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Mr. MacKay: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: Let me finish my point. The right hon. Gentleman spoke for half an hour. I have just 15 minutes to sum up.

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There is a need for sensitivity and I regret that the right hon. Gentleman made such a graphic speech. I shall give way to him and then I shall refer to another point that he made which has been rebutted by one of the families concerned.

Mr. MacKay: Both the victims concerned gave their agreement and went public because they wished the people to know just what had happened. So there has not been any irresponsibility whatever and I suggest that the Minister withdraws those comments, which are a disgrace and quite wrong.

Mr. Ingram: I shall not withdraw because the right hon. Gentleman clearly did not hear what I said.

Mr. MacKay: I did.

Mr. Ingram: I do not doubt for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman may have spoken to some of the families that he listed. However, other families and other victims do not like the parading of such pain and grief. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been affected over the past 30 years and I caution the right hon. Gentleman on that basis.

As the Minister with responsibility for victims, I meet many of them. I visited the pathology lab only yesterday and spoke to senior pathologists about what they do on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. We have had to put counselling support into the victims liaison unit to ensure that its staff--the people who assist me--can cope with much of the pain that they encounter. That is why I caution the right hon. Gentleman to remember that his words can have an adverse impact.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) spoke sensitively about Mrs. Kearney and his tribute to her was genuine. She is a brave women, who is challenging the circumstances in which she finds herself. However, the right hon. Members for Bracknell and for Upper Bann and others have referred to the Chief Constable, who has given interviews and written articles in which he tries to take a rounded approach to the subject and his comments on it. The article of 15 January has already been quoted extensively and extremely selectively, but it will be worth while for me to follow suit and quote selectively the Chief Constable's summation. He says:

That is not a defeated Chief Constable, but a man who has to assess all of the problems in his society and who, even knowing what he has to interpret, still looks hopefully toward a vision of a better future.

Mr. Maginnis: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Ingram: No, I shall not.

Where division exists, it is on our response to the actions that have been described tonight and on how best to put an end to them. Clearly, there are groups and individuals at work in Northern Ireland who seek to bring an end to the whole peace process--indeed, there are some Members of Parliament who want the current

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process to fail. The right hon. Member for Bracknell indicated that there are those within his own party who might adopt such an approach. Such people reflect the views of a small minority and the Government are determined to ensure that they do not succeed. They are minority voices who represent the past and offer no hope for the future.

The debate has dealt with two distinct ways forward for the current peace process--two separate strands of thinking. The first, set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is to look at the process in the round. It is to look at the history of paramilitary assaults and the backcloth against which previous Governments acted as they sought to drive forward the process, as defined at the time. It is to look at the context within which such actions are being carried out and the motivation behind them. It is to put those actions in the framework of everything else that is happening to create the new building blocks for a new and better society in Northern Ireland.

There is no question that those actions pose a risk to obtaining that new future. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has pointed out what she has done to date to challenge directly those who have influence over those who carry out such acts. She has made clear her determination to base her actions on the very best of security advice as to whether or not the ceasefires are still intact. The Government and the Secretary of State have not been complacent or indifferent to the ever-changing political and security landscape we face in Northern Ireland--far from it. The judgment that has been made is that there is no guarantee that stopping the prisoner release programme will bring an end to paramilitary assaults.

It would be most unwise for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government to play brinkmanship with the Good Friday agreement. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) made an excellent point in that respect. It is the Government's judgment that for us to indulge in such brinkmanship could place the whole Good Friday agreement in jeopardy. All our efforts to date have been aimed at honouring our commitments under the agreement and pressing others to honour their commitments. We shall not tire of repeating that the Good Friday agreement offers the best way forward for all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.

However, the Government have to weigh all their decisions carefully before acting. We cannot and should not indulge in short-term fixes, as has been demanded by the Opposition and others in today's debate. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier today, previous Governments and Secretaries of State have continued a programme of prisoner releases against a backcloth more violent than the one that we face. In opposition, we judged that those Governments were right to do so, because the ultimate prize was so great, both then and now. In government, we are trying to keep on course a process that offers the best possibility of success.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Ingram: Let me develop my argument. I shall deal with the points raised by Opposition Members and then we shall see whether they want to argue them.

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The other strand of thinking that has been advanced in the debate is that the Government should bring a halt to the early release programme. However, no arguments have been put forward as to why it is thought that to do so will result in a reduction of such actions, or bring about a better climate, with the prospect of more progress being made on the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. The right hon. Member for Bracknell said he would establish that point--that he would set out the basis for his arguments and prove the results--but he did not do so. He did not provide evidence for what the consequences would be, but simply gave an analysis of what he thought was desirable without justifying his conclusions.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister give way?

Hon. Members: Give way.

Mr. Ingram: I shall give way in a moment.

Instead of the Government's strategy, which offers what we consider to be the best possibility of success, we are being urged to embark on a course of action that will almost certainly lead to failure. We know that the Opposition are genuinely committed to the Good Friday agreement, as are most, if not all, of the other parties represented in the House. However, the Opposition are advocating a punitive response, without supplying any evidence that it will produce the desired result. That response is at variance with, and contrary to, what the Conservative party did in government. The only conclusion that I can draw is that they are playing party politics with people's lives.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister give way?

Hon. Members: Give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. It is entirely up to the Minister whether or not he gives way, and persistence will not necessarily be successful unless the Minister is willing to give way.

Mr. Ingram: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Robathan: The Minister is scared stiff.

Mr. Ingram: That is a silly comment--it is not something that can ever be said of me.

I shall quote a small article that appeared in today's Belfast News Letter. It is headed, "Hague 'using terror victims'" and states:

Before I used that article, I got my office to contact Mrs. Peden to ensure that the story was accurate and that she had no objection to my using her name in the debate. She said that she was happy for me to do so, so that her message was put across.

Mr. Moss: Like the Secretary of State during our previous debate on the subject, the Minister has repeated

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the half-truth that was also peddled by the Prime Minister this afternoon. The release of prisoners under the previous Government is in no way the same as the current policy of the Labour Government. We simply amended the remission dates in line with those of the United Kingdom mainland. We did not include lifers, whereas the current Government have included all life prisoners, and all prisoners will ultimately be released.

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