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11.8 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I was enthralled by the rigorous defence of the Belfast agreement that we heard from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). I never knew that we had such a firm defender of the agreement and the principles contained in it, and I welcome the fact that he has joined its supporters. Indeed, we should all welcome his raising of the very issues raised by the Prime Minister as being part and parcel of the agreement, and his demonstration of support for every issue in it when lesser mortals might have fallen by the wayside.

As I listened to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), I wondered whether he was the same person who spoke on behalf of his party in the autumn of 1995 when the previous Government introduced the Bill that was to become the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act 1995. Colleagues may recall that that was during a ceasefire when, although punishment beatings and other evil and dastardly acts were going on, prisoners were being regularly released under the terms of legislation that was presented by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, now Lord Mayhew. What is the difference between what was happening then and what is happening now, apart from the more rigorous conditions that the Government are imposing on the releases? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke about that.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell was right when he said that such matters must pose difficult problems for the Secretary of State, as they did for Lord Mayhew. Decisions about releases and attempts to form an overall view of the situation cannot be easy. Such matters must be given the same consideration and accorded the same weight, and the understanding of my right hon. Friend's judgment must be the same, as that which was given when we were in opposition when the then Secretary of State,

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in exactly the same situation, introduced the Bill that was to become the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act. That is the least that we should be entitled to expect from the right hon. Member and his right hon. and hon Friends.

Mr. MacKay: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNamara: Perhaps I may be allowed to finish this point. On second thoughts, I shall give way now and return to my speech.

Mr. MacKay: The hon. Gentleman was shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He says that the bipartisan policy should be total and that the Opposition should always offer a blank cheque. Why, year after year, did he fail to support the renewal of prevention of terrorism orders? On some occasions, he led his Opposition colleagues into the No Lobby. Does not that make his assertions somewhat flimsy, to say the least?

Mr. McNamara: Far from it. We are not comparing like with like. We are debating the wisdom or otherwise of releasing prisoners, something which happened under the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act and is likely to happen under the current legislation. While internment, which was the biggest recruiting sergeant that the Provisional IRA ever had, was still on the statute book, it was my duty to try to alter the Government's attitude and to tell my colleagues that we had to do it. If we had time, I could go through the other blunders that were committed by the previous Government and that helped IRA recruitment. Bloody Sunday is one that immediately springs to mind, and there were others.

When I listen to Opposition Members, I sometimes feel that perhaps they do not want the Belfast agreement to succeed. I also sometimes think that they are striking poses in relation to that agreement because, if their proposals were carried through, the whole edifice would fall. I understand that from the dissident Unionists, from the Democratic Unionist party and from the United Kingdom Unionist party, but the attitude that has been taken by Her Majesty's Opposition on this matter seems specifically designed to weaken the whole of the Belfast agreement and to bring it down. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bracknell is sitting there with a sneer on his face and muttering away. I shall give way to him if he wants to say his piece. I see. From the comfort of a sedentary position, the Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland can twitter away but, when challenged, he is not prepared to say anything.

I come back to the point that I started on. My right hon. Friend has had to take an important decision. It deserves the support of the whole House. It cannot have been easy for her, but the success of the Belfast agreement depends on that decision's success and on her judgment of those matters, as do so many other things.

11.15 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Before us is a list of the four organisations that have yet to abandon violence; I think that we can all agree on that point. I use the word "yet" because I am basically an optimist and I sincerely hope that, in the months to come, they may conceivably give up violence, with the other

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organisations, and wake up to the political realities of the 1990s. Evidence is abundant that the one way to make progress in Northern Ireland is to participate peacefully in the conduct of Northern Irish politics.

We can all agree that those who still seek to promote themselves through violence should not benefit from the peace. Again, I do not imagine that there is a single person in the Chamber who would question that point, or the fact that, if they do not accept the agreement, the agreement cannot accept them. However, I am confident that the list that has been drawn up by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was based on comprehensive advice from the general officer commanding and the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

I am also confident that the Secretary of State's view is that the right organisations have been included and the right organisations excluded. In simple terms, it is a rather poor demonstration of bad faith for anyone in this Chamber to question the idea that the Secretary of State has sincerely attempted to make the best decision that she possibly can with the information that she has at her disposal.

Let us not pretend that we all have the same quality of information before us. The Secretary of State, by the very nature of her job, has access to more insightful and more detailed information than others. [Interruption.] I hear a Conservative Member say that that is absurd.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I said "subservient."

Mr. Öpik: I am confused. I give way so that the hon. Gentleman can perhaps explain what he means.

Mr. Bercow: I simply said that the hon. Gentleman was guilty of subservience. I certainly did not suggest that he was in any way suggesting that our position was that the Government's attitude was absurd. I said that his position towards the Government was subservient.

Mr. Öpik rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We have a very limited amount of time for an extremely serious debate. Sedentary comments, whether from the Front or Back Benches, do not help.

Mr. Öpik: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is appalling that any Opposition Member should imply that any one of us is here to be subservient to the Government. I grew up in Northern Ireland and one reason why I feel so strongly about this is that it affects the lives of individuals with whom I grew up. I sincerely hope that, by helping to try to make the right decision tonight, I might make the life of those people a little better. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the good grace to accept that view.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Öpik: I give way for the last time and then I must go through my speech very quickly because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.

Mr. Robinson: Has the hon. Gentleman been in contact with his sister party in Northern Ireland,

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the Alliance party? Has he spoken to Glyn Roberts, a representative of Families Against Intimidation and Terror, who takes an entirely different view from his own? Is there a split?

Mr. Öpik: I do not know whether it is relevant to the debate, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that I am speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats tonight. I certainly encourage him to speak to any parties with whom he wishes to speak if he wants their views. I must now make progress and, for the sake of time, I shall take no more interventions.

I want to make two brief points--one about the LVF and the other about the UVF. First, will the Secretary of State confirm that, in her view, the less than whole-hearted declaration from the LVF that accompanied the ceasefire is the key reason why that organisation has been specified; and that if its representatives can reassure us that they are no longer willing to engage in acts of terrorism or violence, they can benefit from the order? Secondly, I would welcome clarification that the Secretary of State regards the UVF as having the potential to benefit from the order as long as its representatives continue to show a genuine commitment to the ceasefire; more to the point, if evidence comes forward that they are not adhering to it, they can, I trust, be easily specified and will not benefit from the order. In essence, it works both ways. If I understand the order correctly, it is not a one-way ticket for organisations to enjoy prisoner release and then return to acts of violence and terrorism.

I have had discussions with others outside the Chamber and I recognise that it would be difficult--in some cases almost impossible--to re-imprison anyone. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that this is a two-way process and that the mechanism exists to withdraw the privilege afforded by the order.

It appears that the official Opposition are entering the debate in rather bad faith. I say that as they have gone beyond questioning the outcome of the assessment made by the Secretary of State and may be suggesting some other motive. I am disappointed by that. Obviously, hon. Members are entitled to differ with the Secretary of State's view, but we should all assume that the Secretary of State and the Government are acting in good faith. I always made that assumption in respect of the previous Government.

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