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Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South): The hon. Gentleman might be aware that I asked the Library to research Opposition day debates on Northern Ireland in the previous Parliament. I am concerned because bipartisanship is very important to people in the peace process, and I recognise the importance of that process to people in Northern Ireland. The only Opposition day debate on Northern Ireland held during that time was the joint SDLP, UUP and Conservative Members' debate on the Northern Ireland economy. Is that the sort of debate that the hon. Gentleman wants to happen?

Mr. Mallon: I thank the hon. Lady for that valuable interjection.

It is right to point out that, at a time when the primacy of politics and the political process should be establishing itself apace, the political process is actually partially dormant. What is the focus of concentration? It is the acts of barbarity, a throwback from the past; it is the violence that we have lived with for so long. As politicians, we have to ask ourselves how, in effect, the business of violence is overcoming the business of the political process in circumstances in which the political process should be leading in every sense.

We can ask the same question about the will of the people of the north of Ireland, expressed in a vote of 72 per cent. in the referendum on the agreement. Is that will the will that is being heard in this debate? Is that the will that has been heard in media terms, or is it the will--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The motion deals with good order, but we do not have good order in the Chamber. Let us have good order.

Mr. Mallon: I am sure that extra time will be added, as they say.

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The reality is that, by carrying out punishment beatings, or whatever we want to call them, those with hoods--the faceless people--are able to grab attention in a way that the legitimate political process is not. Let us not all fall into the trap that is being set by those in paramilitary organisations.

I am asked whether the passing of this motion would end the brutality. If the release of prisoners were ended, would that end those acts of brutality? I do not believe that it would; I do not believe that any hon. Member believes that it would; and I do not believe that there is anyone in the House who does not believe that, in those circumstances, it would be the next excuse for a vast escalation of the type of violence that we have seen down the years.

I agreed with the Prime Minister when he said--or implied--that, if one breaks one of the key provisions of the Good Friday agreement, the agreement is in effect broken and finished with. If that is the case, what is the vehicle to be used to solve the problem of these beatings? What, then, is the vehicle to solve the issue of decommissioning? Let us ask ourselves that and answer ourselves truthfully--there is no vehicle left for the political process.

Of course, there will be those who say that we can solve the problem through policing. If it could have been done that way, those who are carrying out the attacks would have been behind bars long ago, and we all know that. Could it be done with new security measures? They have been tried for 30 years, and the problem has not been ended. Could it be done with new legislation? All of us should think what legislation that is not on the statute book but that might be on it would solve the problems of violence. Could it be done by political exclusion? If that is the feeling and the mood in some quarters, I warn that to exclude people from the political process is not the way to wean them from violence and arms.

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

Mr. Mallon: I have limited time, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and I want to finish my contribution. I always give way, but not this time.

The motion presents the House with a choice: we can swap the agreement, with all its difficulties, for another political vacuum. By so doing, we acknowledge the failure of our political process and throw away the keys--the keys to our future, the keys to peace. We throw those keys inexorably into the hands of the leaders of all the paramilitary groupings. Is that we want to do? Can we do it? Can we even contemplate it?

Right at the core of the Good Friday agreement is a crucial fact that is often overlooked. The central importance of the agreement is the fact that, for the first time since partition, the people of Northern Ireland--Unionist and nationalist--agreed how they would solve constitutional, political and social issues. They agreed to solve them by peaceful means, through the political process, for the first time since partition. It took almost 80 years to get to that point. To throw that out and to throw the keys away would jeopardise any hope for the future. I cannot contemplate the House doing that, and I do not believe that it will.

I want to make one last point in relation to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State. All the issues surrounding violence in the north of Ireland

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are highly sensitive. We can all bleed within ourselves about them, and we can all blame everybody. I want to put on record my admiration for the courage, the compassion and the concern shown by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram). I get tired listening to them being bashed.

Those are the people at the coal face, soaking up the vitriol that comes in their direction--for doing what? For doing exactly what I agreed they should do when my party signed the agreement, and for doing what other parties asked them to do when they signed the agreement, and for standing as a bulwark between the political process and the future, and a return to the awful past that we have experienced for so long.

I want that to be put on the record, because it is grossly unfair that, when we charge the Secretary of State and her Ministers to pursue a line of policy contained in an agreement that we have reached, we start to complain and bitterly, publicly hold those people to ransom because they have carried out their commitment to that agreement.

I ask the House not to put at risk the consensus that exists, however tenuous it may be. However difficult it is, do not risk it--the risk is far too high. At risk is the future, and future generations who will have to live with it. Do not make this or any other issue a make-or-break issue for the agreement. Agreements are much more easily broken than created.

I have spent the years from Whitelaw to Mowlam in negotiations. That is only one part of one lifetime. Do we start again on another 30 years of negotiation, to try to reach the point where we are now, or do we preserve it, with everything under our control? We should never make this issue--I know that it has not been made so--a party political one. I recognise that it has not because people feel deeply about it. If we start playing with an agreement, which had to be created and took so long and so much effort from so many people to create, we are playing with fire. And that fire will be not just the awful barbarism of the beatings that have occurred, but the type of violence that we all know exists.

5.5 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I shall suggest another way of looking at the issue, detaching the political element from the criminal behaviour. I shall be interested to hear what other hon. Members think about the suggestions that I make. At the very least, I hope that I provide a different perspective.

I add my tribute to Families Against Intimidation and Terror and other organisations that try so hard to help victims of organised assaults and, on occasions, even stand up to those who perpetrate the crimes. If it were not for the likes of Vincent McKenna, who showed great courage and determination in ensuring that there are several directions in which victims can turn, the situation could be unimaginably worse than the very grave circumstances in which they find themselves at the moment.

Let us be clear that the term "punishment beatings" has been put to rest today. I certainly agree with the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) that "punishment beatings" is an inappropriate term. Perhaps we shall no longer hear it used in the Chamber. We are talking of organised assaults; simple criminal action in a criminal

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underworld which has no legitimacy on either political or legal grounds. In some ways, the tactics are similar to those used in the Chicago turf wars in the 1930s, when there was great commercial and political unrest among gangsters. We are talking of racketeers who seek, not just to protect a political interest, but to ensure that coercion keeps them at the top of their pile in Northern Irish life.

Let us define what is going on: intimidation, injury and, occasionally, death. Indeed, it sounds as if there has been another tragic death among the people in Northern Ireland. Such events occur in a way that we simply do not see on the mainland, where I imagine that, from time to time, there are localised incidents, but, when they occur, the police come down very hard. As the Conservatives have suggested, such things would not be tolerated on the mainland for any length of time.

It is difficult to assess the incidence of such events in Northern Ireland. The fact that figures--even the statistics quoted today by the Prime Minister and others--vary shows that, due to the intimidation wielded among those who could otherwise come forward to make statements, reliable statistics are difficult to gather. The rule of fear is so great that we cannot know exactly the extent of injuries and problems. I suspect that FAIT's statistics are pretty accurate because it speaks informally with victims, something that the police cannot always do.

Who is to blame? It is not the Government, the Good Friday agreement or the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Obviously, it is not the victims. The only people who are to blame for these terrible evils are the paramilitaries and others who commit such crimes. It is the perpetrators who should be called to account, not any other groups of people. Our role is not to attribute blame among ourselves in this Chamber, but to ask what we can do to prevent the perpetrators from carrying out their barbaric acts.

On that basis, the Conservatives' proposal is inappropriate. Making a connection between prisoner releases and beatings will not resolve the issue, as the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) pointed out.

The important distinction that I seek to make is that it is inappropriate for us to regard the large proportion of the attacks as motivated primarily by politics. They must be regarded as being motivated primarily by nothing more than criminal aspiration--an attempt to coerce a community simply by breaking the law, thereby breaking bones, destroying lives and intimidating individuals, and all that clearly pervades in large areas of Northern Ireland.

To pretend that there is a consistent and specific link between the political peace process and that criminal activity is to misunderstand the solution that we will ultimately have to implement. I draw an analogy with Estonia, a country that I know well and that also experienced enormous political upheavals, as it shifted from being a satellite state in the former Soviet Union to becoming a free and independent state liberated from the Soviet Union.

The KGB, which was primarily a political organ for the former Soviet Union, converted itself into a criminal organisation that was primarily motivated by cash interest and by maintaining the power of those near the top of the organisation. It stopped being a political organisation,

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but carried on many of its coercive activities in the criminal interests of those involved. There was a surge in black market activities as well.

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