The Sketch: Sensation as MPs start saying what they really think

OVER THE past few days progress on the Northern Ireland Bill has been presented to us as the best cliffhanger in town. Surely our hero would struggle to safety, or something like it, seconds before the final title flashed on screen?

Well, no, unfortunately he slipped and it was Mo Mowlam's job yesterday to manage the audience's sense of anti-climax.

First of all, she said, he might not have fallen all the way to the bottom - a review would now be conducted to see whether some slender sapling, jutting out from the rock face, had arrested his fall. Secondly it was absolutely crucial not to boo the villain, whoever we deemed that to be and however enraged we were by his dastardly deeds. "The last thing the people of Northern Ireland need now is an outbreak of recrimination" she said. Andrew Mackay, for the Conservatives, didn't agree. He not only wanted her to break out the recrimination right away, he also wanted her to deliver it. Could she confirm that the real stumbling block was "non-decommissioning" and could she "lay the blame fairly and squarely on the paramilitaries, loyalist and republican".

Ms Mowlam declined. "I condemn none of them", trying to light a little candle of sectarian tolerance. It was a feeble source of illumination, as members on both sides failed this test of self-restraint. Typically, questions would begin with high-minded ceremonial, the delivery of a garland for Mo or a wreath for the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland, then slipping inexorably towards reproach, with the Toriesblaming Sinn Fein and Labour backbenchers casting unforgiving looks - and equally hard words - at the three Unionists in the chamber.

Mr Lembit Opik, for the Lib Dems, decided to split the difference, leaving the Irish parties out of it altogether and blaming the Conservative frontbench. "Some politicians on the mainland" he said, turning towards them"forget that we are here in the interests of the province, not of ourselves."

It was clear that the peace process was stalled and the two communities - Labour and Conservative - were at each other's throats again. Ms Mowlam was trying to hold the line, but even she became testy, snapping at the Reverend Martin Smyth after he had accused her of spinning.

"Don't believe in it, won't do it" she said briskly, before breaking her own reproach embargo and fingering all the Irish parties for the same crime. Easy to preach goodwill and understanding, much harder to practice it, particularly under persistent low-level heckling.

At one point, as Tory backbenchers sniped away about prisoner releases, she uttered an unearthly gurgling moan at the dispatch box, as if the build-up of exasperation had finally exceeded some pre-set safety level and blown a release valve. Just in time, frankly, since William Thompson (Raving Loonionist Party) stood up shortly afterwards to demonstrate the impermeable self-righteousness of some of those she has had to deal with. He, alone in the chamber it seemed, was happy to dance on the grave of the Good Friday Agreement. It was simply nonsense, he declared, and "will never work".

"Neanderthal man!" shouted a Labour MP over the hubbub of contempt * the sound of disappointment at last finding a satisfactory perch on which to rest. Later in the afternoon John Redwood told Mr Prescott that he felt sorry for him, during an Opposition debate on transport policy.

I felt sorry for Mr Prescott too, since he was in good form, marshalling his statistics with combative assurance. One might almost have used the word "articulate". Why sorry then? Because there was scarcely a journalist in the House to see it and nobody will believe me when I tell them.

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