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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay: I shall in a moment; I want to finish this point. The discrepancy arises from the fact that, as the

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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.

Mr. Prentice: The right hon. Gentleman has answered my question, which was to ask him to explain the variation in the figures.

Mr. MacKay: 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.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): 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?

Mr. MacKay: That was an unusually ill-thought-out contribution from a senior Member of the House.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): Answer him.

Mr. MacKay: 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.

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The second question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett)--

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. MacKay: 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.

Mr. Corbett indicated dissent.

Mr. MacKay: I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman shaking his head.

Mr. Robathan: 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.

Mr. MacKay: 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

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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.

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.'"

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): 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?

Mr. MacKay: 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

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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.

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