HC Deb 17 November 1998 vol 319 cc825-41

8.3 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

I beg to move, That the draft Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) (No. 2) Order 1998, which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved. Under the Good Friday agreement, both Governments promised to put in place an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners. That part of the agreement has caused deep heart searching for many, including those who have to implement it. For many of the victims of horrendous crimes over the years, it has renewed the pains and hurts that they still bear. The Government are working with them to address their needs and we shall continue to look at ways in which we can support and help the all too many victims of the past 30 years and their families.

However, despite the pain and the doubts, the issue of releases was and remains an integral part of the agreement, which was adopted by the participants, endorsed by the people and implemented by this Parliament in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. In the agreement, a clear condition was attached to the release of prisoners in paragraph 2, page 25, which states: Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements. The situation in this regard will be kept under review. The Act passed by the House on 28 July reflects that condition in full. It also reflects the four factors that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in the course of the referendum campaign, said would be taken into account in reaching an overall judgment on whether an organisation could benefit.

The agreement clearly linked the release of prisoners to the maintenance of a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. It is not for us to overturn the agreement and add new conditions or make new linkages. If we did so, what authority would we have to insist that others should also hold to their commitments without adding new conditions?

The draft order recognises that the Loyalist Volunteer Force has declared a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. The effect of the draft order is that the LVF will be removed from the list of specified organisations. Therefore, individuals affiliated to it will be eligible for the benefit of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. That benefit is the early release of prisoners convicted of scheduled offences committed before 10 April 1998, the date of the Good Friday agreement.

If an organisation is specified, members of that organisation do not qualify for early release. The draft order shows that the organisations that remain specified are the Continuity IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Real IRA. The draft order is the result of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State keeping the security situation and relevant organisations under continual review. That review of our earlier judgment of the organisations to be specified has taken account of the ceasefires called by the LVF, the INLA and, more recently, the Real IRA.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to explain something that increasingly mystifies and disturbs many people, principally those on the mainland. How is it that the prisoner release process is proceeding apace, when nothing whatsoever appears to have happened regarding decommissioning of arms, explosives and other weapons? Can the Minister explain to frustrated voters on the mainland why that is happening, when earlier so much stress was laid on the fact that the two had to be intimately connected?

Mr. Ingram

Conservative Members could help to spread understanding of the Good Friday agreement. The agreement was not about that linkage, although aspects of the agreement related to decommissioning. I was going to refer to the totality of the agreement later in my speech, and I hope that that will provide an explanation. I call on everyone who has an understanding of the agreement not to create new parameters, or to try to define new dimensions or establish new preconditions; if they do so, they are no longer supporters of the Good Friday agreement, which the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and in the Republic supported in overwhelming numbers. That is not to say that the issue has not been addressed: it is being addressed. Every Member of Parliament wants full decommissioning to happen.

I was saying that the review of our earlier judgment of the organisations to be specified had to take into account the ceasefires called by the LVF, the INLA and the Real IRA. Although our current conclusion is that no additional organisations should be specified, the situation will remain under review.

Let me deal with the organisations that are now specified in the order. The Continuity IRA has not declared a ceasefire and will, therefore, remain specified. The Real IRA announced a ceasefire on 7 September—a most welcome development. The worth of that ceasefire will have to be proved in word and deed over a longer period. I do not need to remind the House that this was the organisation responsible for the horrific events at Omagh which resulted in 29 deaths and many hundreds of others injured and traumatised. The Government are far from convinced that its ceasefire represents a genuine and lasting commitment to exclusively peaceful means.

The INLA also remains specified, since we are not yet persuaded that its ceasefire is complete and unequivocal. Its ceasefire was called on 22 August and, like the Real IRA, it still needs to demonstrate by word and deed its commitment now and in the future to exclusively peaceful and democratic means to pursue its objectives.

The Government will pursue those responsible for past terrorist crimes, and bring the full weight of the law to bear against those who continue to plan and perpetrate such evil acts.

Let me now refer to the Loyalist Volunteer Force. The Secretary of State is now satisfied that this organisation has established a complete and unequivocal ceasefire, and has done so over a significant period. Since May this year, the LVF has demonstrated that its ceasefire is being maintained. The decision that it should no longer be specified also recognises the significant contacts that the LVF has made, via an intermediary, with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

The decision also takes into account the LVF's public commitment to make a start to decommissioning within a short period of its ceasefire being recognised. Although other organisations have maintained their ceasefires for longer, no other organisation has committed itself to a start to decommissioning. We welcome the LVF's commitment. We look forward to it being honoured.

All the participants in the negotiations committed themselves to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. Paragraph 3 of page 20 of the Good Friday agreement says: All participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement. In common with all commitments in the agreement, we look for tangible evidence that that commitment also is being implemented. The Government are living up to our commitments under the agreement; we expect everyone else to do so as well.

As I have said, all of those issues are kept under continuous review, taking into account all the evidence available on the best security advice, and taking into account all the factors prescribed in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the Good Friday agreement itself. We are working to ensure that, as the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have indicated, there is no future for violence—it must be consigned to the past.

The future is in peace, in following the democratic path and in acknowledging other people's rights as one would expect them to acknowledge one's own. Arguments can and should be settled through discussion, consensus and the rule of law, and not through perpetual distrust and recourse to arbitrary and brutal violence. The Government are committed to seeing this process through, facing up to all the difficulties and, importantly, looking for resolutions to them. The way forward is through the implementation of the Good Friday agreement in all its parts. The order is part of this process. I commend it to the House.

8.13 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

First, I believe that the Secretary of State's timing is about right in reviewing her earlier judgments on specifying—or unspecifying, as the case may be—the various terrorist organisations. I welcome the fact that the Minister has come to the House with the order. I will not second-guess the security advice that the Secretary of State and the Minister have been given. I trust that advice and, therefore, the Opposition will not oppose—indeed, we will support—the order in any Division tonight.

Having said that, it is worth while reflecting that the Loyalist Volunteer Force has been one of the most evil, sectarian and psychopathic organisations that this country has had the misfortune to experience. Nothing that we do tonight by voting for the order in any way diminishes the evil of what has taken place.

I have noted carefully that, over the past few months since its ceasefire began, the LVF has promised that, once it has been unspecified by the Secretary of State, it will immediately start decommissioning all its illegally held arms and explosives. I hope that the LVF sticks to its word—it is vital that it does. It will be a useful nudge to those who have been extremely dilatory and have been dragging their feet by not decommissioning in any shape or form, even though they have signed up to the Good Friday agreement.

I wish to take issue, gently, with the Minister, who gave the impression to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that there was no link between decommissioning and the early release of terrorist prisoners. On 20 April in the House, the Secretary of State said: I am sure that he and his colleagues understand that, according to the nature of the agreement, several things must happen in parallel in order to build confidence. That has always been the situation, whether it be decommissioning, the release of prisoners".—[Official Report, 20 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 484.] I agreed with the Secretary of State then. I fear that many will feel let down that that has not happened.

On 6 May, in reply to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister said: Yes. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, it is important to emphasise that people must sign up to the whole agreement and not to bits and pieces of it. The whole agreement stands as a package, and everyone who says yes to it is saying yes to all the agreement. They cannot say yes to the bits they like and leave aside the bits that they do not like; they must sign up to the agreement in its entirety. Clearly, the paramilitaries have not done that, as shown by the lack of decommissioning.

Later—again in answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—the Prime Minister said: Again, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence. Decommissioning is part of that, of course".—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.1] That has not happened.

During the referendum campaign—when we rightly campaigned for a yes vote in the Province—the Prime Minister, at the Balmoral showgrounds, said on 14 May: The Agreement is what has to be implemented, in all its parts. In clarifying whether the terms and spirit of the Agreement are being met and whether violence has genuinely been given up for good, there are a range of factors to take into account … progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence; full co-operation with the Independent Commission on decommissioning to implement the provisions of the Agreement". Again, the people of Northern Ireland have a right to feel let down, because there has not been that co-operation. Although 204 terrorist prisoners have been released early by the Government, there has been no sign of any decommissioning of illegally held weapons—not one gun, not one ounce of Semtex.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, when the previous Government were in power, early prisoner releases were taking place, yet there were no unequivocal ceasefires?

Mr. MacKay

There was a change in the rules to release prisoners, and the hon. Lady is correct. I am not saying that there should be no release of prisoners. That was in the Good Friday agreement, as the Minister of State has rightly pointed out. The Government have shown their good faith to the paramilitaries by releasing prisoners early. I object to the fact that they have continued to release prisoners–204 terrorist prisoners have now been released early—even though there has been no sign of decommissioning of illegally held weapons. I have said on a number of occasions that the Prime Minister should have drawn a line in the sand and said that no more terrorist prisoners would be released early until there was substantial and verifiable decommissioning.

Reasonable people on the mainland and in the Province cannot understand why there is continuing early release of terrorist prisoners when there is no sign of decommissioning. As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) might recall, I put that to the Secretary of State at the most recent Northern Ireland Question Time on 28 October. She replied: I have made clear to the right hon. Gentleman on other occasions the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I shall repeat them. He said that decommissioning is crucial, that it is a central part of the agreement and that we want all dimensions to move in parallel. If there is no progress, we will review it"— [Official Report, 28 October 1998; Vol. 318, c. 322.] Clearly, the dimensions are not moving in parallel. The Good Friday agreement is now seven months old, and if there is no decommissioning, but there are prisoner releases, the dimensions are not running in parallel as the Secretary of State and I rightly believe they should. I therefore suggest that a review of the situation is long overdue. The right hon. Lady willingly admitted to me that it should be reviewed.

I warn the Minister of State, in the gentlest way, that the agreement made in Belfast on Good Friday, which he and I strongly support, will be in jeopardy if there is continuing early terrorist release without substantial and viable decommissioning, not to mention the problems that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the First Minister in the Assembly, has in appointing Ministers to the Executive. The right hon. Gentleman has correctly said that he is not prepared to appoint Sinn Fein Ministers until there is substantial and verifiable decommissioning. I hope that the Minister agrees that no politician can hold ministerial office, with all the responsibilities that that entails, while his paramilitary associates retain their guns and explosives.

The House must remember that the IRA and Sinn Fein are one and the same.

Mr. Ingram

indicated assent.

Mr. MacKay

The Minister nods vigorously. I am always pleased to hear the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State say that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked. There is, therefore, absolutely no doubt in my mind that, if Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness were in favour of decommissioning, there would be no problem in achieving it. They have seen a substantial number of their terrorist friends released from prison early without any decommissioning taking place, so they have said, "It does not look as though there is any need for decommissioning. We can have what we want from the bargain. We can cherry-pick and have our prisoners released and retain all our arms and explosives."

The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State will have to say to all the paramilitaries, whether they are so-called loyalist or republican, "You will not have one more terrorist prisoner released early under the agreement unless you comply with the rest of the agreement and start substantially to decommission." It is not good enough for Mr. McGuinness to say, as he did in an interview on the same radio station as me last week, "Well, we have two years to do it." Any reasonable person would say that, seven months on, if there is absolutely no sign of decommissioning, that is not satisfactory.

Conservative Members are not saying that every gun and every ounce of Semtex should already have been handed in or handed in before any prisoners were released. We are certainly not saying that any of the terrorist organisations must publicly hand in their weapons. All we want is for decommissioning to be verifiable by the decommissioning commission because we, like the Minister, have full faith in General de Chastelain. The method is secondary to the process taking place.

Mr. Ingram

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the assessment of the Secretary of State and of me that the Provisional IRA is currently engaged in an unequivocal ceasefire? It is, therefore, a beneficiary under the Act and should remain so because that is the basis on which the Act was passed by the House in response to the Good Friday agreement.

Mr. MacKay

An unequivocal ceasefire, as the Prime Minister said at the Dispatch Box on 6 May in response to the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), has to include decommissioning. I warmly welcome, as does the Minister, the fact that there has been a cessation of violence, but it is not an unequivocal cessation. He and I cannot sit comfortably until all the paramilitaries, not just the Provisional IRA, fully comply with the conditions that they signed up to in Belfast on Good Friday, and they are clearly not doing so. Let us be blunt—there is absolutely no decommissioning going on.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

We speak of an unequivocal ceasefire, but weapons have been used by terrorists. That is a sham when it is claimed not by the IRA or UVF, but by others. However, is it not more significant that the spokespersons representing the UVF and the IRA, who sit with the general on the decommissioning commission, have said publicly that they will not decommission?

Mr. MacKay

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that the Minister has said publicly that the remarks of Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness that the Provisional IRA will not decommission were deeply regrettable. I hope that they will think again, but I fear that they will do so only if they are told by the Prime Minister that no more of their terrorist friends will be released early from prison.

To take up another point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), although it strays slightly wide of the order, none of us can be comfortable with the punishment beatings and intimidation that continue, and while they continue, there is no complete and unequivocal renunciation of violence. On balance, that is not serious enough for us to respecify organisations, but I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will make it clear that if punishment beatings continue, the organisations proved to be involved will lose their status under the order. That is a wicked and evil form of violence, which the Minister and I know intimidates some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of the community in the Province.

Mr. Ingram

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said in my opening remarks, all the elements on which any paramilitary or terrorist organisation is judged are continually kept under review, and we act on the basis of the best security advice available. The Secretary of State has made it clear that she will not hesitate to exercise her judgment correctly and proportionately on any breach of those conditions.

Mr. MacKay

I am, as usual, grateful to the Minister of State. It is important that, when we are debating this sensitive issue in the House, we never let those who are the victims of so-called punishment beatings and intimidation, who are often those in the poorest areas of the Province, feel that they have been forgotten or that they are vaguely expendable in the greater political process in which the Minister and I are engaged. It is vital that the House sends a clear message; I am extremely grateful to the Minister for doing so.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, last month, he and I met representatives of a newly formed group, Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, and does he recall the deep sense of injustice felt by those representatives of the Protestant community of south Armagh in particular, about early release without decommissioning?

Mr. MacKay

I most certainly do remember the occasion. I have been in correspondence since, and I am due to meet representatives of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives. The families concerned, especially those that live in and near south Armagh, have a genuine grievance. Substantial terrorist activity is continuing. Innocent people on both sides of the sectarian divide are being intimidated, and are very scared. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of that and that, like me, he would like that to be stopped as soon as possible. I hope quite soon to visit south Armagh to see for myself at first hand what that organisation of very brave people has to show me. I very much concur with my hon. Friend.

Tonight the House must give the following clear message. Yes, we pass the order unspecifying the LVF, but we insist that the LVF decommissions as it promised and declare that, if it does not do so, the matter will be reviewed again; moreover, we shall stop releasing terrorist prisoners early until we have substantial and verifiable decommissioning on behalf of all paramilitaries, whatever side of the sectarian divide they come from.

8.31 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) knows that I share his profound revulsion at the murderous psychotic members of the LVF, and others like them. I am sure that all hon. Members share that revulsion. I have said often enough in this place that we live in a mature parliamentary democracy, and that the activities of such psychotic people are those of the mobster—of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s.

I believe that the right hon. Member for Bracknell acts in good faith when he offers legitimate criticisms of the utter lack of progress on the almost insoluble issue of decommissioning. However, 1 believe that the Minister has acted with good sense and courage in relation to the order—it is a curious way of putting it—in unspecifying those psychotic people. I sometimes wish that we could unspecify them out of our hair, but that may be too much to hope.

The hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) know that I have often said—as did the right hon. Member for Bracknell earlier—that I detest the dreadful punishment beatings. They are the acts of gangsters, some of whom claim—absurdly and obscenely—to be engaged in a military campaign, either defending the Union or seeking its partial destruction where the north of Ireland is concerned.

I agree that the decommissioning issue was always going to be the most difficult problem to tackle in relation to north-south relations, east-west relations and other developments. I do not have the answers. I believe that, in the fulness of time, decommissioning will take place—that it will be brought about by the efforts of the Government and of all those actively involved in politics in Northern Ireland. General de Chastelain has an important role to play. His patient, painstaking work and that of his colleagues will help enormously in this matter, but I believe that it will be a slow process.

Like the right hon. Member for Bracknell, I should love to see what he called substantial and verifiable demonstrations of decommissioning. Yes, we all desire to see such gestures by those psychotic people. I should also like those members of the American Congress—some of whom I met in Washington—who appear to be fully paid-up members of Sinn Fein-IRA, to urge their friends, or "comrades", in Northern Ireland to act more constructively. I wish that, now that the peace process is in operation and the House is legislating for radical constitutional change in the United Kingdom, they would play a more constructive part vis-a-vis their friends in the north.

I believe that progress in decommissioning will be brought about to a large extent by what I have called the patient or painstaking work of General de Chastelain and his colleagues and others, but it will be a hard road to follow. Sinn Fein-IRA could do much more to help things along. Recently, we have heard some very disingenuous—to put it mildly—statements by Sinn Fein representatives. For the people of Northern Ireland—the men, women and children represented by the two Northern Ireland Members present, the hon. Members for Belfast, South and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone—let us have a substantial and verifiable form of decommissioning. However, as I said to the Minister, it was right and proper to bring the order to the House.

8.36 pm
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

The issue of prisoner release is creating immense difficulties for those who are set the task of putting in place a devolved structure in Northern Ireland that can meet the expectations of society as a whole.

I agree with all that has been said about the LVF to the effect that its members are ruthless killers. Those are sectarian killers. They are not people for whom I or any of my colleagues have the slightest sympathy. I shall raise one small issue with the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who has said that those in the LVF are the most ruthless and sectarian killers. For someone who has lived in Northern Ireland for the past almost 30 years of violence, there is no such thing as the most ruthless. Each terrorist organisation—

Mr. MacKay

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maginnis

I shall not give way at this stage. I may be nit-picking—

Mr. MacKay

I said "some of the most ruthless" killers.

Mr. Maginnis

The right hon. Gentleman will perhaps allow me, at his expense, to make my point.

Each and every terrorist organisation—whether it be a terrorist organisation that has a political wing, that political wing having been involved in a talks process, or whether it be a terrorist organisation that is without a political wing—has displayed the utmost ruthlessness at some time during the past 28 years. One must look at what is being achieved by accepting the declaration of the LVF—an organisation with no political wing. The LVF obviously feels that it will not be taken seriously unless it makes an offer to Government—remember that self-interest is involved—regarding the release of prisoners. To secure their release, the organisation is prepared not only to declare an end to violence but to surrender its guns, disarm or decommission—whatever euphemism is most acceptable to it.

That creates a difference between the LVF and other organisations such as the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Those organisations have politically linked parties. There is much real linkage between the politicians—the Adamses and the McGuinnesses—and organisations such as the IRA. Others in other political parties are linked in the same way. One must now ask whether we have made good progress and whether the Government are as assiduous in seeking to make progress at this stage as they were in March and April this year. I believe that both our Government and the Irish Government are failing to show the enthusiasm for implementing the agreement that they demonstrated in achieving the agreement in March and April. That is a fundamental mistake.

We must remember that the LVF did not accept that agreement; it rejected it. That is why the organisation continued its violence after agreement was reached. We must not forget that fact because it may have repercussions: members of that organisation may be imprisoned for long periods as a result. We must wonder at what stage, having achieved its objective of getting prisoners released in return for decommissioning, we shall see the LVF resume violence—they are ruthless people—under that or some other convenient name, as part of a campaign to have others released.

The Minister shakes his head. I have been around for too long to trust any terrorist. I know how terrorists on both sides are willing to exploit what they perceive as weakness on the part of the Government—and that weakness has been displayed by both parties in government during my time in the House.

When taking stock, one must get over the notion that, because the LVF does not have a politically linked group, it is somehow worse than the UDA or the IRA. As the IRA, through Sinn Fein, is likely to be involved in the Executive—although certainly not immediately because it has not qualified—we should remember what Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, in particular, stand for. Let me remind the House who Gerry Adams is. He is the person who, in 1983, said: The IRA does not need an electoral mandate for armed struggle. It derives its mandate from the presence of the British in the six counties. In 1986, he said: For our part, this leadership has been active in the longest phase of resistance to the British presence. Our record speaks for itself … The tactic of armed struggle is of primary importance. So we move down the years. In 1988, Gerry Adams said: Armed struggle is seen as a political option. Its use is considered in terms of achieving national political aims and the efficacy of other forms of struggle. We move on to 1989. Gerry Adams complained: The British government rarely listens to the force of argument. It understands only the argument of force … Armed struggle, however, is not merely a defensive reaction by an oppressed people. It sets the political agenda. Thus armed struggle can advance the overall struggle to the advantage of those in whose interests it is waged … armed struggle is a necessary and morally correct form of resistance in the six counties.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maginnis

I shall give way when I have completed these quotations. It is important to recognise that the thinking of IRA-Sinn Fein and its leader, Gerry Adams, has not changed down the years. In 1990, he said: We believe that Irish people have the right to use armed struggle in the context of seeking Irish independence and in the conditions of British occupation of the six counties. In 1994, he said: The causes of conflict are still on-going". That was at a time when he was considering calling a ceasefire. Therefore, we must put that ceasefire in context—if we need to do so after Canary Wharf. He continued: Every so often there will be a spectacular to remind the world. Gerry Adams summed up his attitude to violence by saying: The tactic of armed struggle is of primary importance because it provides a vital cutting edge. Without it the issue of Ireland would not even have become an issue. So, in effect the armed struggle becomes armed propaganda. We must look carefully at an organisation linked to a paramilitary force that has never repudiated or retracted that philosophy. When the Secretary of State said last week in her speech to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies that the IRA had said that it had accepted a partitionist solution, she was indulging in a flight of fancy. The IRA—and hence its paramilitary linked party, Sinn Fein—has never accepted any such thing.

Mr. Winnick

As the hon. Gentleman quoted Mr. Adams, perhaps he would be interested to know that, in September 1983, at a meeting with Mr. Adams, I asked him what mandate he had from the Irish people as a whole for the terrorism of the IRA. I also said that no British Government would ever surrender to the IRA against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, and I was not proved wrong. The peace process demonstrates that terrorism will not bring about the kind of unitary state that Mr. Adams wants. It can be brought about only when the majority of people in Northern Ireland say that that is what they want.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. Gentleman's intervention is helpful and bears out much of what I believe. I am trying to impress on the House the fact that we are going through a process in which, whatever we achieve—I supported what was achieved on 10 April—cannot be implemented by only one party to the agreement, while the other party procrastinates.

I illustrate that by pointing out to right hon. and hon. Members that the issue of prisoner releases had to be addressed over a two-year period. No start date was specified for prisoner releases, yet the Government moved ahead at the earliest opportunity, and within five months of beginning, have released more than half the prisoners who may be eligible.

If that is the way in which the Government are prepared to implement the agreement, with all the risks attached, it cannot be improper for those of us who want disarmament and verification of that process to say, "No, there never was a specified starting date for disarmament, but in the agreement it was predicated on the same basis as prisoner releases." It had to be completed within two years of the date of the referendum, and it could not possibly happen in the last week, as Martin McGuinness suggests. It must be an on-going process.

Reassurance and confidence building are a two-way street. Many of us have accepted the advice of people such as Michael von Tangen Page of the department of peace studies at the university of Bradford, who pointed out that, in most civil conflicts, it is usually necessary to release prisoners in order to bring about a clean cut-off from terrorism as one moves towards democracy. That is what I read into what Michael von Tangen Page has written, which is cited in a research paper produced by the Library.

If I accept that, I must look to see whether there has been a clean cut-off between the violence and the new democratic process. That is what I voted for on 22 May and again on 25 June. I believe that it is what most of the 70-plus per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland voted for on those occasions. If Government—perhaps I should say if the parties to the agreement—do not meet their obligations in that respect, confidence will be undermined and it will become virtually impossible to make the political process work as we had hoped that it would.

My party leader asked the Prime Minister on 13 May whether he would make clear that those obligations"— the obligations to disarm and so on— which are clearly set out in the agreement, will be made effective and reflected in forthcoming legislation? The Prime Minister replied: Yes—I intend to make it clear that the commitment and the obligations in the agreement must all be fulfilled and that no one can choose to fulfil some parts of the agreement and not others." —[Official Report, 13 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 365.] We must build confidence at each and every opportunity that presents itself. That is why I welcome the decision to test the LVF, but I do not want that organisation tested softly. I want it tested in the most stringent manner.

Since 10 April, there have been two sides to the situation in Northern Ireland—not Protestant and Roman Catholic, and not nationalist and Unionist. The two sides now are the terrorists who have yet to cross the psychological hurdle of abandoning terrorism, with all that that implies, and the law-abiding citizenry of Northern Ireland, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. The Minister, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister must begin to reassure us that their enthusiasm for implementation, their attention to detail and their expectation in respect of all parties are as strong as was their desire for an agreement in the first place.

There are various indicators of the progress that has been made. Particularly in respect of Sinn Fein-IRA, which will be in the Executive of a devolved Government if it meets the criteria laid down, there are a number of indicators that must be examined carefully at this stage. We must ask ourselves why the entire energies of Sinn Fein-IRA are now directed exclusively against the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in every respect possible, down to intimidating a football team in West Belfast into refusing to take part in a football competition because the RUC was the team that it drew in the competition.

I have listened to members of the Roman Catholic tradition in Northern Ireland-people for whom I have the highest respect, such as Monsignor Denis Faul. I have heard them tell what it is really like, from the Catholic side of the community, to have to face up to the IRA's intimidation. I also hear exactly the same thing from people within my own tradition in respect of the UVF and the UDA. 1 always feel obliged to say that all organisations that indulge in terror are equally obnoxious to me.

The Government of the Irish Republic have been found wanting. I am particularly disappointed that Bertie Ahern, who I believed had the courage to move things forward, has been equivocal about those who sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

When it was announced that the LVF was to be brought aboard the scheme for prisoner releases because of its ceasefire and willingness to disarm, Bertie Ahern had no need to say, "But this does not mean anything as far as the IRA is concerned." How does Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic, know that, unless that is the message that he has been getting? If that is the message that he has been getting from the IRA, he should be sharing that message with our Secretary of State and with our Prime Minister, and they should act immediately to bring an end to prisoner releases and the process that was intended to allow us all to move into a devolved democratic mode in Northern Ireland.

Those are the questions that I must ask. I do not have an answer to all the questions. When I put my hand up for the agreement on 10 April, I never believed that everything would be easy; that it would not take time; that there would not be fears and suspicions; that there would not be delaying processes—

Dr. Godman

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman closely. He may criticise the lack of enthusiasm shown by Ministers here and by the Taoiseach and his Ministers, but he cannot deny that they are all utterly committed to progress in these matters. Surely commitment as well as enthusiasm is important.

Mr. Maginnis

Commitment is a wonderful thing, but in this case the energy to realise one's ambitions is more wonderful still.

The two Governments have the power and authority to insist—it is not within the power of my party to insist—that all meet their obligations as we advance what is now called the peace process.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has done everything in his power. He has been assiduous in putting into place every measure that can encourage even those who have been our enemies for the past 28 years.

I leave the House with this thought, which may help it to understand. Sinn Fein-IRA, through Adams and McGuinness, used to clamour to speak to a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. That happened. Then they clamoured to speak to a member of the Cabinet—the Secretary of State. That happened. Then they clamoured to speak to the Prime Minister, and the day they walked out of No. 10 Downing street for the first time, they did not tell us what progress they were going to make. They did not tell us how they would remove the threat that they pose to society in Northern Ireland, and they did not even tell us what they had said to the Prime Minister. They said that they had to meet my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann. Hon. Members will remember that my right hon. Friend was persuaded, from both sides of the House, that he should concede that particular point, and he has done so. Again, he has seen no reward for his industry.

It is time for stocktaking. This is the first opportunity that we have had to consider the prisoner issue and other issues relevant to progress in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will give us some small suggestion of the time scale within which he hopes to stocktake in public and tell us where the Government are going in relation to the problems that we face.

9.5 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

In our judgment, the order is good news because it suggests that the process is working. If the Secretary of State has the evidence to make her confident that the Loyalist Volunteer Force should be removed from the specified list, that suggests that other organisations are leaving the path of violence and accepting that there is a more attractive, peaceful alternative.

As for the related issues that were mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), it is clear that there is a relationship between prisoner release, decommissioning, specified organisations and the peace process. As the Minister has said, however, and it needs to be emphasised repeatedly, we cannot renegotiate the Good Friday agreement and, as a result, there are clear consequences for prisoner release in respect of that text, which must be honoured. I do not imagine that any hon. Member is suggesting otherwise. The issues relating to the Good Friday agreement are now accepted, implicitly at least, but the relationships between decommissioning and removing specified organisations from the list, and the prisoner releases that that entails, seem to be the biggest sticking point.

We must recognise the importance of flexibility in the process. If there had not been flexibility in the debate before the Good Friday agreement and thereafter, we would not be making such progress. One of the biggest difficulties in Northern Irish politics was the unwillingness of anyone to move an inch from often dogmatic positions, but we find ourselves in a much more fluid environment. It is a testimony to all sides in Northern Irish politics that the sometimes risky moves that have been made have led to the breakthroughs which appear to be consolidating the peace as it stands.

To that extent, notwithstanding the examples cited by the right hon. Member for Bracknell from the Prime Minister's quotations, we must recognise that flexibility remains a key consideration—a key concern—as we attempt to find a way forward on the sticking point of decommissioning.

Decommissioning will be a problem, although some people regard it as a merely symbolic issue. I regard it as more than that, and other hon. Members have said the same, but it is appropriate for us to keep our eye on the ball and on the big picture—the elimination of violence in Northern Ireland and its replacement with a peaceful alternative. To that extent, the flexibility that Ministers, as well as Northern Ireland politicians, have shown has led to a direct reward in terms of the progress that we have made.

What is more, apparently intransigent comments on both sides have sometimes led to surprising breakthroughs. Forty-eight hours before the Good Friday agreement was settled, one hon. Member said that the chance of a successful outcome was less than 5 per cent. I understand why he said that, but let us not fool ourselves: it is sometimes expedient for individuals to make strong statements in defence of their position, which could shift. On that occasion, it did so radically. I was so surprised by the odds and the result that I seriously thought about doing the lottery.

If we are realistic and honest with ourselves, similar breakthroughs could occur in respect of those who resist decommissioning. It has been a testimony to Northern Irish politicians that they have often not accepted that failure is an option in this process. The public in Northern Ireland have been clear that they want lasting peace. There have been acts of faith all down the line. The religious interpretation of an act of faith is believing in something that one cannot see. Perhaps nothing short of a political miracle is required before we can make progress on decommissioning, but breakthroughs have been made repeatedly in the past few years, beginning with the previous Administration's courageous efforts to kick the process off and continuing with the current Government's efforts and successes. Therefore I do not entirely share the concerns of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I am an optimist, based on the evidence so far.

A subject that has already been mentioned is punishment beatings. Although bombings and shootings seem to have declined massively as reported in the traditional sense on the "Nine O'clock News", and, in the case of many organisations, disappeared altogether, punishment beatings remain at a high level. Evidence suggests that the occurrence of punishment beatings far exceeds the official police record. One need not be a genius to understand why many are not reported. The victims suffer appallingly and some have their lives threatened. Will the Minister assure the House and the public at large that the Government do not find the current level of punishment beatings in the Province acceptable? Will the Government tackle the problem directly with those who may have an influence, and indirectly through the security forces, as a short-term concern that must be headed off?

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone showed great insight into the relationship between the LVF and political bodies. To the best of my understanding, the LVF has no clear connection with a particular political group in Northern Ireland. He is right to point out that other dangers lie ahead. Some individuals who are intent on pursuing a course of violence may be tempted back to that bankrupt philosophy. I hope that the security forces and the Government will watch for the danger signs, because violence is bound to corrupt the peace process and we want no backward steps.

The order represents progress and I am pleased to support it. It is a credit to the generally sensible speeches that we hear in the House and a testament to the people and politicians in Northern Ireland who have shown great courage in exploring, in a flexible way, new processes to achieve the result that we all want. The current circumstances show great promise. We have heard about the issues, but so long as we build up a momentum behind the peace process and keep making it clear that results are being achieved in a practical way, our discussions may be instrumental in achieving the necessary breakthroughs in decommissioning and punishment beatings, so that we may make peace a lasting and consolidated outcome. At the moment, the process promises to deliver an awful lot more than many of us imagined possible.

9.13 pm
Mr. Ingram

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I do not intend to go over all the points, because I dealt with many of the issues raised in the debate in my opening remarks. I pay tribute to hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, because they have raised important issues. Everyone welcomed the order, although such a welcome was not forthcoming when the first order was placed before the House.

I shall deal with two key points that the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) made. He said that there was no obligation on the Government to deal with prisoner releases within a time frame. I shall quote to him from the Good Friday agreement. On page 25, paragraph 3 of the section on prisoners says: Both Governments will complete a review process within a fixed time frame and set prospective release dates for all qualifying prisoners. The review process would provide for the advance of the release dates of qualifying prisoners while allowing account to be taken of the seriousness of the offences for which the person was convicted and the need to protect the community. In addition. the intention would be that should the circumstances allow it, any qualifying prisoners who remained in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme would be released at that point. Importantly, paragraph 4 says: The Governments will seek to enact the appropriate legislation to give effect to these arrangements by the end of June 1998. We were not able to do that, but we completed the legislation, which was endorsed by the House, in July 1998. I want to make it clear that the Government will continue to honour all their commitments under the Good Friday agreement. We expect every other party to that agreement to do the same.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone warned that the Government and Ministers responsible for such matters should be wary of the LVF returning to its violent ways after it has achieved the release of its prisoners, under its own name, by redefining itself under another name or by using a proxy organisation. I again want to make it clear that, if any organisation returns to violence and is in breach of its ceasefire, it should understand that its prisoners will have been released on licence, and released prisoners will be recalled to prison if they either give support to an organisation that re-engages in terrorist activities or re-engage in such activities themselves.

That was made abundantly clear when the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 was being passed. Prisoners of a despecified organisation who have been or are likely to be released in the future are on licence, and the position will constantly be reviewed. Their organisations and any acts that they may carry out in support of those organisations will be monitored.

Mr. Maginnis

I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, but that is such a conditional assurance as to be meaningless. We have already pointed out that, once prisoners are released, the onus is on the Government to prove not that the organisation has changed its name and is active again, but that released prisoners are acting in support of that organisation, which means that everything has to start from the beginning.

The Minister knows that records are being pushed to one side and destroyed. People may have been out of prison for some time, so it will be virtually impossible for any effective action to be taken—in a normal society that may be acceptable. The Minister should recognise that this is a useless measure, because that would make him and those responsible more alert to what they are doing as prisoners are released.

Mr. Ingram

I do not want to open up a debate on this matter. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take the assurances that I am giving him from the Dispatch Box, which the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have also given, about the nature of the sentencing legislation. It is specific and has not been put in place merely to be implemented and then forgotten about. We rigorously hold to those conditions. If an organisation returns to its violent ways, any individual who has been released as a member of that organisation and who subsequently participates in support of the organisation or of any organisation that is acting as a proxy for that organisation will be returned to prison. I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept assurances that have been given in good faith, and with determination and commitment.

We must hope that all the organisations that we have despecified maintain the ceasefire, and that the organisations that are the subject of the order hear what has been said and understand the message—that the people north and south in the island of Ireland want a peaceful future. They do not act other than for their own approach; they do not represent any body of opinion. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone made that point in his speech. The good people of the island of Ireland—both Northern Ireland and the Republic—made their view clear in the referendum, and I think that more people are signing up to what the future will entail if we can move the process forward.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) raised the issue of what people describe as punishment beatings. As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, the word "punishment" should not be used in this context, because it gives a form of justification to paramilitary assaults performed on people within their own community. The hon. Gentleman asked for a number of assurances in regard to the Government's approach. I have given them before, and I now give them again. We are resolute, and will continue to monitor the position. When we can exert pressure to end such action, we will.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary is active in that regard as well, but we must prove the case, and we must have evidence of where the action is taking place. We cannot act on the basis of what people may be saying to the newspapers, or what some people may believe to be happening; in all instances, the case must be proved before we can act. Nevertheless, the conduct of those who perpetrate such acts against their own people is unacceptable and should cease forthwith, as I said in response to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay).

We have had a useful discussion. I think that the motion has enabled us to make progress, and I hope that we can build on that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Specified Organisations) (No. 2) Order 1998, which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.