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Mr. Ingram: Only alleged.

Mr. MacKay: The Minister of State speaks from a sedentary position. Let me say to him that I have listened to the recording, because I did not believe that that could possibly have happened. I have listened to and seen the video, and I can tell him that it did happen.

Let me quote from another answer given that day by the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said:


The Prime Minister replied:


    "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".--[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.]

I agreed with the Prime Minister then, and I agree with him now. The Prime Minister and I believe that that was the correct interpretation of the agreement.

More importantly, what the Prime Minister said on the Floor of the House on 6 May was widely and rightly reported in the Province in every newspaper. It was

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because of the Prime Minister's welcome assurance that the people of Northern Ireland voted yes in the referendum. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I were campaigning for a yes vote during the crucial last days of the referendum, and we heard large numbers of ordinary, decent people in both communities say, "Now we have the assurances on decommissioning and prisoner release, we are prepared, at this late stage, to support the referendum and vote yes."

This has become a matter of trust. Politicians should do as they say. In particular, the Prime Minister, when at the Dispatch Box, knowing full well that his words would be very carefully listened to by the people of Northern Ireland, who were about to vote in the referendum, should have given assurances that would be translated into legislation. That did not happen, and the Bill is fundamentally flawed.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He and I have talked formally and informally about these matters on many occasions, and we share an on-the-record support for the agreement and a concern that it is not robust enough on prisoner release and decommissioning. Can he help me with a point about his argument? Is he inviting the Opposition to vote against Third Reading because the Bill accurately reflects the agreement, and he thinks that the agreement is inadequate? Or is he asking us to vote against it because the Bill does not accurately reflect the agreement, and he thinks that it should? In either case, we are being asked to vote against a Bill that puts into law an important part of the agreement--neither he nor I are happy with that part of it--but he says that by voting against it, we will not be voting against a bipartisan approach. Will my hon. Friend clarify the position?

Mr. MacKay: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, whose experience and record in serving his country in Northern Ireland as a Minister and as parliamentary private secretary, like me, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)--in fact, I succeeded him in the 1980s in that role--is second to none in the House. I am very happy to answer his question and to put a little more flesh on the bones of my brief speech on Third Reading. My interpretation of the agreement that linked explicitly the earlier release of prisoners, which we are talking about in this legislation, to the complete renunciation of violence was that that included decommissioning. As I have said, that is not just my view; it was the view of the Prime Minister in answer to a series of questions on the Floor of the House on 6 May.

Therefore, I am not asking the House tonight in any shape or form to break the agreement that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) and I strongly support. Nor am I suggesting that, if my amendment were passed, it would be outside the agreement; I believe that it would not be. That is vital.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire asked a further question about the bipartisan approach. He and I are firm supporters of, wherever possible, maintaining a bipartisan approach on these matters. As I said at the outset of my remarks, wherever possible, we will do so, but we do have a duty to the House as an Opposition and we do have a duty to the people of Northern Ireland. If we believe that the Bill

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is fundamentally flawed and that there is a breach of trust--I do not like saying this, but I happen to believe that it is true, if we read Hansard, that there has been a breach of trust by the Prime Minister--we are obliged to vote against the Bill. We hope that the other place amends it and that, when it is amended, the Government will have had time to reflect and be able to see that what we are trying to do is constructive and realistic within the agreement and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Therefore, I urge my colleagues to vote against the Bill.

7.11 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I listened with sadness to the speech of the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who speaks for the Opposition, because I believe two things. First, he is seeking radically to alter, by his attitude and by the amendment that he has tabled in the House, the terms of the agreement that was made on Good Friday. In doing that, it is possible that he is opening a Pandora's box. If he were to be successful, every party to that agreement would be able to say, "It is not robust enough here, it is not strong enough there. We want this concession. We did not really mean this. We really meant that. The Prime Minister said this. The Leader of the Opposition has said that." We are having textual criticism upon textual criticism in attempts to improve the whole situation.

That is a very dangerous thing to do because there are parties that are not represented in the House which are parties to that agreement, which signed it in good faith and which felt that they were able to turn to their supporters and say, "On the basis of this, we can give up involving ourselves in violence. On the basis of this agreement, of what we have been shown and of what we were shown in the briefing paper on this issue at the time, we can give up violence." To seek to alter it now would be a very dangerous thing.

Secondly, I feel sad about the speech of the hon. Member for Bracknell because I remember other occasions when Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland were engaged in very delicate negotiations and things happened that the Opposition could, if they had wished, have had a great deal of fun with; they could have caused much embarrassment to the Government of the day. I can think of at least one occasion involving the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who was attacked by the Unionist parties over a particular incident. I got up and said that, as far as we were concerned, this was in no way a resigning matter because the object of those parties' criticism was not the particular thing that had happened, but a desire to delay or to prevent peace talks from going on.

I remember other occasions when the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, now Lord Mayhew, suffered much criticism in this House, particularly when it was revealed that, despite the Prime Minister of the day saying that talks with the IRA would have turned his stomach, he and the then Secretary of State were, in fact, talking with the IRA. On that occasion, we refused again because we felt that the peace process was even more important than that.

The hon. Member for Bracknell will say that we voted against the prevention of terrorism Act. That is true; we did. We voted against it because we did not think that it

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was helping the peace process, but there is a world of difference between seeking to wreck the Government when they are involved in peace talks and dealing with matters on which this party had had a particular fixed position for well over a decade.

I want to finish on just two points. It is a question of trust. The question is now: can we trust the Leader of the Opposition on this matter? I do not think so, but I want to talk briefly about a situation in which a Conservative Government were engaged because it is a precedent. It concerns Rhodesia.

Following the Rhodesian peace talks, the Zimbabwe Act 1979 contained this statement:


Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made his point. He is now straying rather too wide of the Third Reading.

Mr. McNamara: The point that I am seeking to make--I listen carefully to what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker--is that this Bill places restrictions on the release of prisoners and their acts. When the Opposition were in government, they gave a complete amnesty to all who were concerned in some of the worst atrocities that had been committed in that area. That amnesty also applied to acts helping the rebel regime in this country, and many people from that regime were seeking to break the provisions that had been made by the United Nations and the Government at that time.

Therefore, I make the point that, at that time, there was no criticism from the then Opposition, but every applause and support of the Government of the day in making the peace process. The conduct of the Government when they were in opposition, and the action of the Opposition over Zimbabwe and elsewhere should be emulated because peace is far too important to be put at risk by cherry-picking in this way. If we consider the opinions of the people of Northern Ireland, the thing that they put top of their list is not decommissioning. It is not release of prisoners. It is peace.


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