HC Deb 21 June 2000 vol 352 cc321-3
1. Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

If he will make a statement on the incidence of punishment beatings in Northern Ireland. [125476]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson)

From 1 January to 11 June this year there were 111 paramilitary-style attacks, comprising 54 shootings, with 33 by loyalists and 21 by republicans; and 57 assaults, with 33 by loyalists and 24 by republicans. The Government condemn without reservation the activities of those on both sides who plan, carry out and attempt to justify these barbaric attacks. We call on all political leaders to use their influence to bring these attacks to an end now.

Mr. Connarty

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time we stopped calling the attacks punishment beatings and started calling them illegal paramilitary acts, underlining the fact that, now that we have democracy in Northern Ireland, we should also have the rule of law and demilitarisation? In that vein, we should be asking the groups' representatives to stamp out their use of violence. We should make it quite clear to the UFF that it should not threaten citizens with shootings for acts of vandalism as it has done in the past few days.

Mr. Mandelson

I echo my hon. Friend's sentiments. The fact is that politics is now working in Northern Ireland and there is no excuse for anyone to turn away from politics to the violence of the past. My message to those who think that they can go around threatening violence or stirring up trouble—particularly as we enter the marching season—and get away with it is simple: they will not get away with it.

There is no place for violence and I will be watching very carefully indeed to see whether, in the coming weeks and months, there are any paramilitary organisations involved in violence of any kind, be it in Belfast, Drumcree or elsewhere. If there is evidence of such involvement, I will draw the appropriate conclusions about the state of the ceasefires and the implications for any further prisoner releases.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Since the Secretary of State has been paying careful attention to statistics, he will be well aware that the evidence and the statistics show that the terrorist organisations have been able to switch the level of their terrorist mutilations on and off at will over the past two or three years. Is he further aware that those are simply a means of these people imposing their will on their respective communities and trying to introduce mafia rule throughout Northern Ireland? Intelligence reports show that they are trying to extend their influence beyond the major conurbations and into the towns and villages of Northern Ireland. What intelligence reports, rather than evidence, does he have that Mr. McCoy was murdered by the IRA?

Mr. Mandelson

I am not going to comment on a particular case about which I have no evidence. I of course condemn the cold-blooded murder of Edmund McCoy. It is not yet clear who is responsible. The Chief Constable has said that he retains an open mind. The police investigation continues, but if it becomes clear that the Provisional IRA was responsible, that will have a direct impact on my assessment of the state of its ceasefire.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the full implementation of the Patten proposals through the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill should further undermine what little legitimacy these vigilantes can claim as local peacekeepers and law enforcers, and that the two symptoms of that happening would be, first, the reduction of paramilitary beatings and, secondly, the elimination of paramilitary flags, which are often used to mark out an area of assumed control by paramilitaries on both sides?

Mr. Mandelson

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are making a fresh start, a new beginning, in policing in Northern Ireland. That is what the Patten report and the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which is in Committee, are all about. If we successfully introduce those reforms, it will make a positive contribution to the new political dispensation that we want in Northern Ireland, in which violence should, must and will play absolutely no part whatever.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I think that we should stop, now, calling these attacks punishment beatings, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) suggested. Of the criminal assaults committed by loyalists, how many can be laid at the doorstep of the Ulster Defence Association? What is my right hon. Friend's reaction to the latest threat by spokesmen of the UDA to sever the ceasefire? Are we now looking forward to a dissident or Continuity UDA, or is a dissident within the UDA making this threat?

Mr. Mandelson

I do not want to speculate about the genesis of yesterday's statement, except to say that, disturbing as it was, the response to it was very encouraging indeed. It was condemned right across the political spectrum, from loyalism to republicanism, as well as by the mainstream parties. I believe that Northern Ireland political opinion was united in the view that threatening violence is simply unacceptable in today's society. I think that we should draw encouragement, therefore, from the comprehensive condemnation of that statement. They should draw the obvious conclusion that that type of threat will not be tolerated by any part of Northern Ireland's society any more.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is still an utterly unacceptable level of beatings by paramilitaries? Will he say that those beatings in themselves constitute a breach of the ceasefire? Will he confirm that, in as much as the beatings have been carried out by the so-called Ulster Freedom Fighters, that will influence his policy on prisoner release?

Mr. Mandelson

I will certainly confirm that. I keep all the ceasefires under constant review. If I receive any evidence whatsoever that the ceasefires are being breached by any of the paramilitary organisations, it will lead directly, when the time comes in the next few weeks, to my assessment on the further planned prisoner releases which may take place. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I take those actions and threats and any breach of the ceasefires very seriously indeed. I will draw the appropriate conclusions, and I will take the appropriate action.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that it is his limited definition of what constitutes a breach of ceasefire—namely, attacks on military or security personnel, economic targets or members of the opposing community—that is feeding and encouraging those beatings, which are not seen by those who perpetrate them as falling within the Secretary of State's definition of a breach of the ceasefire?

Mr. Mandelson

I do not accept that for one moment. I have left all the paramilitary organisations in no doubt whatsoever about how I will interpret the ceasefires and their maintenance, how I will assess whether there is a breach of those ceasefires, and what conclusions I will draw. I have made public statements; I have made private statements. They are in no doubt at all about the consequences that will flow for further prisoner releases if there is any breach of the ceasefires.