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Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): The right hon. Gentleman makes a thoroughly compelling case. Anyone who does not live in Wonderland knows perfectly well that there has indeed been a breach. Will he tell the House what, in his view, would be the consequences for the Good Friday agreement if the proposal of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), that the release of terrorist prisoners be slowed down, were carried out?

Mr. Trimble: That is the primary issue we are debating today and, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall develop my argument as I wish, although I shall deal with that serious point in turn.

The second matter that has been mentioned is the question of evidence and how one should act. By the end of the Secretary of State's speech, we were beginning to get a clear picture of the position, which is quite simple. To bring criminal proceedings in court, one needs evidence in the normal way; that evidence is difficult, albeit not impossible, to obtain and few prosecutions have been brought. However, what we are debating today is entirely different: it is a question of the exercise of a discretion under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.

That Act refers to several criteria and gives the Secretary of State a discretion. That discretion has to be exercised on some reasonable basis and with regard to the existing circumstances but, in exercising that discretion, the Secretary of State is not limited in any way to legally admissible evidence; and she is entitled to have regard to the commonly known circumstances in Northern Ireland. In addition, she ought to have regard to the information that reaches her from the police and the security services.

If the police are saying to the Secretary of State, as the Chief Constable has said to the public, that those organisations, as organisations, are involved in acts of violence, there is clearly a sufficient basis in law under that Act for her to act. I repeat, if the Secretary of State is receiving from the Chief Constable an assessment that is consistent with what he says in public, under the Act there is sufficient material to enable her to exercise her discretion to slow down, halt temporarily or even take more comprehensive action in respect of prisoner releases. There is no doubt whatsoever about that.

We need to be clear. Those who talk about there being no evidence are obscuring the picture. They might not fully understand the situation, but they are focusing on the wrong point. We must focus instead on the discretion that the Secretary of State has under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act and that she can exercise. I note that she said a few moments ago that, if there was evidence against organisations, she would act. I trust that that is the case.

In the current situation, "evidence" does not solely mean legally admissible evidence; the term includes the intelligence that the Secretary of State receives from the

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police, the Army and the security services. The right hon. Lady would have great difficulty convincing anybody in Northern Ireland that she is not in receipt of intelligence that indicates that the organisations are involved in acts of violence.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): I can confirm that the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary has personally stated to me on several occasions that he has not the slightest doubt that the Provisional IRA and the UVF are responsible, as organisations, for the vast number of beatings, shootings and mutilations that are carried out in the communities they dominate.

Mr. Trimble: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for reinforcing what we all know to be true and what the Chief Constable has stated publicly. The Chief Constable has made similar comments to my colleagues and me on a number of occasions. We cannot know exactly what has passed between the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State, but we have difficulty reconciling what we have been told here with statements that are in the public domain.

My third point relates to what would happen if the suggested action were carried out. I regard as chilling the suggestion made by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that, if prisoner releases were slowed down or stopped, the agreement would collapse. It is appalling to suggest that that is the state of affairs. Prisoner releases are part of the agreement, but they are part of the whole, which includes an end to violence and decommissioning. That is why, in the legislation last year, the Government linked releases to decommissioning and an end to violence. If the Government say that they fear that slowing down prisoner releases will jeopardise the agreement, they are saying that the republican and other terrorist organisations can rewrite the agreement at will and that they can continue their illegal activities, including beatings and killings, with impunity. That is an appalling state of affairs to have reached.

The statements made last week and repeated this week chill the heart of many people in Northern Ireland. We have been here before. We were here a year ago. The present situation is similar to the situation then. We know what the terrorists are doing. They are trying to push out the envelope and see how far they can go. They are trying to lay a basis for an attack on the RUC later in the context of the Patten report. They are also trying, as they did a year ago, to unnerve Unionists and bounce them out of the process.

I remember the killings last year by Direct Action Against Drugs. The Secretary of State twisted and turned, trying to avoid what was obvious and tried to avoid taking action against republicans. Eventually, after a murder in Dunmurry, action became unavoidable and the Government screwed themselves up to take action. They excluded Sinn Fein from the talks, regrettably only for two weeks. I ask the Secretary of State to recall the positive consequences that flowed from acting last year. The tap turned off. The DAAD killings stopped. We had a more positive and serious attitude inside the talks, and that contributed to the agreement.

The terrorists are pushing out the envelope again. They are testing the Secretary of State's resolve. So far, she has not shown any resolve or willingness to tackle the

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situation. If she continues to allow the terrorists to push her around, the challenge that will face us all in another month or two will be more difficult. If she follows the good precedent of last year, when the Government resolved themselves to act after the DAAD killings, she will find that the next month or two will go more smoothly.

I hope that the Secretary of State knows that I hope that we manage to maximise the opportunities for society that the agreement presents. I welcome what the right hon. Member for Bracknell said about the need to maximise and take forward the opportunities. The Secretary of State knows that my colleagues and I will make any effort that can be made to carry those opportunities forward successfully.

The Secretary of State should also know that many people in Northern Ireland who have invested hope in the agreement also have a nightmare. The nightmare is that the paramilitary organisations, rather than turn their backs on violence and cross over into democratic society and thus create a new situation in Northern Ireland in which people can live together at ease, will come into the process and corrupt it, continue with their violence and continue the dominance and racketeering that not only affects estates in certain parts of Northern Ireland but goes much wider than that. People have a nightmare that they will then see the very heart of society become corrupted. That nightmare is reinforced by the fear that the RUC will be so emasculated that it is incapable of acting to restrain the paramilitaries.

The paramilitaries have grown quite arrogant and confident. One has only to look at the behaviour of some of their political spokesmen to see that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but I am bound by the 15-minute rule.

4.49 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): May I first put in context the remarks that I want to make this evening, and have been making for many years, about violence and all its manifestations. I personally abhor the violence that is under discussion today, all violence that has taken place and the mindset that encourages people to use violence for political means.

Sometimes it is necessary to repeat that because, when one listens to debates, particularly on this issue, it is as though there are different rungs on a ladder corresponding to one's own rectitude or self-righteousness on the issue. However, that has not permeated this debate. I have seen no evidence of the self-righteousness or self-indulgence that is sometimes displayed on this issue. There is genuine concern, which I share. It is right that the issue is debated and that Members are able to put their views, and I have no problem with that.

I also have no problem with coupling my remarks with a gentle word of advice for our discussion on punishment beatings. To lob a petrol bomb through people's window when they are in bed is also a punishment, and it can be lethal. There have been a number of such incidents over the past few weeks. I also gently remind the House that, sometimes, the real punishment meted out by paramilitary

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groups in the north of Ireland is not physical. People, especially the young, are put under different psychological pressures in a way that is devised to protect the turf, influence or corrosive power of paramilitary groups in their organisations.

I question the wisdom of the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. If that motion were passed and implemented, how would a Secretary of State and a Prime Minister solve the problems of such brutality? How would passing the motion, with the best and most sincere motives, solve the problems? How would that change even the context in which the problems should be solved? Would we or others be debating more and more of those acts of barbarity or different acts of barbarity? I am opposed to the motion for that and other reasons.

The motion has a subterranean political context, which is already evident. Is it not the supreme irony that, at a time when the business and process of politics has been re-established in the north of Ireland, all concentration is on violence? One would have hoped that, in the context of the new agreement, the new beginning and the new approach, we could have been debating other issues--mundane issues, perhaps--such as education, welfare, carers or young people.

Another irony is that when, for the first time in the past 30 years--the lifetime of most people in the north of Ireland--we have a future, concentration on that will be overshadowed again by acts of barbarity. Ask anybody what is happening in the north of Ireland.

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