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Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the criminal activity that is going on is carried out by organisations that were party to the Belfast agreement? Surely what they are doing contradicts what they professed that they would do under that agreement: give up all violence--whether they carried it out for political or other reasons--and take on the democratic process.

Mr. Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I shall return to it. I am suggesting that we should look at that issue differently and that it is, in large part, up to us to define the extent to which we should regard the beatings and the intimidation as politically motivated and the extent to which we should regard them as organised crime.

I return to the KGB analogy. The KGB, which was no longer a political organisation, carried on working, as a criminal organisation, in Estonia and elsewhere. The Estonian authorities converted their approach to it into a criminal approach. As a result, they managed to reduce the criminal and coercive activities to a point at which things were much improved.

In the same way, we should seriously consider whether it is now appropriate to detach elements of the activities of those paramilitary organisations from the political process--which I hope will deliver peace--and treat those beatings simply as thuggery and crime. We may have to increase massively investment in the police services to destroy that criminal activity and, at the same time, recognise that there is a distinction in motive. There is not necessarily always a political motive, or a motive associated with the peace process, behind such activities.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving away some of his time to allow me to intervene. Although we can accept that each act may be criminal, does he not see that such acts are also part of a political programme? Paramilitaries on both sides want influence over the outcome of the Patten commission. They have a crucial role now; they are increasing the amount of violence to show that certain parts of the Province cannot be policed so that the Patten commission will suggest proposals that would break the national police force. Those activities are criminal, but they are also highly political.

Mr. Öpik: I want to move on to that issue. Although what I have described may take account of a large proportion of the activity that takes place--I sincerely believe that a lot of it is motivated by criminal, not political, interest--it is nevertheless reasonable to assume, as two hon. Members have done, that some activity is politically motivated.

We could have made the whole situation a lot simpler, if we had thought about that at the time of the Good Friday agreement. The issue was considered, but it was not specifically included in the agreement, which is why we now face problems of definition in respect of categorising beatings. In fact, I think we made a mistake; last April, we should have expressed a specific view on

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the issue. Still, we could debate that until the cows come home, but we cannot rewrite the agreement. Therefore, the question is merely of historical interest rather than practical application.

We should consider the consequences of accepting that some of those activities might be politically motivated. That is the issue that the Secretary of State must address in deciding what to do about them. If the paramilitary organisations made an overt effort to proceed with their political intentions, and to move towards their stated goals, through coercive means, we would get into a grey area. There might be a case for reassessing everything, from prisoner releases to the status of the Good Friday agreement.

I do not have the same information as the Secretary of State, or as hon. Members from the Province, who are much better informed than I am, so I cannot be sure whether any such move is taking place, but my judgment is that the agreement is--at the moment, at least--maintaining a ceasefire that I can regard as intact and a peace process that is our best hope for peace for more than 30 years.

I recognise that others may have different views. Perhaps Conservative Members and other hon. Members think that the Good Friday agreement has been breached in an unacceptable fashion, but therein lies the path to great danger. The Secretary of State made the point--as did the Prime Minister at Question Time today--that implying that the Good Friday agreement has in some part failed is a much worse option.

Rather than taking that approach, and rather than the Government specifically and overtly showing that the process is failing by slowing down or stopping prisoner releases, we should handle the beatings in a different way. First, we should find a process that would make it easier for victims to come forward with information. I know that that has been said before, and I shall not suggest such a process now; I may not even be able to do so, and certainly could not do that in three minutes. It might be expensive, but we may have to invest in seeking an alternative to what people are faced with at the moment: either silence or the terror of coming forward.

Secondly, we have to accept that implementation of the correct rule of law is an expensive business in the face of racketeers and powerful paramilitary organisations. The Government should say that, whatever the cost, since human liberties are involved, the need to normalise law enforcement in Northern Ireland is so great that this is an area for legitimate additional investment in those communities.

To an extent, there is lack of faith in some of those communities that the law can protect them or even reach them. That has to be dealt with. There are areas where the RUC has a poor profile and, as a result, the mountain that we must climb to institute normal law enforcement activities is great. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State should make a specific commitment, putting this point of principle above cost.

We must consider the political element on an on-going basis. If it looks as though some of those organisations are specifically using beatings and organised assaults to try to further their political aims, we must think long and hard about whether they are breaching the Good Friday agreement. Here, I do not think that we are arguing a point of principle; we are arguing a point of judgment. The view

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of the right hon. Member for Bracknell is different from mine, and other hon. Members sitting behind me share a different view, but that is why it is useful for us to have a rational debate.

Where do we go from here? As I have said in the past, there are elements of brinkmanship in the process, and there may be elements of brinkmanship as we seek to turn off the tap on these beatings. We have to be courageous. Once again, the Secretary of State is in the invidious position of attempting to decide how to be tough, what is the most effective way to be tough and what investment should be made to implement a tough policy.

We must recognise that simple solutions, such as slowing or stopping prisoner releases, make a statement without necessarily taking account of the consequences. Such solutions would have the wrong consequences. It is far more difficult to detach some of those activities and put them into the criminal context, assess the others on an on-going basis in a political context, and provide the investment to make sure that both kinds of activity are controlled. But, if we took that more difficult option, I would be fairly confident that we could not only win the respect of communities, but achieve our long-term objective of normalising Northern Ireland.

No one should have to live with those beatings, but we must do nothing that would fundamentally jeopardise the peace process, which has gone a lot further than many of us expected.

5.20 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Members of the campaign Families Against Intimidation and Terror have visited the House many times since the campaign's inception in 1990, but its visit just before Christmas constituted a major breakthrough.

People in Britain find it difficult to appreciate the degree of intimidation that exists in Northern Ireland estates. That extends to many of my colleagues in the House. The campaign, however, managed to bring a good many people together during its visit, and I think that had some influence.

I agreed to table a number of early-day motions whose content was drawn from information that the campaign supplied about the beatings. The motions, which were signed by members of all political parties, expressed the genuine concern felt by all hon. Members. I went further, however, and tabled another early-day motion suggesting that there should be a link with the issue of the release of prisoners. I argued for a slowing down of their release, rather than for a complete stop, because I thought that many might interpret a complete stop as a breach of the Belfast agreement, and I wanted to avoid that. I accepted that the word "slow" could mean "very slow indeed", and could be understood in that way by the paramilitaries.

As a result of that argument, I have been the subject of favourable comments in editorials in The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Independent, and have even had an honourable mention from the Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister's Question Time. I would much prefer to receive support in the editorials of "Socialist Campaign Group News", Tribune and the Morning Star, which reflect my political stance, and I would sooner be praised by the Prime Minister. I may not agree with him about "third way" politics, but I am full

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of admiration for all that the Northern Ireland team has done, for the establishment of the agreement and for the role that the Prime Minister has played in the process.

I am trying to encourage and develop that process, and to ensure that it works. I know that the beatings and other troubles in Northern Ireland pose a massive problem, and that the release of prisoners alienates many people there. We must hold on to those people in our support for the process. The problem is probably greater in the Protestant community than in the Catholic community, because the majority in support of the agreement was smaller there. We must try to sustain the position of the Ulster Unionists who are involved in the process, whichever avenue they follow.

I thought that the debate was about the link between punishment beatings and prisoners, but some have suggested that certain people should be excluded from the Assembly. I want to avoid that. If people take on board what is said about so-called punishment beatings, it will be easier for us to advance our views.

I have always argued that we should look for ways in which the paramilitaries can be encouraged to involve themselves in what they call concessions. If the IRA would only tell us where the bodies of the disappeared are, Christian burials could take place. That would represent movement--movement that could be associated with, for instance, the ending of exile. It has been said that we do not want politicians in Northern Ireland to be exiled, but many people are exiled from Northern Ireland. They cannot return until the beatings stop; even if they are told that they can, they will not feel safe. The involvement of paramilitary groups in smuggling and protection rackets also needs to be tackled.

If we can achieve some movement in the areas that I have mentioned, the prize will be concessions in terms of decommissioning, which is the major issue. A small amount of decommissioning would be fantastic, because it would be contrary to all the IRA's traditions. When people were told to rob a bank in order to get some guns to engage in future terrorist activity, they would say "Get lost. You have given the guns away." Those are serious issues, and the concern of Families Against Intimidation and Terror is justified.

Nancy Gracey, who helped to set up the campaign, was involved with Protestant families although she was a Catholic. She had experienced similar problems to theirs. She began by looking for support. One of my proudest memories is of seeing her on television with an early-day motion of which she was obviously proud. I had tabled the motion, congratulating her on the establishment of the campaign. It has taken a long time for the campaign to reach centre stage, and to be mentioned other than in parliamentary questions and Adjournment debates. It is not alone, however: there are many other worthwhile organisations, many of which receive Government funding.

I have a problem with the Government amendment. I have no problem in voting for it, because it expresses all the right sentiments, but where does it go after that? Citrine--whom we in the Labour movement often quote--might describe it as pious. It contains no proposal or strategy for the ending of punishments. Whatever may

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be wrong with the Opposition motion and my suggested amendment, at least they involve some sort of strategy, albeit perhaps inappropriate or weak.

We all support what has been done by the Northern Ireland Office, and the recent discussions with the leaders of the three political parties in the Assembly. They have laid it on the line. However, we want solid progress: we want all the stops to be pulled out. People in Northern Ireland need that more than anyone else. They need to be drawn into the process.

Although the Opposition are allowing us to have a good debate, I do not know what their motion means or why it is there. I fear that it is there because some Opposition Members have threatened to name names in the House, and have pressurised their party into adopting a stronger position. The Conservative leadership has come up with this motion in the hope that such matters will be dropped.

Some Conservatives supported the "No" campaign, and want the agreement to be wrecked. I entirely oppose that position, and oppose Northern Ireland Members who support it, although I agree with them about other matters of a social and economic nature.

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