, Don|
|Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)||Trickett, Jon|
|Naysmith, Dr Doug||Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)|
|Norris, Dan||Turner, Dr George(NW Norfolk)|
|O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)||Twigg, Derek (Halton)|
|Öpik, Lembit||Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)|
|Organ, Mrs Diana||Tyler, Paul|
|Pearson, Ian||Ward, Ms Claire|
|Pendry, Tom||Wareing, Robert N|
|Perham, Ms Linda||Watts, David|
|Pickthall, Colin||Webb, Steve|
|Pike, Peter L||Welsh, Andrew|
|Plaskitt, James||Whitehead, Dr Alan|
|Pollard, Kerry||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Pond, Chris||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Powell, Sir Raymond||Willis, phil|
|Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)||Winnick, David|
|Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Prescott, Rt Hon John||Wise, Audrey|
|Primarolo, Dawn||Wood, Mike|
|Purchase, Ken||Woolas, Phil|
|Worthington, Tony||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)||Mr. David Jamieson and|
|Wyatt, Derek||Mr. Greg Pope.|
That this House condemns absolutely the barbaric practice of paramilitary attacks in Northern Ireland, condemns the human and material cost of these assaults and the contempt they demonstrate for the rule of law; notes the commitment made by all parties who endorsed the Good Friday Agreement to "the protection and vindication of the human rights of all"; welcomes the Government's determination to fulfil its responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement in this as in every other area; and calls on all people, parties and organisations to use all their influence to bring these attacks to an immediate stop, to help the police in any way they can, and to work to build on the Good Friday Agreement to create a society in Northern Ireland where such attacks are a thing of the past.