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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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

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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:

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.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): How does the Secretary of State reconcile what she has just said with her statement in this House on 10 June last year? She said then that

Marjorie Mowlam: We are talking about a process that will not happen overnight--it is not like turning a switch on and off. It takes time for the process to develop, and I believe that that is what we are doing now. [Hon. Members: "Nine months."] Yes, nine months--a short time in terms of the years of violence that have gone before.

Decisions in terms of the agreement and the ceasefire are based on evidence from the security forces, the police and elsewhere. I have to make the judgment, and I have judged that the ceasefire is intact. I have no reason to believe that the Chief Constable disagrees with that interpretation.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Is the information from the RUC Chief Constable in accordance with the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? Does she agree that it is important that we do not undermine the RUC, which has a difficult job in identifying the perpetrators of violence and bringing them to justice?

Marjorie Mowlam: I get evidence from the police and other security organisations, but I make the judgment myself. It is not the Chief Constable--I take responsibility. I consult the Chief Constable regularly,

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and I have no reason to believe that he disagrees with my conclusions. My hon. Friend mentioned how difficult it is for the police to do their job, and there is no doubt about that. We ought to commend the police. In the Markets area of Belfast recently, for example, the local community police officer received a UK-wide award. Efforts are being made to break the vicious cycle, and that is the difficulty that we are faced with.

Mr. MacKay: The Secretary of State is right to say that the final decision ought to be hers and not the Chief Constable's--the whole House accepts that. However, does she accept that I gave direct and detailed quotes from Sir Ronnie Flanagan's interview with Radio Ulster during my speech? He said again and again, categorically--as he did in the Police Review--that the paramilitaries who had signed up to the Belfast Agreement were the perpetrators of the dreadful tortures, attacks and beatings that we are debating today.

Marjorie Mowlam: Sir Ronnie said that those groups were involved, but he did not go on to say that there was evidence to charge individuals, organisations or members within those organisations. If there is evidence, the Chief Constable will use it to initiate prosecutions. However, there is no evidence. I must work on evidence, and that is my judgment. I deal not in hearsay or in rumour, but in evidence. I have not seen evidence to support a conclusion different from the one that I have reached.

Mr. MacKay: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam: I wish to make a little more progress, but I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman later.

I readily accept that the balance is a difficult one. I, like my predecessors, have difficult judgments to make. Did the noble Lord Mayhew abandon his new law--as I am being asked to do--letting terrorist prisoners out early in 1996? He did not, even though that was the worst year on record for paramilitary assaults, and even though the IRA ended its ceasefire and we had the bomb at Canary Wharf, the London bus bombing, the explosion at Osnabruck and other incidents.

Lord Mayhew could have abandoned that law. He could have reversed his earlier decision. He did not, because his judgment told him that the process of working for a lasting peace required a different course of action. We supported him in that judgment, because we thought the same--and we still do.

However, I do not want to dwell on the past. It is better to face up to the future.

Mr. MacKay: It is very important for the House to be absolutely clear about everything that is said today, as many people will be listening to the debate. The Secretary of State said a moment ago that she had to have evidence before there could be convictions. That is not anybody else's interpretation of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which provides that she has to make a judgment on the information that she receives from the security forces and elsewhere.

Will the Secretary of State correct what she said, as it is not true that she can decertify paramilitary organisations only when there are convictions in court?

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She knows full well how difficult the intimidation of witnesses and victims makes it for the police to get convictions. I should be grateful for a clarification, as I think that she inadvertently misled the House.

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