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Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Has the right hon. Gentleman acquitted the Ulster Volunteer Force of the two murders in Armagh?

Mr. MacKay: That will be for the security forces and the judiciary to decide. No one has been convicted of those crimes yet.

I am saying that the guns of the mainstream paramilitaries are silent at present. Long may that continue, but the splinter groups are very active. As we know, and as the Minister and his security advisers will confirm, Continuity IRA was responsible for a bomb that could have killed many people in Irvinestown only a few weeks ago. Mercifully, attempts on two separate Army barracks, at Ballykelly and at Dungannon, were thwarted. If the security forces had not been vigilant, there could have been a huge loss of life.

If the process reaches a happy and logical conclusion, those splinter groups will become even more aggressive and violent. They will be capable of destabilising the process. In those circumstances, the Secretary of State and his opposite number south of the border may well think it wise to reintroduce internment temporarily. I will not second-guess whether they would be wise to do so, because we will not know the exact circumstances until they happen. I am convinced that that rather blunt

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instrument, which did not work in the 1970s but worked extremely well in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and in the 1957-62 campaign, and was used effectively by both the De Valera and the Lemass Governments in the south, is worth having in any Government's armoury.

The previous Secretary of State foolishly said, "Don't worry. I will reintroduce legislation on internment if necessary." That was one of the more preposterous suggestions that she made at the Dispatch Box. Clearly, internment works only if there is an element of surprise. If internment is on the statute book, it can be used at extremely short notice. Primary legislation--even emergency legislation--takes time, as you are aware Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Finally, the men of violence would certainly sleep less easily at night if they believed that internment was possible. They would be constantly on the run, under threat and destabilised and surely hon. Members on both sides of the House would want that. Therefore, I urge the House to make good the Government's mistake in taking internment off the statute book and to return through this legislation by supporting the new clause and the new schedule.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I apologise for missing the first couple of minutes of the speech of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). I spoke with the right hon. Gentleman before the debate and had a clear picture of what he intended to do, and I understand his reasoning.

The Liberal Democrats take a different view on the issue. While I understand the right hon. Gentleman's logic and his argument that Ireland still has internment, which is correct, the act of using it in Northern Ireland in the 1970s was tremendously provocative. If we reintroduce it now, we will be sending all the wrong signals to Northern Ireland, especially to the nationalist communities.

The right hon. Gentleman correctly said that surprise was an important element in the use of internment. However, to reintroduce it to the Northern Ireland environment at this time would be a very active step and might be detrimental because of the tensions that it would generate in the nationalist communities. More tensions are the last thing that we need while the Assembly is suspended. As the right hon. Gentleman noted, internment did not work in the 1970s. In our judgment, it would not work in the current Northern Ireland environment--even if there were to be a further deterioration of the situation.

The right hon. Gentleman prefaced his comments with many "ifs". It is true that if those circumstances occurred, the security situation would be serious. At that point, we should have to consider what to do about it. However, my fear is that if we were to introduce internment, it would prompt some of those "ifs" into reality. It would provide some of the hardliners in paramilitary organisations with the opportunity to point at Westminster and claim that there had been a breakdown in faith through the reintroduction of practices that were almost universally condemned as detrimental to the Northern Ireland political environment in the 1970s.

Although Ireland retains internment on its statutes, that does not provide an accurate comparison because in Northern Ireland, internment means something different. Furthermore, it is regarded as a clumsy and fairly ineffective means of state--or Westminster--control over nationalists.

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I hope that the matter will not go to a vote, but if there were to be a vote on the new clause, my party and I will be obliged to support the Government.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): In supporting the new clause tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), I should like to go back to those halcyon days when I was young, and when one or two Ministers had less grey hair. In 1972, Operation Motorman brought about the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland. Many of my friends were involved in that operation, although I was still a callow youth at university. When I was in Belfast in 1975, internment was still much on people's minds, because it had ended only within the previous nine months.

In 1972, internment was not a success--apart, perhaps, from the fact that it provoked support for the terrorists. However, that does not condemn it for ever as a legitimate weapon in the anti-terrorist armoury. On my subsequent visits to Northern Ireland, I found that most people involved in security and in keeping the peace said that it was useful to keep internment in the back locker. Terrorists are frightened of the idea of internment; key people can be locked up for a long time with no justification, thereby ruining terrorist operations.

Internment failed in 1972 because the intelligence that led to the arrest of many people--almost wholly from the nationalist community--was hopeless and out of date. That was what stirred up so many members of the nationalist community and provoked support for the IRA. However, that does not mean that a time could not come when one had sufficient intelligence to nobble top terrorists and remove them from the streets, while one carried out some political activity or sorted out security arrangements.

Despite that lack of success in 1972, the subsequent 28 years have shown us that great strides have been made in the improvement of intelligence and in the knowledge of who, and where, the terrorists are. In 1972, the personnel of Operation Motorman were knocking at the doors of houses that had been boarded up for months or years. They arrested the wrong people; they had no intelligence--frequently, they did not even have photographs. However, things are now much better.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said that the reintroduction of internment would send the wrong messages. However, removing it from the statute book--as we did in 1997, against Conservative opposition--sent entirely the wrong message: that there might never be another occasion on which one might want to lock up dangerous and unpleasant terrorists who had been killing people and against whom one could not, perhaps, obtain a conviction in court.

Mr. Öpik: All the legal powers still exist--they are open to the police and the security forces--to apprehend individuals who are regarded as a threat.

Mr. Robathan: Yes, indeed. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that we can hold people, only in Northern Ireland, for 72 hours.

Mr. Öpik indicated assent.

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman confirms my belief.

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5.30 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Under this legislation, one could possibly hold them for a week.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his knowledge of the situation.

Both hon. Gentlemen who intervened will know that hardened terrorists shrug their shoulders at the prospect of being held for a week by the RUC. They eat rather better than they might have done otherwise; they have a break from alcohol and perhaps from cigarettes. They do not get roughed up, as is occasionally alleged, and these days they have a pretty easy time, although I accept that perhaps that was not always true in the past.

My point is that one day we may need to be able to arrest known terrorists and keep them in detention indefinitely. The message that we are sending by not having internment is that we do not think that there can ever be circumstances in which we will have to return to such action. That sends all the wrong messages to the terrorists, who believe that, yet again, the British Government are giving up more of their powers and their ability to deal with terrorism. Terrorism does not affect most of us in this room, but it affects deeply and permanently the few people who live in Northern Ireland, and it changes the pattern of life of all the communities in Northern Ireland.

Internment was one weapon against terrorists, and I very much regret that it is not on the statute book. I applaud the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell in trying to bring back internment in the Bill, because it would be welcomed by all those who want peace and an end to the troubles in Northern Ireland.

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