Terrorist Mutilations (Northern Ireland)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 3:44 pm on 27th January 1999.

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Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell 3:44 pm, 27th January 1999

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"— clearly not— (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.