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Friday, June 19, 1998 Published at 04:24 GMT 05:24 UK

Tories vote against Northern Ireland bill

Andrew Mackay: voted against the government

The Conservatives have ended the long-standing parliamentary consensus on Northern Ireland by voting against a Bill to implement a key element of the Good Friday peace agreement.

The government had an easy victory on the third reading of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill by 215 votes to 116. But the Tories have promised to keep trying to amend the legislation when it goes to the House of Lords.

Andew Mackay: lays out his objections to the Bill
The shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Andrew Mackay insisted the Conservatives remain committed to the bipartisan approach to the peace process, but said the Bill was "fatally flawed".

"We as an Opposition have never given the government a blank cheque and nor should we," he said.

He also accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of breaking promises made during the referendum campaign.

"The bottom line is that every single terrorist prisoner can be released in Northern Ireland without one gun or one ounce of Semtex being handed in. That is not what the prime minister said."

Labour scathing

The government ridiculed the Conservatives' tactics. The prime minister's official spokesman suggested they were "mildly inconsistent" with the bipartisan approach.

He added: "You will have to ask them whether there is any serious thinking behind what they are doing."

Speaking in the Commons before Mr Mackay, the Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam warned the Tories that they could not rewrite the agreement.

"What we can't do is add or take away from the agreement or insert preconditions or tests which aren't there," she said. "Cherry picking isn't a possibility."


[ image: Mo Mowlam: sorry at the end of bipartisanship]
Mo Mowlam: sorry at the end of bipartisanship
"I would like to express my disappointment that the bipartisan approach that has served this process so well for many years may be in doubt tonight," she added.

"As an Opposition, we were always determined to ensure that the search for peace in Northern Ireland was not made even more difficult by arguments and confusing signals being sent from across the floor of this House.

"I know how much the previous government valued the stance we took. I'm sorry if that approach is on the way out."

Future of Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary said of the Bill: "They are very serious provisions and in putting them into practice I will take my responsibility very seriously.

"On May 22 the people of Northern Ireland decided to grasp their future and shape it. They now look to us on all sides to see what we can do to support them in that.

"I'm sure they will welcome our determination to implement the Agreement in full and in good faith."

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