HC Deb 16 January 1997 vol 288 cc470-99

'.—This Act shall enter into force on a day to be determined by the Secretary of State by order made by statutory instrument, save that no such order shall be made until the Secretary of State is satisfied that 12 months have passed since any act of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland has occurred.'.—[Mr. Wilshire.] Brought up, and read the First time.

4.18 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is designed to ensure that before any more one-sided concessions are made to psychopathic murderers, those people are required to do something in return. In this case, the one-sided concessions on offer are: an amnesty, protection from any investigation into the guns and explosives that they have used, and protection from prosecution for their murders and atrocities. As it stands, the Bill demands nothing of the terrorists.

The new clause would require, first, not just a temporary halt to murder, but a permanent end to all violence. Throughout the sham of the ceasefire, there has not been an end to violence. We kid ourselves if we overlook that point. Secondly, the new clause would provide for a decent period so that the terrorists could prove beyond all doubt—I stress that they must prove, rather than pretend—that the second ceasefire was for real and was not a repeat of the first cynical sham that they pretended was a ceasefire.

The new clause provides the House with a chance to consider whether the events since the Committee stage of the Bill lead any of us—I hope that it is so—to want to change our mind about allowing the Bill to go through the House unamended. In the period between the Committee and this afternoon's debate, we have reached a situation where even the most optimistic—even those who are so desperate for a peace at any price that they have tried to kid themselves that we are making real progress—must understand that all-party talks including killers simply will not happen, terrorists will not hand over their guns and explosives, and any talk by Sinn Fein-IRA about ceasefires is but a sham.

In Committee, some hon. Members did not wholly grasp that that was the truth. What has happened since spells it out. I urge everyone to ask himself whether an unamended Bill is a sensible way to make progress.

When I turned my mind to how I might improve the Bill, I found myself wondering whether it was worth the bother. I imagine that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), has wondered whether it was worth the bother of proceeding with the Bill, as it clearly means nothing to the terrorists. Since Committee, the words and the deeds of the terrorists—I include Sinn Fein-IRA and the loyalists in this—have made it crystal clear that they have no intention of decommissioning anything.

By their words, Sinn Fein-IRA have reaffirmed that they are interested in one thing only: a united Ireland. They have not given an inch. They have again stated that they are not interested in compromise of any sort. By their deeds since Committee, Sinn Fein-IRA have made it clear once again that that simple objective is to be pursued by whatever means come to hand. They will talk if they can—

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

How does the hon. Gentleman define an act of terrorism? Would his definition include a violent act committed by a group that had broken away from the IRA or a loyalist paramilitary organisation?

Mr. Wilshire

Acts of terrorism are simple to recognise. If someone is nailed to a fence with 6 in nails, or has his legs smashed by a baseball bat, or has to go to the funeral of his child who has been blown up by Semtex, or if people are murdered, those are acts of terrorism. It matters not a jot to me—or, I suspect, to anyone in Northern Ireland—who committed the act or what twisted ideology is concerned. It is an act of terrorism, and that must stop.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

What is more, those who have signed up to the Mitchell principles refuse to condemn such acts of terrorism. They refuse even to say, "We denounce it; we reject and repudiate it." During examination before the body set up by Parliament to consider the matter, the Secretary of State asked them, "If you had been asked to rebuke these people and did it, wouldn't you lose your influence over them?" They said, "Yes," and he replied, "I accept that; it is a good enough reason." Therefore, they do not need to denounce terrorism, even though they have signed up to the Mitchell principles.

Mr. Wilshire

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Since Committee, we have witnessed more and more atrocities and a return to the sickening ways of the past. There has been not a word of apology or regret. By their words and their deeds, Sinn Fein-IRA and the loyalists set about making a mockery of the peace process. Over the Christmas break, they displayed contempt for democracy and for compromise. They have made it clear once again that they simply despise the decent, law-abiding people of Northern Ireland. The Bill seeks to do some sort of a deal with those groups and I have contended throughout that it cannot happen that way.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's difficulty in trying to table amendments or new clauses to a measure that is essentially enabling legislation. If new clause 1 were adopted, would it not have the effect of totally suspending for 12 months any hope, possibility or realisation of decommissioning? Would not that be more damaging to his legitimate case than proceeding with enabling legislation that would allow people to try to take the opportunity to end the holding of unlawful weapons if and when that opportunity presented itself?

Mr. Wilshire

The hon. Gentleman is a wise parliamentarian and he correctly points to the difficulty of tabling new clauses sometimes. I shall come to the details of my proposals in a moment and, I hope, provide the explanation that he seeks.

I make it clear that I, too, support decommissioning. I have always done so. I still support the stance adopted by the British Government at the outset before they started to shift their ground. I am happy to try to help decommissioning occur, but the Bill will not achieve it. The Government have long since abandoned their attempt to put decommissioning where it should be: at the beginning. That is the only way in which talks will be able to start. I have said it before and I will say it again: the Government must understand that it is not possible to do deals with evil, which is what we are trying to do this afternoon.

If I understand the Government's present position correctly—having started with decommissioning and arrived at the Bill—Sinn Fein-IRA must simply stop murdering people for a while. They must then sign up to Mitchell and show that at some stage—we are not sure when—they will use the Bill to decommission something. Ultimately, we shall not know how much they decommission or whether it is everything, as they may claim. If that happens, the earliest possible entry of Sinn Fein-IRA into talks will be sought—some people do not say "as early as possible" but say "immediately". I do not accept those two scenarios.

The result of not amending the Bill is that we shall end up asking decent democrats to talk to armed terrorists. They will not do that, and it is absolutely right that they should not. Viewed against that scenario, the Bill, if unamended, will make a tragic situation worse rather than improve it, which is what we all want.

As it currently stands, the Bill provides an amnesty for terrorists. It promises them that no tests will be carried out. It promises them immunity from prosecution and bans the use of evidence, and it does all that without requiring anything in return. If decommissioning were just an exercise, I suppose that we could swallow hard and say that that was something that we could, perhaps, go along with, but it is not; it is an integral part of the route to talks.

4.30 pm

Make no mistake, therefore, that once the Bill becomes law, it will be used by the terrorists to demand yet more concessions. They will accept the Bill. They will note the terms within it and say, "Fine, we agree with them, but we are not going to decommission anything now." Therefore, the Bill will not have achieved decommissioning. It will also enable Sinn Fein-IRA to exploit the Unionists in Northern Ireland. It will enable Sinn Fein-IRA to portray Unionists and, indeed, the Social Democratic and Labour party, as intransigent when as democrats they say, "We will not sit down with these people while they are still armed." The Bill will make things a great deal worse.

The new clause is an attempt to make the Bill less one-sided. I have said some of these things so often that I no longer need to explain that I am opposed to any concessions. I am opposed to trying to do any deals with these people. As a Back Bencher, however, I also have to be a realist, especially when I am up against the Government and the Opposition who agree on something. I am a realist, but that does not prevent me from continuing to try, and the new clause is another attempt to persuade the Government to change their mind.

I want the Government to accept the new clause, so that we can get concessions from terrorists in return for what we have on offer. I see little to be gained otherwise. If we do not get a concession in return, we portray the terrorists, even though they are armed, as democrats, equal to those who renounce violence in the process of what they believe in.

Through the new clause, I hope that the Government will take it on board to provide a test for the permanence of any ceasefire. This point was made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). It may be the case that a year seems too long, that doing it in exactly this way might put things back, but I believe that we have to find a way through the Bill to test the sincerity of any ceasefire rather than simply taking the terrorists' word for it.

We know what the previous ceasefire was really about. Taking Sinn Fein-IRA's word for that ceasefire was ridiculous, because the fact of that ceasefire is that there was not one. Torture, intimidation, targeting, training, recruiting and re-equipping continued—all while a so-called ceasefire was in place.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that during the putative ceasefire, the number of brutal punishment beatings went up; that in 1994 the total was 70, but in the two years covering the period of the ceasefire, 1995–96, the totals were 217 and 276 respectively? Does the hon. Gentleman agree, therefore, that punishment beatings went up by about 400 per cent. during the period of peace?

Mr. Wilshire

That is the case. The facts speak for themselves. Here we have proof that those to whom we are supposed to be offering concessions cannot be taken at their word. We know what was happening while there was a ceasefire. We are now being told that we should enact the Bill, make no checks, carry out no tests, offer an amnesty and allow the recipients to say, "Yes, we shall decommission at some stage."

Mr. Mallon

That is not the point at issue. I am trying to explore with the hon. Gentleman how the new clause would enable the process of decommissioning to proceed if the circumstances allow it to do so. The new clause would postpone the process for 12 months, irrespective of the circumstances. How would the new clause advance potential decommissioning? Would it not simply retard by 12 months the opportunities that may or may not exist in future for getting rid of illegal weaponry?

Mr. Wilshire

Not at all. A 12-month provision, or any other period that the hon. Gentleman might prefer, would merely require some proof before concessions are made available. There is nothing in the Bill to the effect that it would not be possible to hand over explosives and guns tomorrow. That could be done without the Bill. The message that I keep receiving is that unless concessions are made to terrorists, they will not do anything.

We have seen what happens when a ceasefire is called and that is taken at face value. If we give concessions the day after another spurious ceasefire is called, we make fools of ourselves again.

Mr. Mallon

I am at pains to understand what the hon. Gentleman means by concessions. The new clause is not directed at any of the other elements that are set out in the Bill. It might enlighten or help us all if the hon. Gentleman were to tell us what the concessions are that he sees are covered by the application of the new clause.

Mr. Wilshire

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point.

The concessions are clear for all to see. I should dearly love to address them. I did so in Committee, amendments were divided on and were defeated. Any attempt that I might make to remove bits of concessions would be ruled out of order. I cannot do that. Like me, however, the hon. Gentleman can read the Bill. He can see for himself that we are promising not to prosecute those who hand in weapons and explosives. We are promising also not to carry out tests to ascertain whether we can learn anything. Those are the concessions.

It may be that the hon. Gentleman and others believe that such concessions should be made. I am saying only that if we are to make such concessions, let us get something in return. The previous ceasefire cannot be regarded as sufficient to allow the proposed concessions to be used for the purpose for which they are intended. I am not prepared to take Sinn Fein-IRA at face value. They claimed that their first ceasefire was permanent and genuine and it was not. I fear that the same thing will happen again.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is saying that my proposals are counter-productive. If he is not, someone else will be sorely tempted to advance that argument when I resume my place. I respond to that argument by saying that the new clause cannot do any harm to the peace process because it is wrecked already. Other people's ways of doing things have not taken us very far. The clause cannot produce a return to violence because that has happened already. The usual complaints that I receive when I propose something—neither of them on this occasion—do not bear examination.

I can anticipate only one criticism of my new clause, which is that it might annoy the Dublin Government, who might not find it to their liking. If it achieves that, it will have achieved something, and I should be delighted.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

That is helpful.

Mr. Wilshire

Of course it is helpful. Until the Dublin Government understand the reality of Sinn Fein-IRA, we shall go nowhere; and all their comments, behaviour and arm-twisting of the British Government demonstrate that they do not understand. Therefore, I am being helpful. I should be very pleased if my point got across to Dublin in the form that I am making it.

Mr. Robert McCartney

In support of his proposition, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Dublin Government gave a wonderful example of co-operation, with their refusal to extradite to Germany one of the suspected perpetrators of the outrage at Osnabrück?

Mr. Wilshire

If the hon. and learned Gentleman can contain himself, I should like to consider exactly that matter when I speak to my amendment Nos. 2 and 3. We shall return to the issue then.

I tabled my new clause because I believe that now is the time to stand firm and not to demonstrate further weakness. This is not the time to make concessions, but the time to continue cracking down on Sinn Fein-IRA. In recent weeks, the police and the Army have made real progress, for which I salute them, and we should continue making such progress.

We should stand firm also because Sinn Fein-IRA have twice warned members of the nationalist community that they will be beaten and tortured should they be caught helping the democrats in Northern Ireland. If I correctly understand Sinn Fein-IRA, that warning suggests that the public are now turning against terrorism in Northern Ireland. If that is so, why should we weaken at precisely the moment we are making progress?

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Northern Ireland public—whether from the loyalist or nationalist tradition—have never in large numbers supported terrorism? Sinn Fein is still what it has always been: representatives of a very small, violent and unacceptable minority within a much larger and law-abiding nationalist community. We give that minority within a minority far more credit than it deserves. It deserves no credit, and it should have no place in the future of Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland or the United Kingdom.

Mr. Wilshire

That is correct; my hon. Friend makes the point well. No community in Northern Ireland ever has supported terrorism. However, hon. Members should understand that, if people are threatened with torture or with a beating with a baseball bat with 6 in nails in it, they will of course keep their mouths shut—which is not support of evil, but self-preservation. I think that we understand the distinction. The important point is that, in recent weeks, such acquiescence and submission have been ending. Although people are afraid, they have begun to talk to the forces of law and order, and I salute that change. This is the time when we should stand firm.

I am a realist, and I understand and accept that the Government seem to be determined to pass their Bill and to choose the course that it sets. I am therefore attempting, in tabling my new clause and arguing its merits, to tell my right hon. Friends, "If you are determined to do this, please try to get something in return. Please see whether you can accept the new clause as it is worded, or agree better wording when the Bill goes to the other place." On that basis, I commend my new clause to the House.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for providing a clever means of ensuring that we have an opportunity now, at the Bill's Report stage, to debate all the Bill's facets. He has made the important point, with which I agree, that Sinn Fein-IRA, in particular, are an irredeemable organisation, and that nothing will facilitate their disarmament and movement from violence to democratic practice, because they do not want such movement. He was absolutely right when he said that there is confusion in Northern Ireland between a political process and a peace process, because they have successfully been confused by Sinn Fein-IRA and by those who support or tolerate that organisation.

The political process should stand alone. One of the difficulties encountered by those of us involved in the current talks process is that politics and peace are so closely connected in people's minds. Politics in Northern Ireland should be purely about political, social, economic and other accommodations between the two traditions. Peace should be about ensuring that the terrorists are totally neutralised and have no ability to wreak havoc, as they have done over the past 25 years and longer.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am—or at least I hope that I am—a realist. After living in a culture of violence which has lasted for more than 25 years, I know that no sudden development will cause people to shift overnight from a violent to a democratic outlook. I understand that, irrespective of the intentions of the leadership of various organisations, it will be exceedingly difficult to control everyone who has been part of that culture of violence for so many years.

We should look to the leadership of those organisations to discover whether they are making the maximum effort to end their forces murdering and inflicting so-called punishment beatings, which are acts of intimidation, to which many of those in what they deem to be their own traditions are subjected. There is a major difference between what is happening with loyalist paramilitary organisations and with Sinn Fein-IRA, because Sinn Fein-IRA continue to espouse the right of people to act against society's democratically expressed will and to use violence when it suits them.

At least those in the leadership of loyalist paramilitary organisations have constantly pleaded, publicly and privately, for those in possession of guns and other weapons of war to stay their hand and not to embark once again along the road of murder and violence, whether the violence is proactive or retaliatory.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should reward not good intentions expressed by political leaders of organisations with violent propensities, but factual and manifest demonstrations of non-violence by their followers. I take it that the hon. Gentleman is not drawing a distinction between acts of violence that are committed by Sinn Fein-IRA and acts of violence committed by loyalist organisations purely on the basis of what their leaders expressly claim for them.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows me better than that. I do not tolerate violence from any source. As a practical individual, I like progress to be genuine. When I contemplate the IRA attacks on Canary wharf, Manchester, Osnabrück and Thiepval and its other attempts to take life and increase terrorism, and then, with some satisfaction, the absence of violent reaction from loyalist paramilitaries, I regard it as progress. Those who speak on behalf of loyalist organisations deserve, if not credit, at least my acknowledgment of their success in curbing the activities of their acolytes. Long may it continue.

I return to the part that the Government expect us to play in the talks process. We entered that process on the understanding that there are two separate and distinct tracks that are never to be joined and have no cross-ties—one dealing with political accommodation and the interests of society and the other intending to lead to the end of all violence, disarmament and the verification of the decommissioning process.

The Irish Government have shown no good intent to keep the two processes apart, but have tried to draw us into the trap whereby every gun that is decommissioned will attract a political reward for the most evil in society. If I read new clause 1 aright, the hon. Member for Spelthorne was concerned with that specific issue. He perceives that the decommissioning Bill contains concessions for terrorists. If it did, I would repudiate it. It would not be worth the paper it is printed on. If I catch your eye again, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall address the issue again on Third Reading. The Bill has another purpose in addition to the practical issue of decommissioning.

Under new clause 1, a ceasefire will not be accepted until 12 months have elapsed since any act of terrorism. As the hon. Gentleman might expect, my party does not find that acceptable because IRA-Sinn Fein have never worked to a time scale. Between 1962 and 1969, they were in a virtually non-violent mode, but of course they were planning future action. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, even during the 17 months between August 1994 and February 1996, in addition to planning the bomb at Canary wharf and training, recruiting and targeting, IRA-Sinn Fein were involved in another variety of terrorism—social and economic terrorism—alongside the gunfire and the bombs.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) was quite right to ask how we defined terrorism. I believe that, when the time is right and when IRA-Sinn Fein consider that enough people are sufficiently naive to believe them, they will be willing to put their guns away for a while. However, they will continue using intimidation and the boycotts to ghettoise Northern Ireland. Only through ghettoisation can IRA-Sinn Fein move towards their ultimate goal—a Bosnia-type situation. I have mentioned that before in the House. They will achieve that by totally controlling significant territories—housing estates or entire districts—within Northern Ireland. That is one reason why my party spoke out about the events at Harriville, saying that they were morally wrong and that such action plays into the hands of those who would ghettoise Northern Ireland.

Although I appreciate what the hon. Member for Spelthorne has attempted to do and I am grateful for the opportunity to address issues that concern us both, I cannot support new clause 1 as it will not deliver what he requires—a guarantee that the Government will take such steps as are necessary to ensure that not only the words but the actions and the circumstances are right before we accept that the leopard has changed its spots.

Mr. Mallon

I thank the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for attempting to clarify new clause 1. So far, however, either through my deficiency in understanding or through his deficiency in explaining, he has not fulfilled that objective.

It is important that we address any proposed amendments to the legislation. It would be easy to toss new clause 1 away: we could say that we will not vote for it because it is not realistic, but that it provides the opportunity to make certain comments. However, that would be the wrong approach to any serious amendments to a serious measure.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that, rather than help the situation, the new clause—or any similar measure—would postpone and enlarge the period of opportunity, if one existed. It assumes a peaceful situation for 12 months, after which legislation would have to be introduced to deal with the consequences of that period.

The Bill is essentially enabling legislation that will enable decisions on some of the crucial matters to be implemented by order of the Secretary of State when and if an opportunity arises. We do not know when an opportunity will arise.

Forgive me if I do not join the absolute pessimism that has already been expressed. Forgive me also if I do not engage in a beauty contest on who is most opposed to violence. I assume that every hon. Member, as a democrat, is opposed to violence in any form and that we all accept that to be every hon. Member's position.

5 pm

I ask the hon. Member for Spelthorne to accept that there is a fundamental difference between us on the basis on which decommissioning can be dealt with. It has been debated at great length, almost to the stage at which some of us do not like to hear the word any more. That is not because we are afraid of the issues, but because some of us have been dealing with them at close hand for so long and so often that we could make each other's speeches with no difficulty. I have listened at length to members of the Unionist parties in the current talks. I have read their documentation at length. I have listened to the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) at length. They have similarly listened to us.

The fundamental difference between our approaches to finding a solution will not be dealt with by the new clause. I accept that everyone here wants all arms, ammunition and guns to be things of the past and for them to have no role in the life, political or otherwise, of the north of Ireland. I accept the absolute sincerity of people who put forward views with which I do not agree.

Taking all that as read, however, there is a fundamental divergence, which was best stated by the Secretary of State on Second Reading. It is worth looking at his comments again. He set out the position clearly, saying that it is the role of the security services in any state to ensure that arms, ammunition, bomb-making equipment and all the paraphernalia of terrorism are not held illegally. He went on to make the crucial point, which I also made in that debate, that if it were possible to deal with decommissioning in the normal security ways, we should not be having this debate. If the police, the Army and the legislation framed to deal with terrorism north and south of the border, as well as here, had been successful, this debate would not be taking place. The reason for the decommissioning Bill and the on-going debate that there will be about it is that there must be another way of dealing with the inability—I am not using the word "failure"—of the security services to resolve the problem of illegally held arms.

The Secretary of State put his finger on the issue when he said: It gets harder when it is recognised that, illegal though it is to hold them, the yielding up of those armaments will be done either voluntarily or not at all."—[Official Report, 9 December 1996; Vol. 287, c. 22.] I agree with the Secretary of State: it will not be possible to put those arms and that ammunition—the elements of terrorism—out of operation unless it is done voluntarily. That is a difficult statement for the Secretary of State or for me to make, and a difficult fact for any hon. Member to accept, but it is the reality—a reality that we must all face up to if we are to solve the problem. We can fool ourselves that there are other ways of doing it. We can convince ourselves that there are contrivances that will lead to the situation that we want. We can somehow postpone everything and live in the hope that, one fine day, those who organise IRA violence and loyalist paramilitary violence will put through a telephone call to the Northern Ireland Office telling the Secretary of State to expect X number of lorry loads of guns and Semtex, but it will not happen.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne described himself several times as a realist, as did the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). I accept that they are both realists, but we must also be aware of those elements of realism which hurt and which we do not particularly like. The harsh reality—this is where I differ with the hon. Member for Spelthorne—is that a voluntary decision means a decision taken by those who speak on behalf of the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the Red Hand commandos or whoever they all may be, to give up, destroy or decommission their weapons. That will not happen in a void—not in a void of 12 months, not in a political void. It will not happen outside negotiations.

That brings us to the second harsh reality: the thesis of the Mitchell report—the report of the international commission—which was accepted by the two Governments, was that voluntary decommissioning means decommissioning as a result of negotiations, which means that inclusivity is inevitable. Mitchell decided—we all accepted this, by the way—that decommissioning would be mutual between republican and loyalist paramilitaries. There is a chain of logic in that proposition which cannot be broken, because if it is, there is no validity in the Secretary of State's belief, which I very firmly share, that decommissioning, if it happens, will happen on a voluntary basis.

Mr. Maginnis

Is not the hon. Gentleman's argument, which is logical, none the less spoiled by the fact that Mitchell assumed that Sinn Fein-IRA were sincere in wanting to move towards peace and to decommission? In so far as they betrayed the judgment that he made, that part of his thesis falls down. Has he seen anything that the ordinary man in the street over the past 10 or 12 months could take as an indication that there is sincerity on the part of any member of Sinn Fein-IRA in the desire to move towards a peaceful solution?

Mr. Mallon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, both of which are valid. I shall try to answer them as briefly as I possibly can, but I am not sure that there is a quick way of answering either of them.

The first question is whether, in effect, Mitchell made his recommendations on the basis of a false premise that there were those in the republican movement who wanted peace. I do not think that such a premise is false. I think that there are those in that organisation who want an end to violence. The ideological gap between their position of being able to fulfil their political objectives through violence, and their present position of the acceptance of the use of tactical violence for political purposes, is very distinct.

The second question is whether I have seen anything that will convince me of the sincerity of the republican movement's position in relation to the matter to which the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone referred. I, he or anybody else can judge the sincerity of anyone's position in such circumstances only when they are in the position where it will be a matter not of words but of accommodating the political realities that we all face. Let us not forget that, after the bombing of the Thiepval barracks in Lisburn, the IRA stated for the first time an objective as being an inclusive political negotiated settlement: that is a far cry from the 32-county united socialist republic, which was to begin every six months as a result of force.

I am not saying that that statement convinces me. What will convince me will be seeing, while sitting at the negotiating table, that organisation being able to accommodate the principles laid out by Mitchell and those of democracy and the democratic process, encapsulating the principle of consent; when it accepts that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, whether it likes them or not, it will not oppose them, except by political means, and will not use violence. It is in that context that I would start believing. I believe that scepticism is healthy in any element of political life. When it degenerates into cynicism, which prevents people looking at some of the realities that we have to consider, it becomes a dangerous and corrosive factor.

I want to test the IRA, the UDA and the UFF on decommissioning and politically, but I want the circumstances in which that can be done to be right. Those circumstances, in terms of the Secretary of State's position, which I share and which Mitchell has put forward, are that voluntary decision, based on mutuality, can come about only as a result of an inclusive negotiating position.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. Gentleman talks about testing the IRA. He and other colleagues who have nationalist aspirations sought with great sincerity—I believe—to test Sinn Fein-IRA over a year during the meetings of the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. During that entire time, the hon. Gentleman and his pro-nationalist colleagues were unable to get the fundamental accord from Sinn Fein-IRA that is required if we are to make progress: that they should agree on the word "consent"—that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland at the ballot box is fundamental to all progress.

5.15 pm
Mr. Mallon

The hon. Gentleman again makes a valid point, but I think that he misses two crucial elements. He made the case that there would have to be a very dramatic sea change from being involved in violence and the conviction that violence will obtain political objectives to being in the normal political process. The discussions to which the hon. Gentleman referred had two very valuable elements. Whether they liked it or not, Sinn Fein representatives saw across the table that, in effect, there was a nationalist consensus on the island of Ireland. That nationalist consensus was based on two things: an abhorrence of and a refusal to countenance the use of violence for political objectives, and that consent and the principle of consent must underlie any solution to the problem. Yes, they discovered that there was a nationalist consensus; they discovered that they were outside it and that, despite their arguments and bluster, they could not change all the parties.

One of the difficulties that we all face, especially Sinn Fein, which must start to recognise it, is that there is and will be a nationalist consensus, in just the same way as there is a Unionist consensus. Surely no one is putting a stricture on anybody that they should not fully believe in their own political policy and ideology. There cannot, however, be a set of circumstances in which there will be a special place in anybody's ideology for those who reserve a right to kill, threaten or use violence of any form. That was the real learning curve in the forum, and I want to see it extended and adopted in circumstances in which the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone will be able to see the colour of IRA representatives' eyes when he puts his arguments, when the hon. and learned Member for North Down will be able to see their reaction when he puts his arguments, and when the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) will be able to be there to see and hear the reaction when he describes his position. I make that request, although I know that I am deviating slightly.

We all take the opportunities that come and we are all there to ensure that the principles of the democratic process are pursued by those who believe in the democratic process. If we can convince others, we would surely look on it as being successful. I can put it even more strongly than that: I reckon that if our generation of politicians in the north of Ireland does nothing else but achieve an end to violence, however tenuous, which enables a political process that begins to engage in dialogue and negotiations, however difficult, and we can leave as a legacy that foundation for the future, it will be no mean achievement. It will not be the fulfilment of my political objectives, because I want to see, create and build a united Ireland by democratic, peaceful means, and it will be not the fulfilment of any Unionist objectives because it will not incorporate all their requirements, but it will be a foundation from which to move forward.

When we consider new clause 1, and when we consider all the issues, let us all be big enough, strong enough and intellectually rigorous enough not to create whipping boys when we come up against problems that we ourselves find it difficult to accommodate. The whipping boy has readily been identified already this afternoon: it is the Irish Government. That has already been stated—and two amendments have been tabled on the subject—but that is not realistic. The position of the Irish Government on arms and the whole question of terrorism is more unassailable than anyone else's, so much so that even in Committee some parties in the House saw the wisdom of taking parts of the Irish legislation and tabling them as amendments to the British legislation. The Irish had good reasons for the differences in their legislation: it had to be different because there are constitutional and procedural differences and differences in the way in which legislation is introduced in the Dail and the system here.

Let nobody seek out whipping boys or try to create a scapegoat in the consideration of an issue on which we have to make an accommodation. Before making a case about extradition terms, people should find out exactly what they are talking about. They should find out what opportunities may have existed to take a case in the Republic of Ireland and they should have evidence for their remarks. I assure the hon. and learned Member for North Down, who no doubt will be able to put not just the political but the legal spin on the subject better than I can, that no Irish Government would lightly make their decision if there was a sound legal basis for an extradition. It is not enough to shake the head and say what I have said is rubbish. The issue should be considered carefully before anybody starts to make a whipping boy out of anyone else.

Many of us have been part of the talks and negotiations in Castle buildings since 10 June and we have been given a poisoned chalice. The question of decommissioning has been dropped in the laps of the political parties in the north of Ireland to get the Government off the hook that they created for themselves at Washington 3. However, that is our problem and we must deal with it if we accept the Mitchell report, which I do, but we must also be able to deal with it. I invoke the Prime Minister's words on this point and I especially refer the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone to those words. Following the Mitchell report, in the joint communiqué of 28 February—after the breakdown of the ceasefire and after the violence had been restarted—the two Governments claimed that a meaningful and inclusive process must be available to those who represent those who are carrying out republican violence if there is to be any hope of achieving decommissioning through the negotiating process. Those are not Mitchell's words or the words of any nationalist party—they are the words of the Prime Minister in a joint statement with another sovereign Government. The Government should remember those words.

My party, indeed all of us, was promised in this Chamber that the negotiations would be real, that they would be meaningful and that no single issue would stand in the way of progress. We have not even got to the beginning of the negotiations. We have not even got to the ending of the opening plenary session, because the negotiations have not been real or meaningful and one single issue has been allowed to stand in the way of progress. That issue is the one that we are dealing with today.

We can continue in the same way, but if we do, the political process, as represented by all of us, will be seen to have failed even to start the serious negotiations that we need. It is the duty of the Prime Minister to take all the steps necessary to ensure that he honours the commitment that he made to all the parties that negotiations would be real and meaningful and that no one issue would stand in their way. He has an absolute responsibility to all of us and to peace to honour that commitment and I request him to do so. I know that when the Minister of State winds up, scant reference will be made to what I have said if the precedent of Second Reading is followed, but I ask formally that the Minister refer that matter to the Prime Minister, who made those solemn and binding commitments to us in the Chamber of the House of Commons, because he should have the opportunity to ensure that he enforces them.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. Gentleman draws attention to what is happening in the talks process and bemoans the fact that we have not made the progress that many of us would have liked. He has indicated that the stumbling block is decommissioning, the disarming of terrorists and the verification of that process, but he appears to point the finger in the direction of Unionists and perhaps of the United Kingdom Government when he makes that allegation. I cannot go into details, because we are bound by confidentiality, but is it not true that two simple issues—one which could have been resolved by the Irish Government and one which could have been resolved by his party, and which would have been in the spirit of what is intended by the legislation—if accepted, would have allowed Unionists to move forward on the understanding that there was practical, and I emphasise the word "practical," sincerity in the approach to decommissioning?

Mr. Mallon

Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not wish to break any confidentiality which exists, so I refer him to his party's public statements on the matter. The Ulster Unionist party has gone on record saying, first, that there must be the decommissioning of a tranche of weapons before any paramilitary grouping—by which it means Sinn Fein—could enter talks. That is a matter of record, and not a matter of supposition or interpretation. Secondly, the UUP—in commenting on the committee that is to liaise with the international verification committee—stated that staged factors in relation to decommissioning would have to be to determined prior to any movement into the substantive negotiations. That is the public position of the UUP.

5.30 pm I will put a question to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone which I have no doubt that he will answer in his future contributions: does he even remotely imagine that decommissioning as defined by the Secretary of State—a definition with which I agree—will be possible in spite of the two substantial road blocks laid down by his party in the way of substantial and serious negotiations?

Mr. Maginnis

I promise that this will be my last intervention, Madame Deputy Speaker. I must state clearly that when we abandoned what was called Washington 3—we abandoned it on the basis of Mitchell, the very basis on which the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) argues his case—we accepted that decommissioning had to begin from the very start of the process. In addition, we accepted that we could not move through the political process—no one knows how far through—without seeing the colour of IRA-Sinn Fein's money. We do not apply that rule or tenet solely to Sinn Fein-IRA, but we apply it to every paramilitary organisation. Those organisations cannot move beyond the introductory stage of talks—according to Mitchell himself, who stated that the process must be parallel—and into the substantive element without an indication of what will happen. We stick by that position, and we shall continue to do so.

Mr. Mallon

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman's party is to stick by some positions on this issue. The Ulster Unionist party did not abandon Washington 3—the British Government abandoned it. The Ulster Unionist party reintroduced it when it presented its position on decommissioning publicly during a previous stage of the talks. The hon. Gentleman invokes the Mitchell report, which clearly states that decommissioning would take place not before or after negotiations, but during them.

The position laid down by the Ulster Unionist party is that decommissioning must take place before negotiations. The position of Sinn Fein-IRA, as I understand it, is that decommissioning will come at the end. Can we not at least agree that the only way in which decommissioning should be used as a precondition is to allow us to get up from the table with a solution, and that it should not prevent us from beginning to try to find a solution?

Rev. Ian Paisley

Some hon. Members here today may remember a powerful and moving speech made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) some time ago, in which he castigated the fact that Sinn Fein had sat in a forum in Dublin with fellow members of what we, as Unionists, would call a pan-nationalist front—they were all nationalists, and they all wanted to bring about a united Ireland. They had a debate, and the hon. Gentleman saw the whites of their eyes. If he could not persuade his own kind, if the Dublin Government could not persuade their own kind and if all the diverse groups in the Irish Republic could not do so, why does he say that he is a realist? Why does he say that, if the Unionists looked at the whites of the eyes of the nationalists, a great miracle would happen?

Tonight, we need to come back to harsh realities. I have heard people say that they are realists, but what are the realities? We have been told by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh that the subject of tonight's debate is a poisoned chalice that is to be handed to the people taking part in the talks, but the subject was raised by the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), in 1992 when he said in regard to talks that there can be no guns on the table, under the table or outside the door. That is my position, and it is the position of any democrat in Northern Ireland.

I am not in the business of talking to murderers. I am not in the business of talking to those who went to the children's hospital before Christmas to try to murder my colleague and assistant in Europe, and who put a bullet through an incubator in a children's intensive care ward. I neither want to see their eyeballs, nor to do business with them. The basis for talks was to be no guns on the table, under the table or outside the door. Moving the new clause, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said something that I could have said—that he is for decommissioning as originally set out in the statements made by various people. Dick Spring, the Foreign Secretary of the Irish Republic, said after the Downing street declaration was signed—and before the ink was dry on the paper—that we are talking about a permanent cessation of violence, and we are talking about the handing up of arms, with the insistence it would not be the case of 'we are on a temporary cessation to see what the political process offers'. It was not some belligerent Unionist who said that, but the Foreign Secretary of the Irish Republic. However, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh has argued tonight that we must have some political bait to attain decommissioning. Mr. Spring went on to say on 1 June 1994: There will have to be a verification of the handing over of arms … it has to be permanent and there has to be evidence of it. Just after that, the Secretary of State said on Radio Telefis Eireann that the IRA will have to give up its guns and explosives to prove violence is over. Those conditions were set not by Unionists, but by the Government.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that he wanted the Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box; I should like the Prime Minister to come here and repeat to the House a statement he made to us. He said that the IRA would hand over a substantial tranche of arms to start with and then, when the talks commenced, hand over a further instalment of arms every month. I said at the time, "Prime Minister, I have one question. How are you going to do that? Say they give you a large tranche of arms, we have a month's discussion, and then they say that they won't give any more. What are you going to do? Throw them out?"

Once people get into talks, they are in and can do what they like. They can swear that they have renounced violence, as did certain people who will be sitting at the table in a fortnight's time. Now those people say that they will not hand over one weapon. We need to be realists.

Albert Reynolds, who was still in circulation at that time, said: if all the weapons were decommissioned before a settlement was found … that would be a recipe for disaster. He had done a complete somersault. He must have been singing before making that wonderful statement, and on something stronger than buttermilk. Martin McGuinness, the colour of whose eyes the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh wants us to see, said: when we talk to the British Government we will not talk about the decommissioning of IRA arms, we will talk about the dismantling of partition. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh made much tonight of the process of decommissioning, but there is no process whatever on either side.

Strong statements were made at Washington 3 about arms having to be found out and so forth, and President Clinton said: Paramilitaries on both sides must get rid of their bombs and guns for good and the spectre of violence must be banished", and the Prime Minister reiterated: All-party talks are impossible until moves are made on decommissioning. That idea was sold to the people of Northern Ireland by the British Government. Unfortunately, some of us believed it. We believed that they would do as they said.

I find it rather amusing that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh can tell the House today about the great obstacles to the talks, when he was the man who moved that there should be no vote when I tried to bring the matter to a head so that we could make a decision. He said that there would never be a vote. Without a vote, how can we bring the matter to a head? Like Pilate, he washed his hands and told us that we were holding the process back. From what? I want a decision on decommissioning, and I want to know what the British Government, the Dublin Government and the hon. Gentleman are up to on decommissioning.

Mr. Mallon

The Ulster Unionist party?

Rev. Ian Paisley

I want to know what anyone is up to. I was amazed by the dialogue tonight between the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party. I never knew that we all agreed to mutual decommissioning. The official Unionists may have agreed that with the SDLP and vice versa, but I never agreed it, as I have made clear. The hon. Gentleman will have heard long speeches from me without hearing one line in which I said that, because I do not believe in it.

Today, there are two so-called army councils, the IRA Army Council and the Combined Loyalist Military Command—high-falutin' titles. Those two bodies hold a noose around the neck of Northern Ireland and say, "If you don't give in to us, we'll give you your bellyful of what we've given you in the past," and the two Governments sit and compromise with them.

I heard the Secretary of State saying that the Combined Loyalist Military Command should be "helped forward" because of its stand, but I do not think that anyone here today knows who its members are. Who could stand up and say that they can name the men? They are faceless people, and if hon. Members are so foolish as to think that Garry McMichael and Councillor Hughie Smith are the generalissimos commanding that body, they are sadly mistaken.

The dogs on the street in Northern Ireland know what is happening. They know that the IRA is at its work and that the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunteer Force are at their work. What about the man who was shot in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)? The police admit that the UVF did that. What about the bombs in north Belfast, for which the police in the area said the UFF was responsible?

5.45 pm

The Secretary of State seems to think that schoolboys, rather than politicians, are the right audience for his major speeches. He made a major speech to some schoolboys in Londonderry the other day and told them that the Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefire was holding. I wish that he would come with me to see some of the people who have been beaten up on the orders of that group, the people who have been partially crucified and the homes that have been wrecked.

Last Sunday, a member of my church went home to be told by the police that he had to shift house, get out, pull up all his chattels, take his family and go—and yet we are told that the ceasefire is intact and all is well. All is not well in Northern Ireland, and the people are getting sick of politicians telling them that it is. The ceasefire is not holding. The Minister told us today about the startling number of beatings going on in both communities. Action needs to be taken.

It has been argued today that the military, the police, security and legislation have failed, and that we need another method. Spokesmen for the IRA have been advancing that argument for years. They say that they have won the war and that we have to sit down with them and make peace. In fact, the war has never been fought. There is one reason for that: the people most concerned were not allowed to fight it.

When Northern Ireland became a state, the same forces that are operating today tried to break and destroy it, and the ordinary people of Northern Ireland fought and won the battle against them. They did it because they were fighting for their hearth-stones, for the land where their fathers lay awaiting resurrection, for their country. We, on the other hand, have not had a battle with the IRA. The IRA has never felt the determination of the Ulster people. We are marginalised and told to keep quiet and let others take care of everything.

With all due respect to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, one would have thought that, with all the years that have passed, the Dublin Government would have extradited a person accused of a terrorist bombing in Germany. The extradition would not even have been to the United Kingdom, but would have been to another country in the European Union, yet that man thumbed his nose and walked out of court. If that is how we intend to fight terrorism, we will be defeated all down the line.

The Government and hon. Members should go to Northern Ireland and talk not to politicians, but to people who are not active in politics. People in the professional and business worlds, trade unionists and others have at long last realised how serious the situation is. People are asking why they are held in a noose by two outlawed councils of thuggery and murder and why we have to deal with them. We cannot run a country by telling criminals that, if they mutually agree something, we will go ahead and do it. That is what the Bill does. It is not worth the paper it is written on because it says that, until those two councils of thugs and outlaws agree to hand in their arms, nothing shall be done.

I came to the House in 1970. I never thought that I would be here so long or that I would ever discuss a Bill such as this in the United Kingdom, which boasts of its belief in the democratic process. Tonight we are passing a Bill that tells two outlawed so-called military councils of terrorists that nothing will be done until they mutually agree. That is not law; it is capitulation and concession to the men of violence. The tragedy is that not hon. Members, but the people of Ulster, will reap the sad results. The House is sowing the wind but those people will reap the whirlwind. Hon. Members should go to Northern Ireland and talk not to politicians, but to ordinary people, who are becoming alarmed at how far the Government and the talks are seeking to take them.

Finally, I say to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh that I will be at no talks with this crowd. I do not believe that the people who sit at the talks at the moment have clean hands. There should be one law right across the board: if they do not go by the principles that they swore to uphold, and are not even prepared to condemn acts of violence—let alone dissociate themselves from them—they should not be at the talks because they have violated the Mitchell principles. Those are entirely different from the Mitchell report. I do not accept the report, but I accept the principles.

Mr. Robert McCartney

There are few hon. Members who do not utterly abhor violence and would not like it to end. Those present probably have no quarrel with the particularities of the Bill. The question is how relevant the legislation is to the state of affairs in Northern Ireland. To see its relevance, one has to look at the general picture.

In my view, there never was such a creature as the so-called peace process. It was apparent to several political thinkers in Northern Ireland, and in the United Kingdom, that at some time in or about 1988 or 1989, there was a change in direction in British policy away from an attempt to accommodate the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland in a settlement within the United Kingdom to a new policy that involved the appeasement of the violent aspect of Irish nationalism. There was an attempt to discover on what terms an accommodation could be made with violent republicanism in the form of the IRA.

The philosophy was essentially laid in the initial negotiations that took place between the leader of the SDLP and Mr. Gerry Adams, the titular head of Sinn Fein and some time participant in IRA activity. They laid the foundations for the policy that subsequently emerged, through the Brooke-Mayhew talks, as the peace process. Essentially, the peace process was that an arrangement would be made whereby a meeting of democrats would not be used to settle the political problems of Northern Ireland; instead, a collection of democrats would be got together to give a veneer of democratic responsibility to what was really a peace conference between two sets of combatants: the British state and the representatives of violent republican terrorism.

The foundations were consolidated by secretive meetings between representatives of the Secretary of State and the IRA in 1992–93. Out of that emerged the Downing street declaration, in which the British Government declared that in respect of part of the territory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, they no longer had any selfish strategic or economic interest in maintaining that portion of the United Kingdom within the kingdom. They would agree to act, if not as persuaders, as facilitators for a solution of Irish unity. It is true that it was declared that no other solution would be excluded but it is more important to note that no solution other than Irish unity was adumbrated in the Downing street declaration.

The declaration was careful never to describe the majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland as British citizens. They were described as the people of Ireland north and south, or as those Irish people living in Northern Ireland. Never once were the 1 million British citizens who describe themselves as, and claim to be, British citizens described as such. More interestingly, the phrase about Britain having no selfish economic or strategic interest was not new. It had become an official declaration of policy, but it was not a novel statement. It had been made in 1991 by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke). However, he got the phrase from the public, agreed statement of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and Gerry Adams on 18 September 1988 in The Irish Times, in which the hon. Member for Foyle declared that he thought that the British Government had no economic or selfish or strategic interest in staying in Northern Ireland.

A statement made in 1988 by the leader of Northern Ireland's constitutional nationalists and the leader of Sinn Fein was taken up three years later by the then Secretary of State. By 16 December 1993, in the joint declaration, it had become British Government policy. That policy was an open invitation to Sinn Fein-IRA to enter into negotiations and to declare a ceasefire, but the British Government required that the ceasefire had to be permanent. Time passed—a week, let alone two years, is a long time in politics—and everyone forgot about the British Government's insistence that the ceasefire must be permanent. After three months, the Government declared that they had assumed that the ceasefire was permanent.

Mr. John Hume and Mr. Albert Reynolds had no doubt whatever that "complete" meant permanent, entirely ignoring the fact that, as anyone with any element of logic would know, "complete" is a definition of kind, while "permanent" is a definition of duration. The pro-Union people of Northern Ireland want a cessation of violence that is complete in its nature and permanent in its duration—something that they will never be afforded by Sinn Fein-IRA, and something on which, even after the dastardly breach of their tactical ceasefire on 9 February 1996, the British Government were still not prepared to insist.

6 pm

Indeed, the Command Paper of 16 April 1996 that established the basis for the present talks at Stormont in Belfast requires an unequivocal restoration of the August 1994 ceasefire—not even the restoration of an unequivocal ceasefire, but an unequivocal restoration of something that was wholly flawed and false. That requirement is incorporated in a Command Paper that became one of the central documents of the current talks at Stormont.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) talks of the wrangling and the obstacles introduced by Unionists. What Unionists were saying was quite simple: we were not going to take part in a game whose rules have been set to predetermine the result. Unionists were not prepared to accommodate Sinn Fein by allowing it to restore a tactical ceasefire that was always very impermanent, or to engage in a process whose central objective was a framework document.

People ask why we object to the framework proposals. I will tell the House exactly why we objected to those proposals as the centrepiece of the negotiations. The framework document wants to employ for the uniting of Ireland exactly the methodology for the unification of Europe to which large sections of the major parties in the House of Commons object. In both cases, the aim is exactly the same. If a process can be undertaken involving joint institutions and organisations, covering everything from natural resources to transport to tourism with a central dynamism, after a time the whole concept of national sovereignty becomes a myth of no value. The Government's hypocrisy in setting up that policy to unify Ireland is based on the fact that they are employing a methodology for the purpose that they find repugnant in relation to any diminution of the national sovereignty of the United Kingdom as a whole, and of the House.

Far from involving wrangling, the seven months of negotiations and so-called peace talks at Stormont have been about the rejection of—if I may use a slang phrase—a stacked deck of cards. The pro-Union people refuse to engage in a game in which the cards are marked by the British and Irish Governments in accordance with the predestined result that they wish to achieve. That is what the past seven months have been about.

Let me now deal specifically with the issue of decommissioning. Originally, the British Government said that there must be an absolute and permanent ceasefire, and the Irish Government said exactly the same. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has already quoted extensively from a speech made in the Dail by the Tanaiste—Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Secretary—the day after the announcement of the joint declaration. What did he say? He said, "This ceasefire must be permanent. We will not tolerate paramilitaries—Sinn Fein—coming into the democratic process, looking about, picking and choosing, deciding whether there is something in it for them and, if there is not, returning to armed violence." He said, "You must come in, and you must come in for good."

At that time the present Taoiseach, Mr. Bruton, was not in government; he was the Leader of the Opposition. But, on behalf of his party, he made a written submission to the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. What did he say in 1994? He said, "Sinn Fein-IRA must hand over their weapons now." "Now" is a very short word, but its meaning is explicit. It does not mean "tomorrow" or "in a little while"; it means immediately, at once, without delay.

After a while, it became apparent that Mr. Hume and Mr. Reynolds had grossly oversold to Sinn Fein-IRA what the British Government were prepared to deliver, and Sinn Fein-IRA refused to declare their ceasefire permanent. Only, presumably, after being promised something did they declare a ceasefire on 31 August 1994. They were coming in to look around: they were being permitted to do exactly what Mr. Spring had said, the day after the joint declaration, that they would never be allowed to do.

Sinn Fein-IRA came in and looked around for 18 months. What did they do during that time? They reconnoitred, they monitored, they prepared; they placed in position all the weaponry and all the bombs that they would require for a series of spectaculars on the United Kingdom mainland in case they did not get what they wanted.

It was plain to the British and Irish Governments that Sinn Fein-IRA were not going to come in and surrender their arms: they had to have a deal. What did the British Government do? They resiled from every position that they had adopted. The only tune on their bugle at any stage was the retreat. Eventually, they reached the stage of Washington 3. Washington 3 was very simple: it said, "If you declare a ceasefire in words and evidence it in action by handing over a significant tranche of weaponry, you can join in." But it became plain that the IRA had never intended to hand over any weapons.

Mainland politicians appear not to understand that logic is a poor master when it is applied to Sinn Fein-IRA. I heard all sorts of arguments—for instance, that if Sinn Fein-IRA handed in 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. of their weaponry, they could continue to run an effective terrorist campaign—but the reason they will not hand in a single rusty revolver or an ounce of Semtex has nothing to do with logic, and everything to do with the ideological block that places them in the position of legitimate inheritor of the provisional Government of 1918. To hand over anything would be to accept that the remainder of their weapons were held unlawfully and that the authority to which they were handing that rusty revolver or that ounce of Semtex was a lawful authority: that they will never do. When will the Government get it into their heads that Sinn Fein-IRA will never hand over any weapons to anyone, be that directly to the British Government, or to any international commission acting on behalf of the British or Irish Governments?

The Bill is a nonsense. It is a mechanism—one that might be valid in itself, but is purely a small part of a much larger political policy that is totally false. The idea that the British and Irish Governments could ever do some sort of deal, not with democrats, but with the plenipotentiaries of violence, was totally flawed.

Not only is that policy flawed, but the policy of expediency without proper political principle has corrupted the very roots of democracy. It has forced the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), to make statements about ceasefires being intact that stretch credulity to the limits. To suggest after the events of the past month that the so-called loyalist ceasefire is still intact is reminiscent of "Alice in Wonderland"—indeed, I am glad to know that the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm has not perished from the Northern Ireland Office. Such statements amount to a fairy tale.

The Government's logic is: the fact that no bombs are going off can be accredited to the Combined Loyalist Military Command; because no one is being shot with weapons accredited to the CLMC, they can say that there is a peace process and that the loyalist ceasefire is intact. That completely ignores loyalist violence in the form of barbarous punishment beatings, which have increased from about 30 incidents in 1993, before this marvellous peace process, to 118 in the first 11 months of 1996. Any assertion that an increase in those terrible beatings, which are often the cause of orthopaedic and other injuries far worse than would be caused by a bullet, is consistent with an intact ceasefire is absolutely ludicrous.

I am sure that other hon. Members who speak later will be able to develop this theme and ask: what is an act of terrorism? If a bullet is fired through the fleshy part of someone's thigh, is that an act of terrorism? Is boring a hole through someone's kneecap with a Black and Decker drill an act of terrorism? Nailing someone upside down to a fence and breaking his legs with clubs would not be an act of terrorism amounting to a breach of the ceasefire, but a failed attempt at a mortar bombing, which killed no one, would be a breach. Only those who are pursuing a policy that has no moral, ethical or political credibility can force themselves into the corner of having to ask people to believe that such activity does not amount to a breach of the ceasefire.

The only difference between the loyalists of August 1994 and those of today is that they have shifted the range and medium of their operations. The vast increase in punishment beatings—by about 400 per cent. in both communities—is evidence that terrorism and violence are being used by terrorists in their own communities for the purpose of enforcing their political will. They are creating an environment in which they can achieve political domination by methods that no democracy should tolerate in the 20th century.

6.15 pm
Mr. Day

I am interested in what the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying—he is giving us a marvellous analysis of a period of history that has yet to be judged. I am, however, concerned about the effects on the democratic process, to which he alluded earlier. Does he agree that the peace process has not only warped the democratic process, but by legitimising in the eyes of the public—especially the nationalist community—Sinn Fein as a political entity that appeared, through the peace process and the so-called ceasefire, to be genuinely searching for peace, it has increased Sinn Fein's electoral support? The peace process legitimised Sinn Fein in the eyes of the world at the expense of the real democratic forces in the north of Ireland. Is that not yet another way in which the peace process has destroyed the very values that the Governments of Britain and Ireland purport to be trying to uphold?

Mr. McCartney

I could not agree more. During the period of the peace process, not only has the number of punishment beatings increased by more than 400 per cent.—with all that that entails in the destruction of community values—but those in charge of community relations agencies in Northern Ireland say that, at present, relations between the two communities are the worst that they have ever encountered throughout their existence. The price of a policy that appears to appease terrorism, that has brought, at best, a period of non-use of bombs and bullets and is now over, has been to destroy intercommunity relationships that are the real foundation of peace in any society. Owing to a fraudulent peace process, the intercommunity relationships that should form the basis of any true peace have been diminished and destroyed.

Unfortunately, representatives like me, who have never been involved, at any stage or in any form, with organizations—

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

A few minutes ago the hon. and learned Gentleman referred to punishment beatings. I intend no criticism and I understand what he was saying and why he used those words, but will he accept that "punishment" is the wrong word to use? He is not the only one to use the word—indeed, everybody does—but it implies, first, that the victim has done something wrong and, secondly, that those who carry out the beatings, many of whom are gangsters with dreadful records, are in some way and in the perception of some people justified in their actions.

Mr. McCartney

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. We have encouraged people who represent a terrorist organisation to assume a place in our society that appears to afford them political and community legitimacy.

In his radio and television speech to the nation after the Downing street declaration, the Prime Minister said: Only the men of violence can give peace. The import of that statement went unnoticed. He was saying, "In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Government and the forces of law and order can no longer enforce the rule of law. If you want peace, you will have to authorise the Government to adopt a policy of appeasement or accommodation with those who violate the rule of law."

That brings us back to some of the comments and concepts that were offered as eternal verities by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, who is unfortunately no longer present. He advanced the idea that decommissioning, as a mode of peace, must be voluntary. That amounts to a suggestion that we must reach some accommodation with violent terrorism that will persuade it to hand over its weapons of its own volition.

I suggest that the source of that great persuasion, which would make terrorists give up their weapons voluntarily, would be the fulfilment of their political objectives; they have not given the slightest hint that those have been diminished. They remain determined to have Brits out, self-determination on an all-Ireland basis and an Irish united socialist Government—and I use the word "socialist" as one who, with a great deal of reserve, favours some aspects of socialism. There is no suggestion that they will ever give up their guns before, during or after negotiations unless those negotiations produce a settlement that they can endorse.

When the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh speaks about an inclusive form of negotiations, he means that the Union must be on the table. He avoids the issue raised by the hon. Member for North Antrim. When the pan-nationalist bodies of Ireland met in the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation to discuss the way forward, it was clear that the principle of consent—that there could be no united Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland—was put to Sinn Fein-IRA in its most anodyne form. The pan-nationalist bodies sought to produce such a watered-down version of consent that they were astonished that even that anodyne form of consent was unacceptable to Sinn Fein.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Is it not the more remarkable that, in those circumstances, some members of the SDLP should have been thinking aloud of an electoral pact with Sinn Fein?

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because he is right.

That brings us back to the raison d'être of the so-called peace process. It was essentially the creature of a pan-nationalist front. Sinn Fein was brought in out of the cold by its association with constitutional nationalism in the form of the SDLP and the Irish Government. It was further sanitised and endorsed by Irish America and received the imprimatur of the White house; it was brought back to Europe in that cleansed and resurrected form. Its members were now, in a sense, suitable candidates for the company of democrats—except that they never were democrats. They never ceased to be anything but a bunch of gangsters, thugs and violent terrorists who would kill, maim and destroy as the only means of achieving their objectives.

The time has come when, instead of pursuing a bipartisan policy that effectively disfranchises the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the House and both major political parties in it should say, "Enough of these violent men." I do not want my remarks to be confined to the violent men of Irish nationalism. I am equally adamant that we must eschew those who pose as defenders of the Union because the Union cannot be protected by people who ignore the rule of law. It cannot be defended by the principles that, as democrats, we all oppose, and it cannot be maintained by pretending that these folk are not exactly what they are.

What has reality come to when some credible politicians from the United Kingdom can describe serial murderers and those who have been involved in despicable crimes as unsung heroes of the peace process, on the basis that they should be congratulated on refraining from doing what no civilised human being should ever have done in the first place? That is an example of how crazy this business has become.

I welcome the purpose of the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). It has enabled the House to examine a broader spectrum and ambit of the concepts and ideas involved. We must look for a new beginning. This peace process, wrongly so called, has been built on false principles; it has been built on sand, and it is now disappearing into that sand.

We must all unite as democrats. I appeal to those whose long-term objectives for Ireland I do not share, but whose position as democrats I respect. We must all seek a solution; but that solution is not to be found by pro-Union people incorporating the CLMC into any part of their thinking, or constitutional nationalists having any truck with Sinn Fein-IRA murderers.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) on apparently providing the stimulus for a significant number of Members to speak very broadly on this issue. However, I shall be innovative and restrict myself to new clause 1 and the issues arising from it. I trust, Madam Deputy Speaker, that that will be in order.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

It will be welcomed.

Mr. Worthington

We are here today because of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill and because of the Mitchell report. After extensive discussion, the Mitchell committee reached the conclusion that appears at paragraph 17 of the report: Everyone with whom we spoke agrees in principle with the need to decommission. There are differences on the timing and context—indeed, those differences led to the creation of this Body—but they should not obscure the nearly universal support which exists for the total and verifiable disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. That must continue to be a principal objective. Listening to tonight's debate, I did not pick up a similar feeling of unanimity about people seeking a mechanism for decommissioning. But that is why we are here. We believe that there should be decommissioning, and for that there needs to be a mechanism—hence the need for this Bill.

The new clause states: This Act shall enter into force on a day to be determined by the Secretary of State by order made by statutory instrument, save that no such order shall be made until the Secretary of State is satisfied that 12 months have passed since any act of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland has occurred. The new clause thus assumes that decommissioning and the mechanism to enable it to occur will come about. Thereafter, however, it becomes somewhat surreal.

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The new clause also assumes that there is a ceasefire, because there would otherwise be no impetus to decommission. To extend the logic: there being a ceasefire, the new clause would tell those who wanted to begin decommissioning that they could do so, but not yet. Only in 12 months' time could it be embarked upon. That is certainly flawed.

The whole idea of decommissioning is that it should be voluntary. That is what Mitchell said; it is what those, including my party, who signed up to Mitchell would say. If people want to begin decommissioning, we should welcome that with open arms, and get the weapons of destruction off the streets as quickly as possible. It is therefore strange to delay the process by 12 months. Hitherto, those who have asked for decommissioning only at the end of the process have been the terrorist organizations—

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Gentleman said just now that he was one of those who had signed up to Mitchell. What does he mean? Does he mean that he signed up to the Mitchell principles, or to the whole report?

Mr. Worthington

My party, the Government, and other parties, here and in Northern Ireland, have said that they accept the principles in the Mitchell report, which still stands as a remarkable contribution, given the short time in which it had to be produced. We accept the six principles concerning talks—the hon. Gentleman probably knows them better than I do. They are valuable principles on which to proceed.

If decommissioning is to go ahead, it must be voluntary. In Committee, the Government were right to resist amendments that would have rendered it less than voluntary—by introducing penalties, and so on.

Holding up the process once a ceasefire is in place seems to me fundamentally flawed, yet that is what the new clause would do. Furthermore, how is an act of terrorism to be defined? The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) posed that question. It is not easy to answer; and in any case, who will decide? Who will decide whether such an act of terrorism is connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland? What about an act of terrorism committed in Great Britain and not accredited to any Northern Ireland group?

For all these reasons, new clause 1 is fatally flawed. As we all know, the whole Bill demands great acts of faith, but the new clause seems to attempt to suspend reality altogether. We do not back it.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler)

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for constructing the new clause so ingeniously as to enable such a wide-ranging debate to take place, thus allowing us to hear so many expressions of opinion about the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Some hon. Members have questioned the very purpose of the Bill in current circumstances, given that we face an escalating campaign of terrorism by the Provisional IRA. Hon. Members on both sides have referred to the statistics of terrorist crime. It is sometimes difficult to define terrorism, but acts against the law are crimes, whether terrorist or otherwise.

There is a certain irony in debating decommissioning against the backdrop of an increasing number of terrorist crimes in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but the House must not let terrorists set the agenda. The Mitchell report provides the best way forward. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) referred to that report; incidentally, I was grateful to hear him support the Government's position on the Bill.

The Government accept the recommendations for parallel decommissioning and political negotiations, and this Bill, as a first step, lays down the statutory foundations. Time will tell whether it was futile. We are not talking about a general amnesty for past crimes. Those who have committed crimes under the guise of terrorism will still be liable for the consequences. But the Government will not give up searching through all options at their disposal to bring a genuine and lasting peace to the people of Northern Ireland; just as they will not give up their firm stand against terrorist violence from whatever quarter.

As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said—reinforced by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie—this is an enabling measure. Its purpose is to facilitate decommissioning, and to help to get that process under way in parallel with the talks, in line with the Mitchell commission compromise. It is for the democratic parties and the democratic process to make demands of the terrorists, requiring them to demonstrate their good faith and their commitment to a genuine political and democratic process. That has been a theme of this debate.

If there is a new ceasefire by Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein, it must be genuine, and must be seen to be genuine. As the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said, it must include giving up the other means of violence and intimidation—not just the awful punishment attacks, which, as he rightly said, are intended to keep the nationalist population under control by intimidating them. Any new ceasefire must also mean an end to winkling people out from their homes and farms, and an end to the boycotts. In short, it must be a genuinely inclusive process.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) went wider, and questioned the Government's purpose. I hope he will accept from me that the Government's purpose is not to appease anyone. The Government's overriding objective in Northern Ireland is to secure a comprehensive and widely acceptable political settlement founded on democracy and based on consent—words that have been employed during this afternoon's debate.

I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman recognises that, if the process were concluded, it would be for the people of Northern Ireland in a secret vote to indicate whether they accepted the outcome. They would be the sovereign masters of the final stages of the process.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down raised the spectre of the Government having a secret agenda or secret negotiations. No such objective exists, nor would it be practical. How would it win the support and consent of those in the talks in Stormont Castle buildings, let alone the people of Northern Ireland? If the process succeeds, that will be because it is open and above aboard, not a series of deals behind the scenes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne wanted to ensure a debate on serious issues affecting the situation in Northern Ireland. I understand his desire for a genuine cessation of all terrorist activity in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That objective is common to all of us in the House. The Government have said time and again that there must be a credible and permanent end to violence in both words and deeds. We all want that, but, like the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, I do not believe that the new clause would achieve what my hon. Friend intends.

Through the Bill, we are trying to achieve a start to the decommissioning process—to lay the statutory foundation that will enable decommissioning to be taken forward in parallel with substantive political negotiations. We all recognise the irony of debating such legislation against the backdrop of the terrorist campaign that is developing in Northern Ireland.

The clause would have no impact on the entry of IRA-Sinn Fein to the negotiations. The House laid down last year in section 2 of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 the circumstances in which, and only in which—I emphasise only in which—that would happen. The Act gave effect to paragraphs 8 and 9 of the ground rules for substantive all-party negotiations, published as a Command Paper, according to which the key requirement for the entry of Sinn Fein to negotiations is the unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994. If that requirement is not met, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has no power to invite Sinn Fein to send a negotiating team to the talks. If the criteria of paragraphs 8 and 9 are met, he must do so.

The Prime Minister made it clear on 28 November that, if a ceasefire were announced, we would need to be assured that it was genuine and unequivocal. That has been discussed during the debate. It would mean, I suggest, an ending of terrorist violence, a standing down of the means to participate in terrorism, and an ending of punishment attacks and all the other criminal acts to which hon. Members have referred. The ceasefire must be lasting, rather than merely tactical. It would be necessary to assess carefully whether the words, actions and all the circumstances were consistent with a lasting ceasefire.

Those provisions regulate the entry of Sinn Fein to the talks process. If the conditions were satisfied, Sinn Fein would have to be admitted, but if the new clause took effect, there would be no provision whereby decommissioning could take place until a year had passed since the last act of terrorism, however that may be defined.

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I do not believe that my hon. Friend was aiming at a talks process in which decommissioning was impossible, but that is what the new clause might achieve. The truest test of the peaceful intent of people who have previously used violence for political ends is whether they are willing to decommission their weapons and stocks of Semtex. As soon as they are willing, we wish to give them the opportunity to do so.

My hon. Friend's new clause has the further drawback that it does not specify from where the act of terrorism need come. The consequence is that a single act by a group or individual wholly unconnected with the talks process might prevent decommissioning.

In summary, the Government believe that the existing provisions on entry to negotiations, approved by Parliament last year, are right. In any event, the new clause does not bear on them. We also believe that arrangements must be made to ensure that it is possible for decommissioning to begin at the earliest opportunity. The new clause would, without good reason, remove that possibility in some circumstances, and might thereby present a needless obstacle to progress in the talks. In the light of what I have said, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the motion.

Mr. Wilshire

We have had a fascinating two and a half hours—not what the Whips wanted, perhaps, but a necessary and worthwhile debate. I shall respond briefly to some of the comments about me and my new clause.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said that he was sorry that he could not support me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the rest of the speech. I note that he thinks that the new clause would not work; the same theme ran through other contributions. The hon. Gentleman put his finger on my key concern: the Bill, if enacted, is only the beginning of a process that will lead us ever further down the slope of one-sided concessions. He said that Sinn Fein-IRA do not work to a timetable. That is fair comment.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) wants the Bill left as it is, so that it can be used when the opportunity arises. That is a noble motive, but the hon. Gentleman failed to go on to explain what he meant by "opportunity". That is the problem that the new clause might address.

The hon. Gentleman argued that realism means that we must accept uncomfortable situations. I think that he was arguing that we must accept the Bill as it is, but the argument that realism requires us to do something could be used to justify anything. I would argue that realism means that some realities clash, and we must work out how to handle that. I am not sure that the Bill would do so satisfactorily.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said that he would speak about harsh realities. What he said needed saying and always needs saying, however uncomfortable it makes us feel. Like it or not, what the hon. Gentleman says is the authentic word of an awful lot of people in Northern Ireland. That voice is one of the realities, and, like all the other realities, it will not go away. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the war against Sinn Fein-IRA has never been fought. I pray to God that it never will be fought, and that we can find a different solution to Northern Ireland's problems.

The speech by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) was one of the best that I have heard him make. I wish that every member of my party had been in the Chamber to listen to his analysis of the real situation. He said that the Bill is nonsense, and initially I thought that my clause might make it less so. I agree with his assertions that there never was a peace process, and that the framework documents equal a united Ireland. I also agree with his claim that decommissioning will never occur.

The hon. and learned Gentleman made only one point with which I did not concur. He said that he was telling a fairy story, but those stories have happy endings, and I am afraid that this tragedy will not fall into that category.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) singled me out for attention: I do not think that I deserved all his criticism. He described new clause 1 as surreal. He may find it so, but I assure him that it is in order—I hope that he has noted that fact. He is unhappy about the 12-month delay, but I dealt with the matter as best I could. Although it introduces a delay before the concessions cut in, nothing in my new clause says that decommissioning cannot happen during the 12 months. It states only that there will be no concessions until there is proof that everything is for real.

My right hon. Friend the Minister described the Bill as a first step. However, I ask, as gently as I can: without my improvements, who knows what direction those steps will take? He said that we need parallel decommissioning. As I have said before, I oppose parallel decommissioning. I have always supported decommissioning at the outset so that people will sit around the table as democrats together. He said that a new ceasefire must be genuine. How will we know that? We were told that the last one was genuine. My new clause tries to provide a means of testing the sincerity of the ceasefire.

If I understand my right hon. Friend's analysis of my new clause correctly, I suspect that he has rumbled me. In the circumstances, the best I can do is muster as good a grace as possible, and beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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