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6.32 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): This has been an important debate for several reasons. First, it is the first time in a long time that the needs, requirements and fears of the people of Northern Ireland, who are on the receiving end of those terrible atrocities, have been expressed and debated in the House. Secondly, it has given the Opposition the opportunity to challenge the Government--rightly, as the Prime Minister agreed at Question Time--on their judgment in this critical situation.

The paramilitaries and their political representatives seem to have a twofold agenda. First, they want to control the estates in Northern Ireland, particularly those in Belfast, so that criminal activity can take place without any police intervention and the racketeering, extortion, drugs peddling and intimidation of those who do not fall into line with those peddling such views can continue. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) put forward that view and asked the Government to differentiate between those and political activities, which is impossible because the same people are perpetrating both the political activities and the acts of terrorism in the estates of Northern Ireland.

As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) pointed out in an intervention, the second part of the agenda is to undermine the Royal Ulster Constabulary by influencing, or trying to influence, the Patten commission on that body. The line will be taken that the RUC is not working on the estates--witness the beatings, shootings and atrocities--and therefore a new police structure is needed. Sinn Fein-IRA and some of the loyalist groups will then propose community policing and we all know who will undertake that--the same paramilitaries who are running the show on the estates at present.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) had an interesting theory that elements within the paramilitary groups who commit the violence, do so for personal motives or as a lever against their leaders to bring them into line, so that they do not make too many concessions. If that is so, why did all those activities stop--on both sides of the sectarian divide--when President Clinton last visited Northern Ireland? In Police Review the Chief Constable of the RUC confirmed:

Several hon. Members implied that our motion was calculated, at best to destabilise and, at worst, to wreck the peace process and the agreement. I assure the House that we want implementation of the agreement in full and that includes a commitment to meaningful decommissioning, an ending of violence and an acceptance of peaceful, law abiding and democratic means to achieve political progress in Northern Ireland.

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On 6 May 1998, the Prime Minister said:

On 14 May 1998, at Balmoral in Belfast, he said that there had to be

    "an end to bombings, killings and beatings".

Will the Minister tell us whether the Government interpret the ceasefire simply to mean the absence of bombings, rather than including the killings and beatings, which can continue unabated? I do not think for a moment that the voters in Northern Ireland believe that. The people who gave their assent in the referendum certainly did not.

The agreement requires concessions from both sides. From the paramilitary groups, it requires decommissioning and an end to violence. In return, they obtain prisoner releases. If there is no movement on decommissioning or prisoner release, it is likely that all paramilitary prisoners will have been released with no concessions in return. That is unacceptable to Opposition Members, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) pointed out so forcefully.

The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 gives the Secretary of State the power to suspend the prisoner release scheme or to review it. The Prime Minister confirmed that today at Prime Minister's questions, although the right hon. Lady seemed uncertain about it in her interview on the "Today" programme earlier. According to that legislation, she could specify organisations and remove their prisoners from the scheme. Once all the prisoners have been released, the right hon. Lady will have no further negotiating power. She said that she had to decide whether or not there had been a cessation of violence--despite the many sources of security advice--by making a judgment. Again, I shall quote the Chief Constable, who said in a BBC interview:

referring to the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters--

    "including those who purport to be in cessation of military operations, are engaged in this repugnant activity".

The Secretary of State confirmed this evening that she can use her discretion under the 1998 Act. She also confirmed that she had received the Chief Constable's advice--it is in the press and I am sure that she has received it privately. From her conclusions today, are we to interpret her remarks as confirming that, at this stage, she has heard the advice, but chosen to ignore it?

In summary, the motion is not merely to take note of the atrocities but, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said, to offer a strategy that is a way forward and an attempt to curtail and prevent those atrocities from taking place. There is little point in debating those key issues if we do not put the motion to the vote, which is what we shall do.

The Government response in their amendment seems to ignore the facts. We have all met the same people--from FAIT and other communities--who are doing sterling work, which is often dangerous, to give solace, comfort and help to people on the receiving end of those

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horrendous and atrocious acts. Intimidation means that many families have to leave Northern Ireland at short notice and be rehoused in mainland Britain.

The Government seem to turn a blind eye to the potentially damaging end game. Their amendment is frankly toothless and offers the House nothing but more of the same. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire pointed out, time is running out.

The fundamental questions are these: first, will the Government accept a position in which all the prisoners have been released, but there is no comparable movement from the paramilitaries on decommissioning or a cessation of violence? We have asked that question a number of times and it has never been answered. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked it again during Prime Minister's questions this afternoon and the Prime Minister himself declined to give a straight answer. It really is time that the Minister gave us an unequivocal answer.

Secondly, is the partial implementation of the agreement tolerable to the Government? Can the Minister explain to the House how he and his party expect the smooth operation of a devolved Government when guns remain in the hands of the paramilitaries and violence of the kind that we have discussed today continues unabated? If not, perhaps he can tell us how they hope to obtain movement on those critical issues.

Thirdly, if the agreement has not been implemented in full at the end of two years--we hear time and again from the Government and from the Prime Minister that that is their intention--will the agreement fall? Can it be renegotiated and where will the Government draw a line in the sand, if at all?

The time has come for the Government to face up to the reality on the streets and the estates of Northern Ireland. They need to plan their strategy carefully to achieve the beneficial end game that we all want and to use the law that is at their disposal and that they put on the statute book not a few months ago.

6.43 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I shall respond as best I can to all the points that have been raised in the debate. Some of the concluding comments by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) send a clear message. He used the language of defeat and failure. We are trying to build confidence to ensure that difficulties from any direction are faced and an attempt is made to achieve reconciliation and find a solution. The language of defeat saps the confidence of people who have spent more than 30 years in very difficult circumstances. I am glad that my party is in government and the hon. Gentleman's party was removed at the last election.

We have had a wide-ranging and clearly useful debate. It has been useful because the issues and arguments that have been raised tonight from both sides of the House lie at the very heart of understanding the process in which we as a society are involved in Northern Ireland.

As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) got to the point at issue with clarity and precision. I thank him for his kind words to myself and my ministerial colleagues. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire

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(Mr. Barnes) who has a long-term interest in the subject. He robustly argued his point of view and he is right about the specific issue that we have debated tonight. He referred to other areas of concern--such as exiles and the disappeared--that should never be neglected. The Government do not intend to neglect them.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) alleged that released prisoners out on licence have been charged since their release. The hon. Gentleman nods in agreement, so I understood him rightly. Not one prisoner who has been released under the scheme has been charged subsequently. The RUC has no evidence that those who were released under the scheme have become re-involved. If such evidence is drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and there has been a breach of licence, clearly the Government would be obliged to take action.

It is true to say that every citizen of the United Kingdom has an interest in achieving a lasting peaceful settlement for Northern Ireland, not least because the terrorist violence over the last 30 years has not been confined to Northern Ireland, but has been visited with tragic effect upon communities and families here in Britain.

It is because of that reality that the country is united behind the Government in what has been achieved to date since the Good Friday agreement last April and what the Government are seeking to achieve for the future with the commitment of the political parties that are signed up to the process and with the support of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

Everyone in the House, with a few notable exceptions, agrees with those sentiments. The House is also united in its complete and unequivocal condemnation of the spiteful and barbaric paramilitary assaults carried out, for whatever reason, within the various communities that make up Northern Ireland.

All hon. Members who have spoken have expressed in their own way their abhorrence at what these vicious acts mean in human and family terms and the way in which they add to the sum of community division and strife in Northern Ireland. There is not a scintilla of difference between anyone in the House on that point.

The speech by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) gave graphic details of cases in which terrible things were done to individuals. I would caution him about that. It is all very well wallowing in the gory details, but, as one who speaks to many victims of violence in Northern Ireland, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that others out there do not want to hear about such grief and suffering or see it on their television screens. That is why, when the BBC and other responsible journalists show bodies and the effects of terrorist violence, they do their best to contact the families concerned.

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