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Mr. MacKay: Let me put the record straight. The overwhelming majority of Conservative Members fully support the Belfast agreement and the process, as I have clearly outlined. Only a handful do not. There is one simple reason why we tabled the motion, and I think that it has been proved to be worth while from the high standard of the debate: to draw attention to the dreadful plight of those innocent people who are victims of terrorism of the worse sort. I can put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest.

Mr. Barnes: I am pleased to hear that. I have a suggestion in connection with that: when we get to 7 o'clock, the Opposition should not press their motion because we will have had the debate. They might say, "We have not quite found exactly the deal that gets the paramilitaries to do these things. We are applying our mind to it. We are arguing with the Government about it. We will listen to their responses and we are encouraging a certain development to take place."

I tried with an amendment; obviously, it was not going to be selected. I hoped that the Conservative party might have backed it. I am in no sense jumping on any Conservative bandwagon. In fact, I had a little bandwagon going for about 10 years, although it mainly reflected what Families Against Intimidation and Terror was doing. The Conservative party should come on board in terms of my amendment.

Within politics, there is politicking. Perhaps some members of the Conservative party feel that it would not be all that much of a loss if the process fails because it would do so under a Labour Government, rather than a future Conservative Government. I still want to say many honourable things about certain people in the Conservative party.

Mr. MacKay: We passionately want the agreement and the process to work, but let me explain why, although superficially attracted to the hon. Gentleman's amendment, I feel that there is a problem with it. His proposal would be illegal, as I think the Minister will explain in his winding-up speech. There is only one of

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two options. We either do not decertify the various parties, so prisoner releases can continue, or we do. We cannot slow the process down. It is not an option, even though the House might like to have it. It is not possible under the law.

Mr. Barnes: I picked up that there was a problem. Some people seemed to say at first that halting early release, the Opposition's position, was legally possible and that there were problems with slowing it down, as my amendment proposes. However, "slow down" was introduced to try to get around the problem of people saying that halting early release would violate the agreement. Therefore, we can look for something else, but I still think that it would be a great advantage if the Opposition did not press their motion when we come to the end of the debate.

I agree that there are many genuine Conservatives who support the process and who were there at its birth. At the moment, I should be in a meeting of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which is discussing exactly the type of economic and social affairs in which we should be engaged in.

The Chairman is the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). I know that he is solidly behind the process because he produced the form of words initially that started the whole process going, so those elements are there. Let us have the debate, but not then go further by pressing for a Division. We are looking for matters of substance to try to solve these particular problems.

From a left-socialist position, I always believed that something like the agreement should be established. In the Labour party, we used to have a policy of a united Ireland by consent. It was an inconsistent policy because we could not have a united Ireland by consent; a united Ireland could happen only without consent. It was much more sensible when we developed a position where the parties could be facilitated to come together to agreement.

We nudged the parties on occasions. Headings of agreement were drawn up on what they had said. The two Governments got together to move in that direction, but it always seemed that that was the right sort of thing to do. I have great disagreements with many people who go for centralist politics in relation to economic and social matters--I disagree even with the Prime Minister in connection with those--but when it came to Northern Ireland's constitution or political matters, there was an obvious area for an almost artificial centre.

We have got that going and we have to keep it going, but, at the same time, we have to do things to protect people in communities from being beaten, battered and all the other problems that are associated with that. We should act in ways that assist them to get out of those problems.

I appeal to certain of my colleagues who are very much on the left: if they have any links with Sinn Fein, they should put the strongest pressure that they can possibly on it. We should not be ambivalent in any way about violence or the new violence that is happening now in terms of the beatings, their spread and the fact that there is a political strategy behind them--as well as all the other considerations. It is fully understood that parties are organising to further their own ends in connection with the beatings. We should not have it.

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Therefore, we have to look for methods, more police expenditure and improvements, and ask where the peace dividend is going to be spent; there is no peace dividend if we look at the statistics. Those things should be used to create a situation in which we achieve what everyone wants to be achieved.

5.37 pm

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire): The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) always makes an idiosyncratic and amusing speech. I hope that his political credentials have not been utterly ruined by praise from both The Daily Telegraph and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, on the same day.

I support wholeheartedly the bipartisan approach and the Good Friday agreement. I think that everyone knows that; I know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland knows it. However, that does not mean--it is rather offensive to be told this by some Labour Members--that we cannot and must not criticise.

The definitive remark came from the Secretary of State herself. She may remember that, when we appeared on "Question Time" some years ago, when our roles were reversed, I defended a particularly controversial thing that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) had just said. She tore into me, and told me that I was talking rubbish and defending the indefensible, whereupon Mr. Dimbleby said, "But I thought you had a bipartisan process." "Of course we do," she said, "but that does not mean that we cannot criticise the Government when they are wrong." That is what we are doing. There is no discredit in that. I am sure that she will agree.

I hope that the Secretary of State will agree too that, apart from the small print in the Good Friday agreement and all the other bits of legislation that we have had, the words of reassurance that have been spoken by leaders are also important. In the summer, when the releases started--when the process started--there was much concern that the IRA had not moved an inch. To reassure those people who were worried about the process being one-sided, the Prime Minister said clearly and unequivocally, "I shall insist on parallel movement through all stages of the agreement."

In all honesty, that remark should be withdrawn. There has been no parallel movement. One side has been totally stationary, while the other side--the Government--have pressed ahead, honouring the letter and spirit of the agreement. I do not criticise that, but there must come a time when the Prime Minister has to say either, "I do not insist on parallel movement any longer," or "There is none and I am going to stop moving until someone catches up."

It is an illogical statement to have made as it simply has not been applied by the IRA in any way, shape or form. It is not particularly honest for that remark still to be on the record if the time of it has passed.

I come to another remark, which was made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, to which I noticed the Secretary of State shake her head. He asked what the Prime Minister was doing saying that, if prisoner releases stopped, that would be the end of the Good Friday agreement. He said that last week and I thought that he said it again this week.

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Last week my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said:

The Prime Minister answered by saying:

    "The right hon. Gentleman is, in effect, asking us to bring the whole Good Friday agreement to an end."--[Official Report,20 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 901-902.]

That is at the heart of the matter. It would bring the Good Friday agreement to an end. That is what Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness have threatened. They have said that if there is a slowdown or deviation in anything that the Government do, the whole thing is off. They are proceeding by implied threat while doing absolutely nothing. They are trying to bring the blame for any breakdown upon the Government and not themselves.

Nobody has yet called their bluff. The Secretary of State was, uncharacteristically, wringing her hands on the radio this morning when she said, "I could not do anything about it even if I wanted to." That is a counsel of despair. She will run out of options if she continues with this line. All the prisoners will be out and not one bullet, one bomb or one gun will have been handed in. What will she do then? Will she say, "Isn't it dreadful. They have not done anything. We have another year under the agreement and we will press on"? If that happens, the beatings will continue, as will the punishment and the violence, which has not decreased. The right hon. Lady will have lost what I see as her only card in restraining them and calling their bluff. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has tabled the motion. We have had a useful debate.

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