Terrorist Mutilations (Northern Ireland)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 27th January 1999.

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Photo of Dr Mo Mowlam Dr Mo Mowlam Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office 4:15 pm, 27th January 1999

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.