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Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's giving way. Does he accept that the mythology is a misunderstanding of the workings of Provisional IRA? The security advice now to the Minister, as I understand it, is that it has not been centrally directed, and that it has been working on the basis of closed cells doing their own work.

Mr. MacKay: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is underlined by the Chief Constable, who said in a BBC interview two days ago, on 27 July, referring to the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force:

That is the point.

What worries us is that because the Provisional IRA and the two loyalist paramilitary groups have caused a so-called military ceasefire, so that military and police targets and major so-called spectaculars on shopping precincts and elsewhere are not going on, it is thought by some that there is a complete and absolute ceasefire. There is not.

Life is still hell for many ordinary, decent people on many estates in the Province because paramilitaries are dominating the estates. Punishment beatings and intimidation are taking place. We owe it to ordinary,

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decent people to make sure that that activity ceases. The one way in which it can cease is if prisoners are not released unless the punishment beatings end. The message tonight, if we pass the order, will simply be that the punishment beatings can continue and the prisoners can be released. The people whom the House will be letting down are those who cannot speak for themselves on the estates. They are largely unemployed or on low incomes, and are not necessarily as articulate as we are. It is the duty of the Opposition to protect these people.

I do not ask the Secretary of State or other Labour Members merely to accept my view. I shall refer to a press release that was issued today by Families Against Intimidation and Terror, an outstandingly brave cross-community organisation which has done much to help in the Province. The press release states:

the IRA, UVF and UDA--

    "can only qualify for early prisoner release if their cease-fires are intact. Since the agreement was signed, the IRA, UVF and UDA have all been engaged in acts of violence and have repeatedly breached their cease-fires. Are the Government really accepting a definition of a paramilitary cease-fire which allows paramilitary groups to beat, shoot and intimidate people? What sort of cease-fire is that? We do not believe that these organisations can in any way qualify for this scheme."

The press release continues:

    "Many victims of the paramilitaries had problems with this section of the Agreement that related to the early release of prisoners, but nevertheless voted for the Agreement because they believed that it would stop the violence and create no more victims. With the death of Mr. Kearney, the beating of Vincent McKenna, the shootings at Derry and last night's shooting of a man in Newtownabbey, no one could possibly claim that the paramilitaries have ended violence."

Families Against Intimidation and Terror concludes its powerful press release with this plea:

    "We continue to support the Agreement"--

as we do on the Opposition Benches--

    "but we are saddened that the Government have dangerously compromised it with turning a blind eye to paramilitary violence."

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): We all condemn the terrible crimes to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. No one in the House, for one moment, would try to justify them; obviously these are crimes that must always be condemned. However, when the previous ceasefire took place, which the IRA was to break--I am referring to 1995-96--the front organisation of the IRA, Direct Action Against Drugs, murdered quite a number of people. The then Secretary of State, now Lord Mayhew of Twysden, said to the House that the ceasefire was continuing, despite the crimes that were being committed by an IRA front organisation. The present situation is nothing new; it is a question of balance and what sort of conclusion should be reached by the Secretary or State in any given situation--[Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Member for North--East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) is heckling about.

Mr. MacKay: Let me answer the hon. Gentleman clearly and precisely. It was clearly outlined in the agreement that the violence had to cease. We thought that that was outlined in the Bill, but not strongly enough.

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That is why we sought to amend it. We were right to do so in the light of what has happened tonight. Let me say in answering the question--

Mr. Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Yes, answer it.

Mr. MacKay: Yes, I would like to, if the hon. Gentleman would care to allow me to do so. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has great experience of these matters and I think that he would like to hear my answer.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is clearly this: it was a tough and difficult decision that my Government, and, in turn, the present Government, took about whether they would continue with the talks, when there were clearly punishment beatings taking place. On balance--it was a hard call, but it was probably the right one by both Governments--it was decided that the talks would continue.

We are now in an entirely different situation. We are asking whether the prisoners should be released, because we have the unique opportunity to stop punishment beatings and intimidation straight away by saying that the organisations' friends and colleagues will not be released. The beatings would stop and, in due course, organisations could be removed from the list and the prisoners could be released.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Walsall, North has any doubts that this is a unique opportunity, because he is very experienced in matters relating to Northern Ireland. If he does, let me take him back to the Assembly elections. In a speech from the Back Benches that was so powerful that she has, I am glad to say, been appointed a Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), whom we congratulate on her appointment, said that IRA-Sinn Fein could turn the tap of violence on and off at will.

Throughout the three weeks of the Assembly elections, there were no knee-cappings or punishment beatings; the people who carry them out were told to cease, because that was in the electoral interests of Sinn Fein-IRA. We know that such a ceasefire could happen again, but I deeply believe that it will not happen if the prisoners whom we are discussing are released. The two issues are inextricably linked.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has again made it clear that she has complete flexibility in these matters. One of the more attractive parts of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill is that paramilitary organisations can be added to the list, or taken off it, at short notice. That flexibility is essential. It is in the interests of the House to add the UDA, the UVF and PIRA to the list, because I believe that that would halt punishment beatings. Should that happen, I would welcome the Secretary of State removing their names from the list after a reasonable period so that prisoners could be released.

On Friday, the House goes into recess until the middle of October, so I should like an undertaking that no terrorist prisoner will be released during that time if beatings are still going on. Perhaps I have misinterpreted the Bill and the order, but my interpretation is that excluding those organisations from the list would mean that any prisoner who applied who was otherwise eligible because of time served could be released during the recess. Punishment beatings could be going on in one part

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of Belfast while paramilitary prisoners were being released down the road at the Maze. That would be horrendous. It would also be would be wrong, it could be damaging to the agreement and it would not be in the interests of democracy.

Marjorie Mowlam: We should listen carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. All that he is doing is making a different judgment from mine about how to move forward. It is a matter of putting groups on the list or removing them. He suggests that adding organisations to the list would stop punishment beatings, but we do not know that to be the case and I cannot play that kind of game. I have to make a decision on the basis of the available information, which is what I am doing. This is not an easy situation, but I have made a judgment on the balance of the information that I have been given. I have made that overall judgment in relation to all the information that I have.

When we were in opposition, I had to trust my predecessor when he had more information than I had. I did so, and I gave him that trust. When Lord Mayhew was in that position, I backed him--regardless of not having all the information. I am making this judgment on the basis of the information that I have, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is important to stick by the Good Friday agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman said that I could not do anything during the summer if there was continuous review. Well, I can. I can continuously review and decide to specify or unspecify, and then come back to the House after the recess to debate the order. It does not tie my hands in the way that the he suggests.

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