HC Deb 13 July 1999 vol 335 cc175-232

Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen's consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

4.3 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

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

I am very grateful to colleagues for attending to this urgent business, and apologise for the speed with which it is being done. I know that hon. Members will appreciate the circumstances in which the Bill has been introduced and be anxious for the Good Friday agreement to be implemented in full.

In the past 10 months, progress has been held up by the dispute over the formation of an inclusive Executive and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. There have been months of discussions, hundreds of meetings and hour upon hour of debate and negotiation, the sole purpose of which has been to find a way through the impasse which both sides of the community in Northern Ireland are able to support.

As we are debating progress in Northern Ireland, I should like to register in the House the progress that has been made on marches in the past week. I think that everyone will be pleased with the progress that was made, on 12 July and in the preceding weeks, and will hope that that progress continues. I pay tribute to the Orange Order, which worked hard—as did the residents, but the Orange Order worked particularly hard—to ensure that this time of year was not violent.

I say at the outset that I know that a number of issues and concerns have been raised about this Bill by the parties in Northern Ireland and people in the House—in particular, suspension versus exclusion, prisoner releases and the timetable for decommissioning. My intention is to cover the detailed points in the Bill, and then to address these concerns more fully.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and US President Clinton have all been actively involved in trying to help the parties to overcome their differences and, as almost anybody engaged in the process will acknowledge, they have worked very hard.

The latest discussions began in Belfast on 25 June, when three important principles were agreed: that an inclusive Executive should be formed, exercising devolved powers; that all paramilitary arms should be decommissioned by May 2000; and that decommissioning should be carried out in a manner determined by the Independent Commission on Decommissioning, under General John de Chastelain.

On 2 July, the two Governments put forward new proposals, based on those agreed principles. As the Prime Minister said in the House at the beginning of last week, the two Governments are proposing the following: the d'Hondt process to nominate Ministers in a new Northern Ireland Executive, to be run this Thursday; following that, devolution of powers will take effect from Sunday; and General John de Chastelain' s commission will then set out the steps required for, and the modalities for achieving, total decommissioning by all paramilitary groups by May next year. Literally within days of devolution, the process of decommissioning is to begin, as specified by the commission, and there is to be a start to actual decommissioning within a few weeks.

The Commission will report progress in September, December and May, but can do so at any other time if it considers that commitments are not being fulfilled.

That, Madam Speaker, is the sequence. In my view, it represents the best way forward. However, I recognise clearly that what really matters to people on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland is certainty. Nationalists and republicans require certainty that they will be welcomed alongside the Unionists. Unionists need certainty that they will not have to sit in an Executive with others if commitments on decommissioning are not met.

The Bill provides that certainty. It contains a failsafe clause—an insurance policy, or guarantee—which says that, if commitments are breached, either on decommissioning or on devolving the institutions set up by the agreement, the agreement will be suspended. In effect, that will rewind the process to where it is today—exactly as the Prime Minister said. We will be back to direct rule, with the Executive brought to an end.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

May I make a little more progress, and then I will? The Bill sets out how this failsafe would work. Let me go into some of the detail, and I will then take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Clause 1 provides for the automatic and immediate suspension of the operation of the institutions established under the Agreement. This will bite if either decommissioning or devolution commitments are not met; in the case of decommissioning, for example, when the Decommissioning Commission reports that there has been a failure to meet a commitment or to take a step that it has laid down. The effect of suspension is that the Assembly will no longer be able to legislate, or to meet, apart from specific circumstances for which the Bill provides.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

In two seconds. Ministers will cease to hold office. The North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council will cease to function under the terms of a supplementary treaty between the two Governments. The draft treaty is available in the Library of the House.

Mr. Robathan

The Secretary of State referred to a few days and a few weeks. Can she tell us exactly how many days and how many weeks?

Marjorie Mowlam

I am sorry to say that it is not my decision. General de Chastelain, who is well respected on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, chairs an independent body and it is his decision as to the time scale. However, he made the position clear in his report on 2 July in which he said that the process would start in a number of days, and actual decommissioning would follow in a number of weeks. He made it clear in the report that he will put down a timetable as to amounts, and it will be clearly laid out. The independent commission making that decision was agreed by all the parties, earlier in June, as the best mechanism to move forward.

Mr. McNamara

My right hon. Friend said that there would be a wind-back to the position that we have now, but that is not quite accurate. In fact, articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution would have been amended and the Anglo-Irish agreement ended.

Marjorie Mowlam

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but, as those points were agreed so long ago, I assumed that they were taken for granted. He is right to say that that will happen, and that the changes to the constitution of the Irish Republic will continue regardless.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have rightly emphasised that the essential safeguard in this whole exercise of trust—because a certain amount has to be taken on trust—is the failsafe mechanism, which is the ultimate protection. I understand the difficulties and the independence of Sir John de Chastelain, but the House is being asked to assess the quality of that failsafe mechanism without, at the moment, being absolutely sure of the benchmarks against which it is to work.

I told the Prime Minister, in a question on the statement he made, that it seemed to me that the only certain benchmark on which anybody could rely was May 2000. Could the Secretary of State arrange, either in her speech or before the end of the debate, for the House to be given the clearest possible guidance as to the thinking of Sir John de Chastelain? Without that, it will be extremely difficult to assess the quality of the failsafe mechanism.

Marjorie Mowlam

The right hon. Gentleman knows that General de Chastelain is independent. One of the difficulties of independent bodies is that one cannot tell them what to do, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the report that General de Chastelain gave at the beginning of July outlines clearly the stages that will be taken. As I have mentioned already, he has said that, after devolution, it will be a number of days before the process begins and at most a number of weeks before the actual process starts. In that report, he says that there will be a timetable with modalities, and outlines the amounts and the time scale that he thinks suitable. That will be there for everybody to see.

General de Chastelain is strongly committed to making progress, and what he has said is there for everyone to read. He has also made it clear that additional reports will be published in September, December and May, and additional ones to those if he feels that commitments are not being made. For those eight months, there is a clear programme already in the statements that he has made.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I wish to pick up the point about rewinding that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) touched on. It is possible to look over past events and to see how brilliantly the IRA has conducted negotiations. The communities on both sides have made major concessions to get to this position, but the IRA has not made any major concessions. The communities made those concessions in the hope that the weapons would be decommissioned.

When there is rewinding, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would give rise to instability to rewind to the position today? Should we not also consider going back on the prisoner release system, so that, if the arms are not delivered, the IRA will lose some of the advantages they have gained in the past year?

Marjorie Mowlam

All sides have made progress and shown a determination to move forward. For example, the republicans and the nationalists have accepted the principle of consent and the changes to the Republic's constitution, both of which are big steps forward. Moreover, the Assembly, perceived as a partitionist body, has been accepted, even though it is not high on the nationalist agenda. It has not been easy for either side, but both have made progress.

As for the point about prisoners, I hope that my right hon. Friend will allow me to make a little progress, as I shall address that matter in some detail in a minute.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

If the hon. Gentleman will give me a chance to make some progress and finish describing the content of the Bill, I shall surely take an intervention from him.

All legislative and executive functions during the suspension period will revert to us here in Westminster. A review, under the terms of the Belfast agreement, will begin as soon as is practicable after the suspension.

Clause 2 deals with the period of the suspension and the procedure for bringing it to an end. Clause 3 requires two meetings of the Assembly to be called during the suspension period—the first within seven days of suspension, without taking a vote; the second within seven days of the end of the review, when the Assembly will debate the outcome of the review and vote on any proposed action. Clause 4 lays down what would happen when devolved government was restored once the suspension was lifted.

Clause 5 deals with the six north-south implementation bodies that will come into being at the point of devolution. As those bodies will have continuing administrative functions, it would not be practicable to suspend them immediately. However, there are two important safeguards.

First, during the suspension, the Governments will not confer any new functions or policy directions on those bodies, nor will they establish any new bodies. Secondly, the draft treaty makes it clear that if, within four months, the suspension has not been ended, the two Governments will agree new arrangements to transfer the bodies' functions to the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic. That is another example of rewinding to the status quo, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said.

As I mentioned at the beginning, a number of specific concerns have been raised with the Government, and particularly with the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), during his consultations with parties, both here and in Northern Ireland.

I shall deal first with the issue of exclusion, which is one of the matters that has been raised. The Bill means that, if anyone fails to meet commitments on either decommissioning or devolution, the Executive will not continue. This we can guarantee absolutely. The Executive will come to an end. That is clear, automatic and irreversible, unless the parties decide differently.

What we cannot do is decide to form a new Executive ourselves. That can be done only by agreement between the parties. Even if we could provide for the automatic exclusion of a party, the same thing would happen. The others would still need to decide whether they wanted to go ahead on their own. There would be no basis under the Good Friday agreement for continuing unless an Executive, with representatives of both communities, could be formed.

Rev. Ian Paisley

When the Secretary of State replied to the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I took it that she said that changes to the constitution of the Irish Republic would still go ahead. However, I am sure that she is aware that the Government in the south of Ireland have made a statement that the matter will be postponed for two years. I want to ask about something that is more important to me—the Government of Ireland Act 1920. What will happen to that? Will it be repealed, or retained?

Marjorie Mowlam

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 will be kept. I do not have the information that the hon. Gentleman says he possesses about the Irish Government changing the date of their constitutional amendment, which I am convinced will still happen according to the given timetable.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

The Secretary of State has spoken about exclusion. Will she confirm that a Minister can be excluded from a future Executive only if there is a cross-community vote in the Assembly under the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998? The Executive can be suspended, but no one can be excluded unless there is a vote to exclude that individual, or an individual party, from holding office.

Marjorie Mowlam

That has always been the case. The new Bill focuses on the situation in which someone in the Executive fails to make the required commitment in line with the de Chastelain timetable, providing an automatic mechanism to mean that that person is out, the Executive stopped and the process suspended.

Mr. Donaldson

Everyone is out.

Marjorie Mowlam

The process means that the Executive is stopped, as a result of which people will not have to share a position on it with those who are not willing to decommission. Matters can proceed in Northern Ireland only when there is a collective Executive. If one party changes, whether it is loyalist or republican, there will be a knock-on effect. We cannot treat parties in isolation, because of the collective impact exclusion would have. That is why the entire Executive would be disbanded. The hon. Gentleman knows that matters would rewind to where we are now. No one would be worse off than they are at present.

Several hon. Members have mentioned prisoners, and I understand the concerns that have been raised on both sides. Prisoner releases are difficult. We all find it hard to deal with them, but it is least easy for those families who have been victims of the troubles. Under the Good Friday agreement, the release of prisoners is linked to the maintenance of paramilitary ceasefires. That is reflected in the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which makes it clear that one of the factors that I should take into account in judging whether ceasefires have been maintained is whether organisations benefiting are co-operating fully with the Decommissioning Commission.

I can assure the House that, in the overall judgments that I have to make about whether ceasefires are holding, I shall pay increasingly close attention to the extent to which an organisation is co-operating with the commission. That test will become tougher as time goes on.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The Secretary of State correctly says that one of the criteria that she must consider under the 1998 Act is whether an organisation is co-operating with the de Chastelain commission. May I direct her attention to clause 1(1)(a)(ii) of the new Bill, which makes one of the bases for a report a failure to take any step required by the commission? Anyone failing to co-operate with the commission would fall within the terms of the Bill, which provides for automatic suspension. Cannot the Secretary of State say that the remedy with regard to prisoners will be just as swift and certain as that provided by the Bill?

Marjorie Mowlam

I cannot rewrite the agreement, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. There is a clear relationship between prisoner releases and ceasefire; there is not that relationship between the accelerated release of prisoners and decommissioning. That is what the Bill states and that is my understanding of it.

Those are matters of judgment; but the judgment as to whether a group is on ceasefire is part of the process of whether it is decommissioning in line with the Independent Commission on Decommissioning. If the group is said not to be following the directions of the decommissioning body, of course I will take it into account, but it is one of a number of factors. As I said, that factor will become more testing as time goes by.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

No, I want to make a little more progress.

Finally, on a timetable for decommissioning, the agreement provides for the independent commission to have a key role. In its report of 2 July, it said that it is prepared to define a timetable for decommissioning of arms by the main paramilitary groups", and that such groups will be expected to adhere to it to ensure completion by…May 2000. If we want to go outside the de Chastelain process, one thing is clear: decommissioning will not happen. A process for decommissioning to take place alongside de Chastelain is outlined in the agreement.

In articles in the papers and elsewhere, hon. Members have expressed the view that the process should happen more quickly. Unless it is in line with the Good Friday agreement, there is not a chance of decommissioning happening. That is what the parties have signed up to and that is our best bet for making progress.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I am anxious to be clear before I vote on the timetable. Earlier, the right hon. Lady said that the Government cannot dictate the timetable. Now she has said that the Decommissioning Commission will produce one, but it has not already done so. Will it be possible by the time we vote tonight to know exactly we are being asked to vote for—exactly when these things will happen? If not, there surely cannot be any guarantee.

Marjorie Mowlam

I make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, General de Chastelain has made it very clear that he will put in place a full timetable after devolution is in place and when he is talking to all the groups. However, in his statement of the 2nd, he made it patently clear that a decommissioning process will start within days of devolution and that the first act of decommissioning will be within weeks—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen keep shouting, "How many days? How many weeks?" What we have here is the best chance—the best option—for getting not merely a token gesture of decommissioning but a process that will start now and will be completed by May 2000.

Any past suggestion has been a token gesture. Why this is the best option that we have had to make real peace in Northern Ireland derives from the fact that it will be a timetable for complete decommissioning by May 2000. That is worth taking a risk for. It is a risk, I accept that. It is partially a risk—

Several hon. Members


Marjorie Mowlam

Let me finish. It is partially a risk because it is saying that, after d'Hondt on Thursday and devolution on Saturday, it will be a matter of days before the process starts and a matter of weeks before actual decommissioning starts. Is that too long to wait to find out whether this process can work? We will know who is serious—we will know which side is not going to fulfil its agreement—within weeks. That is worth doing to find out whether we can get real decommissioning.

Several hon. Members


Marjorie Mowlam

I will make a little more progress.

As many people have said, the present difficulties in Northern Ireland are about confidence—about offering guarantees to both sides that devolution and decommissioning will happen. What this process offers is a legal guarantee to both sides. We have said before that the process needs more confidence and more trust. Over the next couple of weeks, with the legal guarantee that whoever does not fulfil either decommissioning under the timetable set by de Chastelain or the devolution commitment to put in place the institutions, we have a chance to see who is serious, who will honour their commitment and who will not. This is a chance and a test—

Mr. Beggs

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Marjorie Mowlam

This will be the last time.

Mr. Beggs

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. Does she realise that the impression that has been given over the past 12 months is that she, as Secretary of State, and others have been prepared to turn a completely blind eye to murder, beating and mutilation, and to the number of families who have been intimidated and driven out of the country? What does she say to those who formed that impression? How can she give us confidence that serious activity by terrorist organisations will not be ignored in the future?

Marjorie Mowlam

For the past couple of months, I have been implementing the Good Friday agreement, for which the people of Northern Ireland voted. In addition, the Bill gives guarantees to both sides that, if decommissioning is not honoured and if devolution is not honoured, they do not have to sit in the Executive with people who have not decommissioned. That is a worthwhile guarantee; within weeks, we shall know if that is serious.

As for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about allowing murders to continue, I find that slightly offensive. I guarantee to him that, week after week, I ensure that I talk to the security forces and to the police. Ten days ago, the Chief Constable said that he thought that he disagreed with nothing that I have said or done. I have listened carefully to advice; I do not listen to gossip, rumour or unfounded allegations. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if I receive evidence that people are murdering or beating, and if it is evidence that I can act on, I shall do so. I will not shirk that responsibility.

I believe that the end is potentially in sight. At present, we have an historic choice before us. It will give us the chance to move forward in a way that has not been possible before. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.32 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

I start on a personal note by thanking the Secretary of State, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), and the Prime Minister for the consideration that they have shown my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and myself in taking us, step by step, through the latest developments. As I shall point out later, there are matters of doubt and disagreement, but we appreciate the courtesy that has been shown to us.

The measure inevitably goes back to the Belfast agreement. I emphasise again that the Opposition wholeheartedly support the agreement; we supported it when it was brokered a year ago last Easter, and we do so unreservedly today. However, we have always maintained—as has the Prime Minister—that we cannot dine a la carte on that agreement. It only works if it all hangs together; it was a huge compromise and everybody has to play their part.

We strongly endorsed elements of the agreement: the constitutional change in the Republic, which meant that it no longer had a legal claim over the north and that it allowed the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own future; and the setting up of a devolved Administration so that, after so many years of direct rule, the people of Northern Ireland—or, more significantly, their elected politicians—were able to have a considerable say in running their part of the United Kingdom. We were especially anxious to ensure that there would be decommissioning of all weapons illegally held by paramilitaries, whether republican or loyalist, and that there would be a total end to violence.

What we did not like, but reluctantly swallowed because it was part of the total package, was the early release of terrorist prisoners back on to the streets. We fully understood when the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister started to release those prisoners back on to the streets after the House passed the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998: it was clear that the Government had to show their good will and their commitment to the men of violence before they would start to decommission.

However, by the end of September, a significant number of terrorists had been released early and there was no sign of any decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by any of the paramilitaries whose political associates had signed up to the agreement. Since the end of September onwards, the Leader of the Opposition and I have continually called on the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to halt the early release of terrorist prisoners until there is decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives.

A bargain was struck in Belfast last Good Friday, and both sides have to keep to that bargain for it to work—it has to be balanced. The Secretary of State says that decommissioning only had to take place over a two-year period ending May 2000. I put it to her that any reasonable observer would say that, if people are supposed to decommission all their illegally held arms and explosives over a two-year period, the fact that not one gun or one ounce of Semtex has been decommissioned after 14 months of that two-year period, which is the stage we are at now, indicates that the paramilitary parties have failed to fulfil their part of the bargain, so it would be right and proper for a halt to take place in the Government's early release of terrorist prisoners.

Marjorie Mowlam

The Good Friday agreement says that decommissioning is an obligation, not a precondition. We all want decommissioning to happen as quickly as possible, but there was no timetable in the Good Friday agreement. What the deal gives us is a timetable from next week for full decommissioning. That is the difference and why this is a good Bill to have.

Mr. MacKay

I put it to the Secretary of State that I wish that that were so, but there is no specific timetable in the legislation. If I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall move amendments to the Bill—

Mr. Donaldson

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

I shall respond to the Secretary of State first and then give way. There is no specific timetable in the Bill, and we want to ensure that there is. I shall elaborate on that later in my speech. Meanwhile, I give way to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson).

Mr. Donaldson

On the question of what is meant by decommissioning and when it should happen, may I quote from a letter from the Prime Minister to my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of my party? It is dated 10 April—Good Friday—last year and is signed in the Prime Minister's own handwriting. It states: Furthermore, I confirm that in our view the effect of the decommissioning section of the agreement, with decommissioning schemes coming into effect in June, is that the process of decommissioning should begin straight away.

Mr. MacKay

I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says: that the Prime Minister, who obviously and genuinely wants decommissioning to take place as soon as possible, just as I do, has made commitments—including the commitment in that letter to the First Minister designate—which, to be frank, have not been fulfilled.

Mr. McCartney


Mr. MacKay

I shall give way once more but, because we are time limited, it must be the last time.

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that one of the most telling factors in the referendum campaign were the public pledges given in the Prime Minister's own handwriting that there would be a direct nexus between decommissioning and the release of prisoners; and that those pledges remain dishonoured and unfulfilled?

Mr. MacKay

The hon. and learned Gentleman might recall that the Leader of the Opposition and I were campaigning for a yes vote in the Province on the same day as the Prime Minister made his handwritten pledges. I welcomed those pledges, and I think that they made a significant difference in ensuring a yes vote in both communities. Since then, many people in Northern Ireland who voted yes have felt badly let down. Today, we have an opportunity to put that right, if our amendments are passed.

If we had been listened to, and if decommissioning had started because of the halt to terrorist prisoner releases, we would have no need for this debate and legislation today. We all want a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, and we want it to include the maximum number of people of the widest diversity. We want it to be inclusive. We certainly want it to include all those who were elected to the Assembly and have sufficient seats to become Ministers under the d'Hondt formula.

To ask the people of Northern Ireland and my Unionist friends to sit in a devolved Executive with Ministers who represent paramilitaries who have not begun to decommission is a very tall order, as I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree. That is why the Leader of the Opposition and I have continually said that everyone must jump together. In other words, Ministers should be appointed only when decommissioning has started. That is why I so strongly commended the Prime Minister's Hillsborough declaration, in which he and the Taoiseach said categorically, after lengthy negotiations with all the parties in Northern Ireland last Easter, that, if decommissioning started, ministerial appointments would be made.

Sadly, through no fault of the Prime Minister, the Hillsborough declaration was not implemented. It is worth noting why. It was because the paramilitaries and their political friends, both republican and loyalist, refused point blank to decommission. The Prime Minister had, therefore, to go back to the drawing board and had extensive, and no doubt exhaustive, discussions with all the political parties in the Province.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

I should like to finish this point, and then I shall certainly give way.

The Prime Minister had exhaustive discussions with all the political parties only a few weeks ago. At the end of those discussions, he came up with a blueprint that invited the House and Unionists to set up an Executive in which Unionists and others would sit as Ministers with Sinn Fein representatives, without any decommissioning. I found that unacceptable. However, the Prime Minister then said, "There will be failsafes. I am inviting you to set up the Executive and, within a few days, there will certainly be penalties for any of the paramilitaries who do not decommission." That, I reluctantly concluded, was the only way forward.

We therefore supported the Government because, as the Prime Minister eloquently said on the steps of Stormont, in an article in The Sunday Times and at the Dispatch Box a week last Monday, that would put whoever was not prepared to move forward completely on the spot. Under those circumstances, providing that the agreement was legally binding, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State would have had our wholehearted support and we would have advised Unionists and others to agree to be Ministers in that Executive.

I shall quote from the significant article by the Prime Minister in The Sunday Times of 5 July. He said: Within days of devolution, the paramilitary organisations, including the IRA, must notify intention to decommission. If they don't there's a failsafe that unwinds devolution. Within weeks they must decommission. The process is then verified by an independent commission, headed by the highly respected General de Chastelain. I agree wholeheartedly with all that. The Prime Minister continued: This failsafe will be put in legislation and made automatic". One can imagine our disappointment, then, when the failsafes were not included in the legislation that we finally saw early yesterday evening.

Mr. Mallon

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

I shall specify which failsafes are missing, and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. I want to make it very clear why we believe that the failsafes promised by the Prime Minister are not in the proposed legislation, and why we shall be seeking to amend the Bill to ensure that they are. When the Bill is amended, we will vote enthusiastically for its Third Reading.

Three failsafes are missing. First, there is no tight, transparent timetable in the Bill. We are being asked to rely on various remarks of the respected independent General de Chastelain, and hope that he will produce a timetable. That could lead to a fudge, and the Prime Minister knows that. We want a timetable in the legislation. Then we can judge whether any paramilitaries are failing to decommission in time. We must have a tight, verifiable timetable.

Secondly, if the IRA fails to decommission on time—I sincerely hope that it decommissions so that Sinn Fein can play its full role in the Executive—it should be automatically excluded from the Executive. As the Bill is drafted, the whole Executive and the whole Assembly would be closed down and suspended. I have never known of a situation in which everybody is punished equally. Those who have done no wrong and who have fulfilled their obligations would be punished in exactly the same way as those who failed to fulfil their obligations by not decommissioning. That cannot be fair and equitable.

We require a third and final failsafe. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister will agree that only some of the paramilitary parties are the slightest bit interested in the Assembly or the Executive. Only the Provisional IRA, through Sinn Fein, is interested in the Assembly and the Executive, and only the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Progressive Unionist party are interested in the Assembly. None of the others has any political representation in the Assembly, so there is no punishment for them. As the Bill is drafted, the Loyalist Volunteer Force could fail to decommission on time and bring the whole pack of cards tumbling down. That cannot be right.

It is not reasonable to ask the Provisional IRA to decommission, if we cannot be certain that the loyalist paramilitaries will also decommission. We would be asking republicans to disarm when their own people, as they would put it, would be fearful of attack from loyalist thugs, terrorists and paramilitaries but have no means of defending themselves.

So, it is absolutely essential that, if any paramilitary group fails to decommission on time, its terrorist prisoner release is immediately halted by the Government. That is the only sanction that we have against them, and we need it not just to protect the democrats and the democratic process, but to assure the republicans that there will be loyalist decommissioning as well and that their own people will not be unduly exposed.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) has been very patient, and I shall now give way to him.

Mr. Mallon

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; I indeed have grown patient. Will he explain his espousal of the Hillsborough declaration, which was also espoused by the Unionist parties, with only a little token decommissioning, no de Chastelain report and a commitment to run the d'Hondt system on that Maundy Thursday and for an Executive to be up and running by the end of Easter, but his refusal to accept this proposal, which contains not only the de Chastelain report but the commitment of de Chastelain reports on four different occasions, a beginning, a middle and an end to decommissioning and a failsafe device if that is not met?

Mr. MacKay

I can straightforwardly explain that. In a perfect world all of us, including the hon. Gentleman, would prefer decommissioning to be going ahead at the same time as ministerial appointments, and that is why we supported the Hillsborough declaration.

We are now being offered that Ministers be appointed to the Executive with no certainty that there will be decommissioning in future, and the possibility of a fudge. That fudge will be removed if our amendments are passed. It will then be legally binding that there will be a timetable, the exclusion of Sinn Fein if the IRA does not decommission, and the halting of terrorist prisoner releases for any paramilitary group, loyalist or republican, that does not decommission on time. These are true failsafes that would avoid a fudge and ensure that the proposed legislation moves forward.

The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are absolutely right when they say that there is a lack of trust. We know after nearly 30 years of troubles in the Province that trust is in desperately short supply. To paraphrase, Unionists do not trust the IRA to decommission at all, and republicans, and quite probably some constitutional nationalists, do not believe in their heart of hearts that the Unionists will ever agree to share power or to be Ministers in an Executive with nationalists or republicans, and certainly with Sinn Fein.

The Secretary of State and I will never be able to persuade those people, because the trust is not there. The only way forward is to have legislation of the sort that is being introduced today, where there are copper-bottomed guarantees and failsafes in law so that those concerned are not taking my word for it, nor the right hon. Lady's, nor even the Prime Minister's or General de Chastelain's. They will have it in law, in statute and in an Act of Parliament that has been passed by the House of Commons that, if anyone reneges on his obligations, he will be fully penalised.

It is a crying shame that that is not the position at present because there is a real possibility of moving forward in a way that we have been unable to do before, and having proper, inclusive, devolved government in Northern Ireland combined with the decommissioning of illegally held weapons and an end to violence. It is so close; it is a pity that the Bill is flawed and will not allow that to happen.

4.52 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

As the Secretary of State said in her introductory remarks, the Bill is to give effect to the declaration made on 2 July by the Prime Minister in association with the Irish Prime Minister. In that declaration, the Prime Minister is asking us to take part in an Executive with Sinn Fein in advance of decommissioning. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we are reluctant to do so. Our reluctance will be portrayed by some as an unwillingness to share in an Administration with Catholics or nationalists. That is untrue.

The d'Hondt formula, which will produce an inclusive Executive, was the proposal of the Ulster Unionist party. The concept of proportionality goes back to the proposals made by Jim Molyneaux, as he then was, and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1987. The administration of the shadow Assembly, over the course of the past year, has been conducted jointly by myself and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). Last Friday, our Ulster Unionist executive explicitly endorsed the concept of an inclusive Administration. I mention this so that no one should be taken in by the Sinn Fein lie on this point.

Nor do we have an absolute objection to those with a terrorist past. We know that people can change and that having a past does not disentitle one from a future, but it places an onus on those concerned to show that the past has been left behind. I recall that, a few days after becoming leader of my party, I was happy to welcome into our headquarters a politician who was once a republican activist. I had good reason to know that he had left that past behind him. He is not the only former republican activist with whom I have been willing to work. Our problem is not with former terrorists; it is about taking an existing and active terrorist organisation into government, for that is what Her Majesty's Government now propose.

To meet that concern, the Government offer what they call a failsafe mechanism. As I said on 2 July, that mechanism is flawed and unfair—unfair because, if Sinn Fein breaks its obligations, everyone in the Executive is ejected from office. As the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) said, the innocent are punished along with the guilty, and the democrats are treated as though they were indistinguishable from the terrorists.

The fair response is obvious and has been mentioned. The offending party should be removed. If that were in the Bill, it would go a long way to making it acceptable, but it is not. Why not? The answer given by the Prime Minister in his newspaper article, to which we have heard reference, is that he cannot compel any party to remain in the Executive. In the circumstances, the implication is obvious. The implication is that the SDLP does not want to sit with us, if it means being apart from Sinn Fein.

Why arrange matters in the legislation so that that position is concealed, while we are forced to a public choice? The answer to the second question comes from a study of clauses 3 and 4 of the Bill. They provide for a review, which is arranged and carefully structured to be equally open to two different outcomes. One is that Sinn Fein is excluded, and the other is that the default is waived and the original Executive is reconstituted.

We are left with the suspicion that this arrangement has been made to hold out the prospect that we can be pressured into waiving the failure to decommission—that decommissioning can, as it has been throughout this process, simply be moved into the next phase. We are left with the suspicion that that is the Government's intention. I have tabled amendments that would cure that flaw, and I invite the Government to accept them.

The mechanism itself is flawed. There is no certainty about it. Yes, the Secretary of State is made subject to a duty, and rightly so, because the Government know that after the way in which she has disregarded those matters which, under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, she should have taken into account, no Unionist would have any faith in her judgment.

However, decommissioning itself is not subject to any precise duty. Clause 1(1) refers to commitments. Those are defined as commitments under the agreement or the joint statement, but does that involve any clear commitment, short of completing decommissioning by May 2000?

The Secretary of State has attached weight to statements given by General de Chastelain who said that, in his view, the procedures should begin within a few days, and actual decommissioning should begin within a few weeks; but can it be said that there are commitments to that, and that those constitute commitments under the statement, for the purposes of the Bill? In any event, we know only too well how republicans can spin out procedures.

It would be beneficial if people looked carefully at the decommissioning scheme. It does not refer to timetables. Timetables have been mentioned, but there is no explicit reference in the decommissioning scheme to a timetable. The nearest that we come to it is in paragraph 12 of the decommissioning scheme, which states: The Commission may make such arrangements as it considers appropriate to facilitate the decommissioning of arms. I repeat: such arrangements as it considers appropriate to facilitate decommissioning.

It may be possible to stretch that language to include a timetable, but can it then be said that there is a commitment to that timetable for the purposes of the Bill? The arrangements will have to be proof against legal challenge. A further flaw is that they depend on the judgment of the commission. Although I have every faith in John de Chastelain as a person, I am well aware of how procedures can be exploited and how timetables can be stretched. Again, I have tabled amendments on that which will cure that flaw. Again, we invite the Government to consider them.

That is not the only flaw in the arrangement. As the right hon. Member for Bracknell has said, decommissioning must be mutual. We expect republicans to decommission. Equally, loyalists must decommission. It would be difficult to expect republicans to go through with decommissioning if loyalists refused to reciprocate. Although one has to say that republicans have a bigger arsenal and they could start, there must still be that mutuality. The Bill has a sanction for republican default—specifically Sinn Fein-IRA default—but there is no sanction for loyalist default or, indeed, default by the Irish National Liberation Army. It and the loyalists are not likely to be in the Executive and one loyalist party—and, indeed, the INLA's party, if it still exists—is not even in the Assembly. The only sanction there can be for other paramilitary groups is in respect of prisoners' release.

The Secretary of State has hinted that that sanction would be applied in the exercise of her discretion under the existing legislation, but, as I pointed out to her, the sanction in the Bill against republicans is automatic. In my view, the sanction against other paramilitaries ought to be equally automatic and it is of course open to the Government to amend the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 to do that. Again, amendments have been tabled which would have that effect.

There are other flaws—many others—but I do not want to go through them all in detail; I shall pick out just a few. The statement made by the Prime Minister referred to suspending the operation of the institutions of the agreement, but the legislation leaves out many of those institutions. It leaves out the civic forum, the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission, the commission on policing and the revue of criminal justice. They are also institutions of the agreement. There is a simple message here, which I hope will have some appeal to Labour Members—one out, all out.

Much worse than those omissions is what appeared on reading the Bill to be the deliberate continuation of the north-south implementation arrangements in direct defiance of the agreement. The Secretary of State has referred to a draft treaty lodged in the Library. That is the first bit of information that we have had about that. I shall endeavour, when I can, to look at that document to see whether it is effective. I am sorry that she did not see fit to inform us about that important matter on which we had already made representations to the Northern Ireland Office and the Government.

Despite the flaws in this option, there are those who would say to us that we should put the matters to the test anyway. It has been said that we have nothing to lose and would gain by exposing republicans. I can see two ways in which it is possible that we could gain. First, if it were clear that actual decommissioning would occur—and did in fact occur within a few weeks, as I would define "few"—then not only us but society as a whole in Northern Ireland would gain, because we could then say that the situation had clearly turned the corner and we would be able to proceed in Northern Ireland in a wholly peaceful and wholly inclusive manner. That is a prize worth obtaining and there would be advantage—not only to us, but to republicans and nationalists as well. Indeed, I have not been able to understand why republicans have not been prepared to move on that matter with us, as we have repeatedly offered to do.

I suspect that the explanation for republicans' failure to move with us on that matter is that they still have hopes of being able to bring the entire republican movement—their so-called army as well as their party, inextricably linked as they are—together into the heart of government. That would carry with it the danger of creating a Mafia state and it would also retain, if only for a future generation, the option of using violence to finish the job. That explanation, to our way of thinking, is reinforced by the complete absence of any evidence of what the Prime Minister called a seismic shift in republicanism. We have looked, and we will continue to look with an open mind, for signs of such a move. We would like it to happen, but we will guard against the wish being father to the thought.

The second way in which it is possible that we would gain would be if, in the event of a failure to decommission, the SDLP decided to form an Administration without Sinn Fein, but in view of the structure of clauses 3 and 4 of the Bill, and the constant equivocation about that by nationalism generally, the prospect is not inviting. I do not want to go into too much detail on this issue, but I have to say that it is sad that a party that asks us to gamble cannot tell us what its position will be in certain clearly defined circumstances that are perhaps only a few weeks away. It is not a matter of prejudging something in unknown circumstances or writing a blank cheque, although we were offered one a few months ago. It would be easier for us all if the SDLP could muster a fraction of the courage that it attributes to us.

Those two ways in which it is possible that we could gain from this measure now seem unlikely. In all other ways we would lose. Undertaking such a gamble would mean putting an enormous strain on society as a whole, and on Unionism in particular. In undertaking such a gamble, one would sacrifice an important principle involving the integrity of the democratic process. It is stated several times in the Belfast agreement that only those who are committed to peaceful, democratic means should hold office. It would clearly be wrong to place in government those with a private army.

I can illustrate the problem that would arise quite simply. Under the Government's proposals, we could easily have in Belfast a Sinn Fein Minister of Health in charge of, among other things, an anti-drugs policy, while his colleagues in the IRA continued to use the threat of armed force—and, who knows, perhaps even the Minister's advice—to enable them to control and exploit the supply of illegal drugs.

We summed up this whole issue in the phrase: "no guns handed in, no hand in government." We know that matters are not always as clear cut as we would like. That is why, on 10 April last year, we accepted an agreement that has unsatisfactory aspects, as the right hon. Member for Bracknell said. Moreover, the agreement's provisions on decommissioning contained ambiguities. I considered that there was enough time for republicans to establish their intentions, and I was fortified by the fact that the Prime Minister publicly shared my construction of those provisions as requiring a beginning of decommissioning in June 1998.

The agreement divided Unionism. I thought that, as the benefits of the agreement came through, support for it would grow. Instead, over the past 15 months, the perception of Unionism has been that matters have not improved. None the less, I consider that what I did then was right. I still want the agreement to succeed, but I remain to be convinced that the right way to do it is through this hastily concocted scheme, which clearly has not been thought through.

We must take account of the possibility that individuals or a movement are in the process of evolution, and that, given time and space, could change. We know that our objectives can be achieved in a variety of ways. If there was a clear, watertight scheme, in which there was at the outset an unequivocal commitment to change and a process that genuinely guaranteed to deliver that change, we would have to consider whether a scruple over a period of days could be justified. We do not have that option before us today.

The House should seriously consider whether the haste with which this measure has been presented is really needed, or whether it would be better to have more time and to proceed on a sounder basis. I have no doubt that that would be a better way to proceed, just as I have no doubt that we should all tell the paramilitaries that the right way forward is not for democrats constantly to have to bend to the requirements of paramilitaries, but for paramilitaries to accept the opportunity this process offers them of becoming fully and genuinely partners in the democratic process.

5.9 pm

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

I should like to begin by expressing our deep appreciation and gratitude to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and Ministers for the enormously detailed work that they have put into this matter—the most serious human problem facing this Government, as it was for previous Governments. We are deeply grateful to them for the efforts that they are making, particularly to break the present impasse. I regret that the debate is taking place, because if one were watching these proceedings and did not know Northern Ireland, one would get the impression that no progress had been made at all, whereas in fact there has been enormous progress in the past few years and the atmosphere on our streets has been transformed. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who laid the foundations for this approach, and made an enormous contribution.

In recent weeks, we have heard major statements from the business community, the trade union movement, community groups and the youth movement, calling on the political leadership to keep working to build on the progress already made rather than arguing and quarrelling all the time. I hope that we shall be doing that soon.

As well as the transformation of the atmosphere on our streets, where there is now peace, what is interesting is the strength of the call from young people for a continuation of the process. Most people under the age of 30 have never known anything other than the troubles on our streets, and no one knows better than they how much progress has been made. The youth movement is sending strong messages to us.

The most important aspect of what has happened is that, in the case of the Good Friday agreement, the final word was not with the politicians but with the people. That was an historic development: for the first time in our history, the people of Ireland—north and south—with a vote spoke on how they wished to share that piece of earth.

Listening to some people, one would think that the agreement constituted the appeasement of certain extremists. Central to it, however, was a transformation of nationalist thinking right across Ireland, north and south—and that included Sinn Fein. It is totally accepted that it is the people of the island who are divided, and that agreement is the only way in which to solve the problem. That agreement must involve the allegiance and loyalty of both sections of our people.

As the Secretary of State pointed out, what is central is the complete acceptance of the principle of consent by all the parties from the nationalist tradition. That is a major step forward. What has not gone, however—this is obvious from the debate, and has been mentioned by several speakers on both sides of the House—is the distrust that exists between both sections of our community. Given the centuries of quarrelling, it is natural enough, in a sense, for such distrust to exist; but part of our task for the future is to erode it.

The people voted overwhelmingly for the agreement. We hear a good deal of talk about democracy here. If we are true democrats, what is our duty? It is to implement the will of the people in all its aspects and, therefore, to implement all aspects of the agreement. The two Governments have been dealing with the current impasse preventing such implementation.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Is the hon. Gentleman telling us that, when the majority of people of Northern Ireland voted in favour of the Good Friday agreement, they were, in effect, voting for terrorists in government? Surely they were not; they were voting to remove terror from their community through decommissioning.

Mr. Hume

To be honest, I do not need a lesson from you about such matters. I do not know how you interpreted my remarks in that way. What I am saying is—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that if he says "you" he is addressing the Chair.

Mr. Hume

I am sorry about that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but, as I said, I do not understand why I was interpreted in that way. I was saying, and saying very clearly, that it was our duty to implement the will of the people, which means implementing the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects. The basis of the agreement is the provision of lasting peace and stability on our streets, and the removal of violence from our streets for keeps. That is what it is about.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the difficulty that we face today is that the agreement that was endorsed in the referendum meant very different things to very different sections of the community, and the absence of clarity on what it actually meant means that all the chickens are coming home to roost today?

Mr. Hume

I do not think that there are two meanings of the word "peace". The agreement meant peace and stability to the people and they came out in strength. Let me put it like this. Who could have thought five years ago that the people of Ireland as a whole—71 per cent. of the people of the north and 93 per cent. of the people of the south—would agree on how we live together in that island, and what democratic institutions should be there to represent them? That is the powerful progress that has been made. It is our duty not to let the impasse erode it.

Of course, part of the task of moving forward, as I have already said, is eroding the distrust. There is one solid way in which to do that. When the impasse occurred, the two Governments met and set out three principles which all parties agreed to—the Unionists, Sinn Fein and ourselves agreed to those three principles. The first principle was moving into setting up the inclusive Executive. Of course, let us not forget that that is a very important factor in our future, because, for the first time in our history, all sections of our people will work together. It is by working together that we will start to see the real solution.

The institutions that we are setting up are a framework. The first principle of our peace process is respect for our differences—no victory for either side. The second is the creation of institutions that can achieve that. That creates a framework, but it does not remove the distrust of centuries. That distrust will be removed only when both sections of our people start working together—as I often put it, spilling their sweat and not their blood. By doing that, we will break down the barrier. That is the first principle set out to us by the two Prime Ministers—to get inclusivity, because inclusivity is, indeed, important.

Let me make it clear: there is no circumstance in which either my party or I would sit in government with any other party that is either engaged in violence or threatening violence. That has been our consistent position since we were founded as a party. As everyone knows, we have been in the front line against violence throughout our existence.

The second principle that was agreed was that the decommissioning would take place by May next year, according to a timetable laid out in the agreement. The third principle was that it would be carried out by an independent commission of experts. The arguments about decommissioning that have gone on here today and in the past months were going on earlier, too. Remember that the talks process lasted two years. Going through all that, it was very obvious that we could not reach agreement on how to handle the decommissioning thing, and that the best way of dealing with it was to bring in an independent commission of experts.

We have that commission of experts. Let those experts do the work and report. When they report, let us consider their report and let us take decisions based on the realities that they tell us, not on the distrust of both sections of our community.

Mr. Donaldson


Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)


Mr. William Cash (Stone)


Mr. Hume

I give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

May I ask the hon. Member for Hume to whom he is giving way? [Interruption.] I apologise; I mean the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume).

Mr. Hume

I will not make the remark that I was thinking of about all of them, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but let one of them go ahead.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The hon. Gentleman says that his party would not sit in government with those who use or threaten violence. Would he, for the sake of clarity, interpret to the House whether he considers holding on to an arsenal of weapons to be the threat of violence?

Mr. Hume

We are totally committed to the Good Friday agreement, which contains a total commitment to total demilitarisation, total disarmament and total decommissioning. We want to see that done, now. As we know, however, given our history, it is not an easy thing to do.

Decommissioning is not the most important factor in ending violence, as one could decommission on Monday but secretly buy more guns on Tuesday—[Interruption.] That is true. What is very important is that those who say that they have ended violence mean it and are practising it. We want the gun to be taken completely out of our society, and, within the established time frame, we want there to be total demilitarisation, disarmament and decommissioning. We want that to be done to the satisfaction of a commission of experts. That is how we have approached the matter, and that is how we should approach it.

Ultimately, we have to deal with the distrust. Therefore, the sooner we resolve this impasse, have an inclusive Executive, and start working together, the better.

I also hope that the House—I am now appealing to Opposition Members—will keep bipartisanship strong. The issue that we are debating should never be a source of party politics. We want bipartisanship to be maintained, and I should hope that the issue—given the role of human nature in our terrible problem—rises above party politics.

I should give some advice—

Mr. Donaldson

Will you listen to some advice?

Mr. Hume

The advice that I should like to give to both the Leader of the Opposition and his spokesman, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), is that you might occasionally check the opinions of other sections of Northern Ireland. The Leader of the Opposition should take a lesson from his predecessor, who not only laid the foundations for our peace process, but, throughout, kept himself fully informed of the opinions of different parties. Never yet has the Social Democratic and Labour party had a meeting with the new leadership of the Conservative party. What does that say about their real interest in our situation?

I appeal to the Conservative leadership: get yourselves informed. If you were fully informed on the different shades of opinion, you might take a more sensitive approach to the problem.

I hope that all of us will now take it as our duty to implement the will of our people and use all of our energies in doing so—to resolve the impasses to the satisfaction of all sides. The sooner that we do that, and the sooner we start working together, the sooner we will start really solving the problem.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I should say that I hope that I shall listen to the words and advice of all hon. Members.

5.23 pm
Mr. John Major (Huntingdon)

If today passes with some well-meaning platitudes from all of us but without some hard questions, I think that we shall have lost a very precious opportunity. Today is a day to say what hitherto has not been said, and for more than one party present today to do what hitherto has not been done. For generations, men and women of both traditions have been murdered in Northern Ireland by paramilitaries. After years of work, with many of the people who have worked on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, we are on the verge of a settlement.

Is it not perverse that, at the very last hurdle, it is one of the democratic political parties—the Ulster Unionists—that is being urged, quite predominantly, to take one more risk on the good faith of a paramilitary group, the IRA? We should not be surprised that that is so. It shows that democrats demand more of one another than they do of those to whom democracy has long been an alien concept.

In our history, however, the House has often had to deal with unsavoury groups in a good cause. Making peace is a messy business, and no one should doubt that for a second. The trick is to bring the anti-democrats within the democratic embrace. That is why the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party are today facing so much pressure. Before this day is out, other parties, such as the Social Democratic and Labour party, will face pressure as well on their views on the matter. But as that happens, let us not turn logic on its head. The democratic political parties do not have Semtex. They do not murder. They are part of the solution; they are not part of the problem.

If we are to pressurise the democrats—and there is pressure on democrats—there must be safeguards for democracy. That is what the Bill is about. Essentially, the Bill is asking the democratic political parties to sit in government in Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein before the IRA has disarmed or destroyed a single weapon. It does so for this reason—explicitly to create the circumstances in which it is believed the IRA may disarm, or so we hope.

When Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness say that they will use their influence on the IRA, why do we take them seriously? Who do we think they are? Why do we think that they have influence? To whom do we think they talk? It is said that Sinn Fein is no part of the IRA—although, in the parts of Northern Ireland that I have visited, there are many dogs on the street who would not accept that.

If Sinn Fein had no influence with the IRA, it would be but a tiny political group, of much less importance than those represented in this House. If Sinn Fein does have influence with the IRA, however, let us realise with whom democracy will be sitting down in the power-sharing Executive. That is why Sinn Fein must be expelled if there is no disarmament by the IRA. I wish the Executive to succeed, but I wish it to succeed not for a day or for a month, but for good. In my judgment, it will never be secure if it is dependent on paramilitary organisations not returning to violence if they fail to get their way in the power-sharing Executive.

The question before us today is straightforward. Should the risk be taken to go ahead? Let me pose four questions upon which the judgment on the Bill must be made. First, if the IRA does not disarm, is Sinn Fein automatically expelled from the Executive? The answer to that question is no. An expulsion mechanism is automatic, but expulsion is not. Expulsion ultimately depends on the Northern Ireland Assembly.

General de Chastelain reports that the disarmament pledge has been broken. All institutions are suspended from Executive action. The Assembly, in a non-Executive role, can meet and debate this. The Governments review it and report. The Assembly then considers that review and decides. However, even then, the expulsion of Sinn Fein would need cross-party support, with 60 per cent. of both main traditions voting to expel—as would be the case, of course, with any Protestant paramilitary group as well.

On this point, the leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), has been crystal clear all along, and he was equally clear again this afternoon—the SDLP will not sit down with terrorists. We can assume, therefore, that, in such circumstances, the SDLP would vote to expel. I accept unequivocally that that would be the position of the hon. Gentleman and his party.

However, I hope that the SDLP will make a further contribution, which I believe would be of reassurance to this House and to other democratic parties—that, if those circumstances unfortunately arise and it passes a vote, with others, to expel Sinn Fein from the Executive, the SDLP will commit itself to stay in the Executive and the Assembly. If it does not, all of us in the House know that both those bodies will be unsustainable and will collapse.

If we are to move forward, everyone in the House will have to take risks—there is no one for whom there is no risk. I hope that the risk that the hon. Member for Foyle will take on behalf of his party is to commit himself to keeping the Executive and the Assembly in being if it proves necessary to expel any paramilitary group—specifically Sinn Fein, because the IRA has not disarmed. If the hon. Gentleman does not do that, the danger is that the failure of a paramilitary group—the IRA—to disarm will bring down the democratic Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, and democracy, this House, the process, Northern Ireland and the future will all be the losers. That is a crucial point.

The second point concerns General de Chastelain. On behalf of this House, he will talk directly to the IRA and to the Protestant paramilitary groups. He will agree what we call the modalities of disarmament. I expect that he will agree that the paramilitaries can destroy their own weapons, provided that there is independent verification. That would be sensible and I would support it. We are not looking for artificial surrenders: we want the verified destruction of the weapons. It is clear from what has been said by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that the paramilitaries are expected to notify an intention to disarm within days—but will not actually be expected to do so until some time next month. But what will be decommissioned and when will it be decommissioned? We need to know the answers.

I have two questions directly for the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. General de Chastelain has not yet made the agreement—I appreciate that point—but, when he does, will they encourage him to publish the full schedules of disarmament that he agrees, so that pressure for progress can be publicly seen to be put at all points in the future? That is critical. It is, of course, the general's decision. I appointed him, and I know the independence and the quality of the man. It is his decision, but I have no doubt that he will listen to the views of this House and to any views put to him by the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State. I hope that they will put to him the view of this House, which I hope will be their view, that publication of detailed schedules would add to the confidence in Northern Ireland and elsewhere that this process is going ahead properly.

We need to know how many arms there are as far as the general can judge. The pike in the hedge point is a real one, because no one will ever know precisely what arms are held in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. However, a judgment can be made and we need to know what that judgment is, when the general expects the arms to be destroyed and how it will be done.

Can the Government confirm—this is the second question specifically for them—that any breach in the disarmament schedule, at any time—not just at the outset—will lead to the expulsion mechanism being activated? I believe that the answer to that is yes, but I would welcome an assurance on that point.

The third point is the contentious issue of prisoners. I believe that, thus far, nearly half the paramilitary prisoners have now been released, and nearly half the remainder still in prison may be released within the next year. I shall be specific: under what circumstances will the prisoner release stop? As I understand it, under the prisoner release legislation, it does not stop if Sinn Fein or any other group is expelled from the Executive. It stops only when the Secretary of State decides that a paramilitary group is no longer on ceasefire.

Here is a real dilemma. The IRA might not disarm, but equally violence might not resume. In those circumstances, the ceasefire has not been broken and, in that scenario and under the present prisoner release legislation, prisoners could still be released. That is the position and it will not do. It cannot be acceptable. I ask the Government to make it clear today that, if any party is expelled from the Executive, the Secretary of State will make the presumption that the ceasefire is at risk and halt the releases immediately.

That assurance needs to be bankable. There must be no ifs, buts or uncertainties. There must be no pleas for fresh negotiation, and no more time. I say that as much in the interests of democracy and of the Government as for any partisan reason. It would be indefensible if releases continued and the ceasefire was broken when the prisoners were out of prison. The Government must not put themselves in that position, as it would cause them to lose all credibility.

In political terms, that is the Government's worry, not mine. However, in terms of the Government's capacity to move forward the process in Northern Ireland about which I care so much, I do not wish them to lose credibility with either side of opinion, in Northern Ireland or in the United Kingdom. I wish to continue to support the efforts that the Government are making to end the nightmare through which Northern Ireland has lived for so long.

My fourth question is simple and straightforward, and it, too, is directed to the Government. Can they confirm later this evening that the British and the Irish Governments are wholly agreed about the legislation and about how it will work? There must be no dispute in the future if any of the mechanisms in the Bill come to be triggered.

The Bill asks us to take on trust the actions of people whom we do not trust. However, if the assurances that I seek are given—if the disarmament schedule is published; if the Government make the cast-iron presumption that prisoner releases will stop if any party is expelled from the Executive; if all the political parties agree to sustain the Executive and the Assembly in being even after such an expulsion—I believe that a more balanced position will have been achieved. I believe there is a risk then to be taken that would be a reasonable risk.

We are asked to put the paramilitaries to the test. To do so, we must first put ourselves to the test.

5.37 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I listened with interest to what the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), had to say. I recall that, after the Canary wharf bomb, IRA prisoners were still released under his early release scheme, even though the ceasefire was over. The right hon. Gentleman advocates a most dangerous course when he suggests that prisoners should be used as tokens in the bargaining process. That was not part and parcel of the Good Friday agreement.

What we are witnessing is a complete change of position by the Opposition, and the ending of bipartisanship. I am one of the few hon. Members who can recall the negotiations that started from the Sunningdale agreement and later under Humphrey Atkins and James Prior. I also recall the arrangements that were undertaken then to try to achieve a settlement, a peace, an agreement. Throughout that time, the Labour Opposition supported every effort that was made. We did not attempt to rewrite the agreements that were reached, but that is what the amendments tabled by the Opposition would do. We did not act in the thoroughly irresponsible manner adopted by the Opposition as they attempt to rewrite the Good Friday agreement.

My second point turns on what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in response to my intervention earlier. She spoke about what would happen if the Executive were to fail after the Unionists had made the leap of faith and accepted its establishment. She said that the position would be rewound to the status quo, but that is not the case. In fact, what will have happened in those circumstances is that two of the most contentious points in the bargaining will no longer apply. The nationalists will have sacrificed their claims on behalf of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, as well as the protections that they felt that they had under the Anglo-Irish agreement. The arrangement is that, once the Executiveis formed, the new clauses will come into operation in the Irish constitution and the Anglo-Irish Agreement will fall. If the Assembly were then to fail, all the cross-border, north-south and east-west arrangements would disappear.

The people who would benefit from that would be the Unionists. They would have achieved all of their bargaining positions, leaving the nationalists with nothing. It is not Unionist politicians who are making the leap in the dark. It is the nationalist politicians. We should recognise who is making the sacrifice. Demands have been made of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), and he has been asked to give undertakings. That asks far too much of him. The nationalists have put far more at risk than the Unionists. They are taking a far more deliberate gamble.

Our focus on decommissioning seems to me to be a ghost come back to haunt us from the Washington talks and from the arrangements first made by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has said, decommissioning could happen tomorrow, but anyone with £100 could easily buy all the ingredients for a barrack buster or an agricultural bomb. We need to decommission not weapons but minds, and hearts, and knowledge. Our great reward should simply be that the guns and bombs are by and large silent. The most important thing that we can do is to maintain that degree of decommissioning.

Like everyone else, I do not believe that the IRA should possess weapons. Arms should be given up, and the terrorists should never have had them. But the most important things we can do are to maintain the ceasefire and to build up goodwill on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNamara


Maintaining the ceasefire is too important to allow us to make an Aunt Sally of decommissioning. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in an answer published in today's Hansard, we do not know what weapons the terrorists hold. We will never know whether they have disarmed, no matter what they say. We must get away from that mindset.

In passing the Bill—I hope that we do—we must consider the full implications of clause 3. When the Unionists entered into agreements a few years ago, their initial demands were that we get rid of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which then happened, and that a devolved Assembly in the north of Ireland should be achieved. We must be careful not to fall into the trap of having an Assembly that would remain after all the arrangements had disappeared. If we accept that, the point of all the negotiations will have been lost.

What did the Unionists want? An end to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and their own devolved assembly. Indeed, the House will recall that, before even the right hon. Member for Huntingdon could set about his arrangements, a forum had to be elected. No one had asked for it or wanted it, but again we met a demand made by the Unionists.

We must put those matters on the record because it is important for us to realise that it is not merely one side that has made, or is being asked to make, the leap—there has been a considerable leap from the nationalist side.

I shall make a point that some hon. Members will not particularly like. Again, it concerns the IRA, which is not an organisation for which I have any affection whatsoever. The activities of the Provisional IRA have set back the cause of constitutional nationalism by the length of time that I have been in this House. I have no particular brief for that organisation but, whether we like it or not, according to their own philosophy, members of the IRA regard themselves as an army. They believe that they have made a ceasefire and that they have not surrendered. They believe that they should see something tangible coming out of the Good Friday agreement. They believed that the Assembly was to be set up before decommissioning and that it was not, as my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said continuously, a precondition.

The arrangements that we are making today accept that belief and start with the Assembly first. Let us bear in mind the fact that, whether we like it or not, there is an organisation out there that has that mindset. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has been grappling with for years to bring them into the democratic process. We have almost succeeded in doing so.

In one sense, as has been said, we can push the Unionists too far. However, the people who speak for Sinn Fein or the IRA are also grappling with the problems of their own organisations, and we must understand that too. If we fail to understand the problems of the Unionists and those affecting Sinn Fein and the IRA leadership, we are in equal difficulty and we can equally flounder. That is why it is important that we should push forward with this legislation and say, "It is there. It cannot be altered."

All sides are making a great leap of faith. Everyone has a great deal to lose, but if we go ahead, we all have a great deal to gain.

5.48 pm
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Just before I came into the Chamber, a journalist asked me how many points out of 10 I would give the Secretary of State for her performance. After a moment, I gave her eight. If I had given her 10, there would be little room for improvement and she would become complacent and, also, I suspect that the Prime Minister has been helping her with her project work. Having said that, I am pleased with the work that she has done. In fairness, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have shown an unquestionable commitment to carrying on the work that their predecessors in the previous Government did to try to create a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

This debate is a predictable consequence of the Good Friday agreement. The deadline for decommissioning in the agreement was clearly May 2000, but no timetable was signed up to at that stage. I doubt that Sinn Fein would have signed the Good Friday agreement if there had been a timetable and, although I realise that some hon. Members are cynical about that, I look at the matter differently. A decommissioning timetable has now crept into the process, and has potentially been accepted by those who refused to accept it in the first place. We not only have the copper-bottomed deadline of May 2000, but we are beginning to set up a timetable that increases the chance that it will be met.

As has already been said, it is true that decommissioning is more symbolic than practical. However, that symbolism is most important, and I am concerned that that has been missed by certain hon. Members. During earlier speeches, there were calls of, "How many days before decommissioning?". That ignores the fact that the failsafe mechanism that we are discussing today is itself symbolic of how far we have come overall.

Another problem is that the process for the timetable has become fairly clearly defined; it is called de Chastelain—after the effective arbiter appointed by the previous Government and widely accepted as truly independent. One can disagree with that process, but that is a matter of judgment, not of principle. I disagree profoundly with the official Opposition, who have major concerns because the timetable is not before us. Given the extremely sensitive circumstances in which the matter has been negotiated, I feel that this is the strongest way in which we can realistically proceed at this stage. The timetable has not been specified, but the process through which a specific timetable could be drawn up could not be clearer. It is false to raise major concerns as to the matters that we are discussing based simply on the absence of that timetable.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) described the problem; it is not so great for mainland politicians as it is for those who have to sell in Northern Ireland the decisions made in this place. One of the most important points that he made was that having a past does not bar one from having a future. That symbolises the right hon. Gentleman's courage in leading his party towards a recognition of the importance of reconciliation. He also said that the measure before us was flawed and unfair—largely because of the blanket suspension if decommissioning does not occur.

Without labouring the point, let me say that it is fairly easy to understand why the difficult negotiations that have taken place in Northern Ireland have led to exactly that result. One can question the tactics, but it is difficult to question the principle. The final step requires some faith. That step was inevitably going to be difficult, once the Good Friday agreement had excluded a timetable for decommissioning.

It is perfectly valid to hold a different view from the one that I have described; those who are in the best position to hold that view are not mainland politicians, but those who represent Northern Ireland. I have a great deal of sympathy for the right hon. Member for Upper Bann who, every day, has to face up to, and justify, the decisions that he makes on behalf of his party and—in many ways—on behalf of Northern Ireland as a whole. However, the alternative to accepting the measure before us is not decommissioning—it is nothing at all. It is a stalling of the entire process. If the risks—which are small for us, but great for Northern Ireland's politicians—are not taken, the result does not bear thinking about.

Prisoner releases and the decommissioning aspects of the Good Friday agreement can be linked. One can justifiably say that prisoner releases should be linked to decommissioning—but not now. That could have been done only when the original agreement was being negotiated. Although I have sympathy with the comments of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), I have no process to suggest—nor, I think, does the House—that could possibly link decommissioning with prisoner releases at this stage. I remind the House that prisoner releases were linked to ceasefires, not to decommissioning. Any argument that the two should be brought together would be tenuous in the extreme. [Interruption.] I hear cries of disagreement from hon. Members, and I shall be interested to hear their arguments. However, like all other hon. Members who are interested in these matters, I have read the Good Friday agreement and I defy anyone to show me any plausible or tangible link between decommissioning—specifically the process of decommissioning—and prisoner releases.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The hon. Gentleman may have read the Belfast agreement, but he has clearly not read the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. That says that prisoner releases can be stopped if the Secretary of State recognises that an organisation is no longer on ceasefire. The Act defines how the Secretary of State will arrive at that decision; one of the conditions is that, if an organisation is not co-operating fully with any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997". That is directly linked to decommissioning.

Mr. Öpik

That would be the argument that I would expect to try to create that linkage. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to hold that view. However, as I said earlier, these are matters of judgment. In my judgment, and that of my party, it is far more important to assess whether the ceasefire is holding in line with all the conditions—for example, whether people are being shot or whether bombs are being planted for political motives—rather than on the narrow constraint of the definition of the decommissioning process. Others are entirely justified in holding different views—that is the purpose of holding a debate. However, I cannot subscribe to the belief that the lack of a timetable and the lack of specific action by the IRA at this stage are sufficient to claim that the ceasefire has been broken, and hence to trigger the necessary consequence of that—the cessation of the Good Friday agreement and the whole peace process.

There has been criticism—which was rather disingenuous—of some of the risks and the decisions taken by the Secretary of State and the Government in relation to decommissioning. Prisoner releases also came into that matter. The irony is that many of the decisions that are now being criticised by the official Opposition are similar to some of those that were made by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) when he was Prime Minister, and was beginning the process that has come so far during the past few years. I have often said that one of the right hon. Gentleman's great achievements as Prime Minister was to begin the process that the present Government have continued. No one can take away his achievements; they made possible the measure that we are discussing today. However, let us remember the risks that he took; let us remember how many times things were leaked that could have been enormously compromising to his Government, if the then Opposition had chosen to make political mileage from them.

I am a member of neither the Government nor the official Opposition, and I say in all sincerity—it is not a party political point—that the official Opposition need to think carefully about what they are trying to achieve when they condemn the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for taking risks that are very much in the spirit of those supported throughout the House only three years ago. It is ironic that representatives of mainland constituencies sometimes feel so justified in challenging the risks that have been taken to try to secure peace in Northern Ireland. Although, on occasion, I may disagree with Unionists and members of the Ulster Democratic Unionist party, I very much respect the position from which they make their points.

In that context, although Northern Ireland Members' judgment may differ from mine, they are entitled to hold their opinions, even if their views are contrary to the Government's position. They have difficult constituencies, and they have clear-cut positions on which they were elected. That is not true of the official Opposition, who repeatedly tell us that they are supportive of the Good Friday agreement, while trying to create artificial linkages, as I have described, in a way that is, to say the least, unhelpful to the process that we are trying to promote.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Öpik

I have nearly finished my speech, so I shall not give way.

I counsel the right hon. Member for Bracknell to consider the consequences of the views that he expresses. He must recognise that the ripple effect of the official Opposition's statements reaches Northern Ireland.

I hope that I do not sound harsh. I believe that, for all its faults, the Bill is not a matter that we should dismiss lightly, or criticise on the basis of false premises. The failsafe that we are debating and the Bill as a whole are not really about politicians, but about Northern Ireland, the Province, and the safety of its people.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann that the Good Friday agreement is flawed, but it is the best Good Friday agreement that we have. We have to recognise that, if we are to have peace, we have only one route. It is possible to argue that, if we are to have peace in the near future, we have only three days. If hon. Members' views differ from mine, I can respect that, but their views have to be based on judgment and, more to the point, they have to come up with a proposal that is likely to be more successful than the measure before us. Although we often hear criticism of the proposals, we rarely hear suggestions as to how they can be improved.

I hope that hon. Members will think hard about the proposals and the views that they express. In addition, I sincerely hope that mainland politicians take care to ensure that all of Northern Ireland's politicians are given the room that they need to manoeuvre and to make the compromises necessary to make the Good Friday agreement work.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call Mr. Temple-Morris.

6.3 pm

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)


Mr. Donaldson

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In her speech, the Secretary of State referred to a draft treaty between the British and Irish Governments and said that it had been placed in the Library of the House of Commons. I have just been to the Library to obtain a copy of that important document, but it is not available. We as a party were not informed that that document was going to be made available; then the Secretary of State informed the House that it was available in the Library, but it is not. Will the Secretary of State, as a matter of urgency, provide clarification as to when we can obtain a copy of that document?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has answered his own point of order. It is not a point of order, but a question to the Secretary of State, which she will have heard. I call Mr. Peter Temple-Morris to speak.

Mr. Temple-Morris

To return to the debate after that interesting intervention, which I am sure will have prompt effect, let me say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik).

I strongly agreed with the hon. Gentleman on one point, which reinforces a comment that I meant to make. Ever since crossing the Floor of the House, I have never tried overtly to attack my former party, for obvious reasons, not least the fact that I was so connected, albeit as a Back Bencher, with so many of the things that the Conservatives have done. However, as one who has sat on both sides of the House, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the present actions of the Secretary of State and the Government are an ever more efficient execution of that which was so well started by my former right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). There was an element of political semi-tragedy in the fact that, having started the process and having pushed it on its way, he lacked the political necessities to carry the policy through. The current Government have them, however, and are doing a good job.

I do not want to pursue the matter in great detail, point for point, but I should make one generalised point about the rationale for the amendments offered by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). All I have to say is that I regret the amendments en bloc, because I do not think that they are practical or realistic at this stage. I would add one general plea for the record, which might be read at some time: if the major parties in House were to combine together on one of the most difficult political exercises undertaken within my political life—and, I dare say, that of others—the chances of success would be greatly improved.

I well appreciate the history of the Conservative and Unionist party. However, the practical effect of that party's actions is that tonight, at a crucial stage, it has joined forces on the amendments with one particular element in an extremely difficult question. I well respect that element, but it would be far better to acknowledge that there are two sides to the process. If the amendments were agreed to, it would be an end to the process—it is as simple as that. Today, we should be trying to preserve the process and make it work.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon made one very interesting remark, which has relevance today. He said that the political trick in government is to bring the anti-democrats within the democratic embrace. I have already described how, for reasons that were not entirely his fault, to put it mildly, it was difficult for him to do that. However, now, through the Bill and through previous legislation and negotiations, the anti-democrats are coming within the political embrace, and they are doing so far more effectively than they ever have before; so the trick to which he referred is now being fulfilled. The right hon. Gentleman stated more eloquently than I could his views on the amendments. If, in their naked expression, they were ever passed, that would be the end of the game and of the trick.

Let me comment briefly on the speech of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). Our feelings about the deal have swung from pessimism to optimism, so, when I came into the Chamber tonight, I hoped that we would see the spirit, or the glimmer of the spirit, of peacekeeping emanating from somewhere on the Unionist Benches. Instead, we heard the expression of a hardline approach that cannot make me other than pessimistic about the rest of the week.

When the right hon. Gentleman says that the proposals are all about taking an active terrorist organisation into government, one wonders what on earth he has been doing signing the Belfast agreement and negotiating in some detail with that same organisation over weeks and months—and, incidentally, receiving a great deal of credit for doing so in both national and international press. Now that the crunch is here—now that, as the right hon. Member for Huntingdon said, the parties are so close together that it is almost agonising to wait for them to take the final leap—we see the all too familiar retreat.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann speaks of descending into "a Mafia state" and of using violence to finish the job. When he uses such emotive language, he appears to forget that the whole beauty of the agreement is that Ulster remains part of the United Kingdom, as the Ulster Unionist party wants. Hearing the right hon. Gentleman speak, one would have thought that he had forgotten that, if there was any question of a Mafia state arising, the British state would be all too ready to step in.

Let me make a couple of substantive points. I actually came here intending to be nice to the Ulster Unionist party.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Temple-Morris

No, I shall not give way for the moment—although I asked for that. Let me say something nice, and then I shall take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. We debated matters together in great detail last summer, and I usually gave way when it was appropriate to do so.

I agree with the Ulster Unionists' concerns that the process is aspirational, whether one is referring to the Sinn Fein declaration of 12 days ago or to General de Chastelain's report, as demonstrated by the use of phrases such as offers promise that decommissioning will take place or can now begin". I agree also that a direct statement of any kind by the IRA would be of enormous assistance to the process. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann and his party are right to ask for such a statement, but it will not be made. We must realise, because of circumstances, that there are two sides involved and that the Ulster Unionist position stems from strength, not weakness.

Under the process, the Ulster Unionists have secured the most enormous advances. Peace in Northern Ireland, too, has made an enormous advance. An example of that is the concession of the principle of consent, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) mentioned. The Irish constitution—

Mr. Robert McCartney

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Temple-Morris

I shall finish my point. The hon. and learned Gentleman will have to contain himself for a little longer, although that is something that he does not often do.

We have had—no one has underlined this point—a prolonged ceasefire by the mainline IRA, which is still continuing. With all due credit to the IRA, that ceasefire was maintained in the most strained circumstances for 16 months during the first phase of the process under the previous Government. The Unionists become the legitimate part of all this. On that point, I will give way if the hon. and learned Gentleman still wants to intervene.

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he appreciate that the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland is required only for the transfer of legal sovereignty, not for the creation of institutions that will create a functionally and economically united Ireland, in which their consent to a transfer of legal sovereignty will be either inevitable or unnecessary?

Mr. Temple-Morris

That is really a distraction that would lead to the debate that we had, ad infinitum, with the hon. and learned Gentleman last summer. The whole point of the Bill is to devolve the democratic process to Northern Ireland with the consent of the House and, indeed, that of a considerable majority of the people in Northern Ireland. From what I have seen of recent polls, that process would also have considerable approval from those of the Unionist persuasion.

I turn now to the republican position. I shall not refer to the nationalist position, which is so well represented in the House. The SDLP has played an outstanding role in starting the peace process and carrying it through. I do not want to place further burdens on the party, but I think that its important role is far from over. It will have to do serious work before we eventually reach a successful conclusion.

On the republican position, I simply say that republicans have delivered two ceasefires. They have agreed to participate in the constitutional Government of part of the United Kingdom, which of course goes directly against their traditional attitude towards partition. That is a formidable concession by any standards.

Bearing in mind who represents strength and who represents weakness in the process, at what price have the republicans made concessions? There is serious division in the republican movement when demands are made of it. That division is so serious that outbreaks of violence have already taken place. The co-operation of the security forces has been absolutely magnificent in keeping that violence down to a level that means, perhaps, that we are not aware of how bad it is.

There is a possible split in the republican ranks. Anyone associated with the process will confirm that the split could occur at any time, while some would argue that the ranks have already split. Such splits have been envisaged from the very beginning of the process. The question as we come into the last lap of this stage—if I may put it like that—is what sort of split we are dealing with. The whole trick—to use the right hon. Member for Huntingdon's word again—is to get the majority to take the constitutional side. Bearing in mind the history that is involved, if that happened, the "war" would be over and a minority of a terrorist or, as I prefer to call it, criminal persuasion may increasingly become a law and order problem.

If, however, as a result of the amendments that we shall consider tonight, the majority breaks away from the process prematurely, Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness will be neutralised. They would be so far neutralised that they might not even be leaders of a minority. The "war" would then begin again, and would continue to have serious political and criminal overtones. The House is, therefore, dealing with serious business tonight.

I want briefly to describe the present position. The IRA can at no time be seen to surrender. That has been patently clear, and the IRA faces demands, if not for a pound of flesh, then for something that would resemble the surrender that the Unionists so frequently resisted some years ago. In that context, the amendments are fatal.

After devolution, the situation will change dramatically. There will be visible signs of success. Sinn Fein will be in the system and the pressure will be on it. If anything goes wrong with decommissioning, aided and abetted by the failsafe mechanism that is so well placed within the Bill, the IRA will become discredited and, potentially, isolated and separated from the political process and its political allies and wing. If that happens and there is a split, the process will be able to work and Sinn Fein can be kept within the system or expelled, or it can withdraw, as it decides. The essential point is that, depending on what happens at the time, that should be a matter for the Assembly, and we should realise that any breach of the agreement will discredit the IRA.

Finally, I turn to what has to happen now. One side must jump. There is no alternative. If Sinn Fein jumps too soon, that will be the end of Sinn Fein and of the peace process. The Unionists would jump from a secure, protected position with an opportunity to call the republicans' bluff. They would even jump with my blessing and my assurance that I shall do my utmost in the House to protect them, should anything go wrong. That is what the Bill is about.

I tell the Unionists that, if they do not jump now, we will slide back into the war and violence that we have, mercifully, got away from in recent times. After a recurrence of that violence, we would return to a solution that would probably be identical to the one that has been before us since the peace process began—no doubt in the form of a Bill similar to the one that is before us today.

Marjorie Mowlam

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may be for the convenience of the House if I clarify the matter that I referred to earlier in respect of the draft treaty. I said earlier in the debate that copies were available from the Library. I understand, however, that they have been available instead from the Vote Office since 1.40 pm today. I regret any inconvenience.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sure that the House is grateful for that information from the Secretary of State.

6.19 pm
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), who gave me my first job in politics nearly 40 years ago—a fact that no doubt causes him tremendous embarrassment today. It is a matter of great regret to me that he no longer sits on the same side of the Chamber as 1 do, although I deeply disagree with him on the subject before the House and, indeed, on several other subjects.

This is the first speech that I have ever made in this House on Northern Ireland. My silence does not mean that I have not followed events in the Province very closely over the years. I supported the brave and bold initiatives taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) when he was Prime Minister, and though I have considerable reservations about many of the decisions taken on Northern Ireland by the present Prime Minister, I believe that he was right to continue the process started by my right hon. Friend.

For four years, I had responsibility on the mainland of Great Britain for the protection of our citizens from terrorist attack. It grieves me to say that I did not succeed in providing that protection. I had the dubious privilege of visiting South Quay immediately after it was devastated by an IRA bomb which murdered innocent citizens of our country. I visited the centre of Manchester shortly after it, too, was devastated by an IRA bomb. No one who shouldered those responsibilities or saw that devastation would want us to return to the situation in which those attacks took place. The desire for peace runs deep. We all want it; we should be prepared to take risks for it.

We will never secure the permanent, enduring peace for which we all yearn until the terrorists have genuinely given up violence for good. That phrase has been much used over the years. It is an abstract form of words. If it is to be made meaningful, it must be accompanied by action. The action that can give it meaning is the handing over of the guns and bombs that have been used to perpetuate the violence. I have never heard any answer to the question, "Why, if the terrorists have given up violence for good, do they still need their guns and bombs?". I have never heard an answer to that question because, in truth, there is no answer to it.

That is why I have watched in dismay as, 15 months after the Good Friday agreement, not a single bomb, not a single gun, has been handed over. Meanwhile, hundreds of prisoners have been released. Some of them were responsible for outrages committed while I was Home Secretary. Some of them would have been responsible for outrages against my constituents.

Patrick Magee is widely known as the bomber of the Grand hotel in Brighton. What is not quite so widely known is that when he was arrested he was planning a series of bombing attacks on other south coast towns, including Folkestone. I have no idea whether recent reports of his intentions are true, but what is clear is that he and his murderous colleagues are now free to return to the guns and bombs that they used in the past at any time they choose. That is the background to the proposed legislation.

The Prime Minister explained these latest proposals, which are enshrined in the Bill, when he made a statement to the House on Monday last week. He said: I understand perfectly well why people will not accept undertakings, words, statements or any of the rest of it … we have learned often enough in Northern Ireland that we cannot pay attention simply to assurances."—[Official Report, 5 July 1999; Vol. 334, c. 643–52.] How right he was, and how apt his words were in relation to his own undertakings, words, statements and assurances.

In his own hand last year, the Prime Minister wrote: those who use or threaten violence must be excluded from the Government of Northern Ireland. But the effect of this Bill would be to include in the Government of Northern Ireland those who use or threaten violence. In his own hand, he also promised: prisoners will be kept in unless violence is given up for good. But the prisoners have not been kept in, despite the fact that violence has not been given up for good. The truth is that the Prime Minister has broken his promises; on this, as on other issues, when he is put under pressure, his promises turn to dust.

The Sunday Telegraph of 27 June carried an article by Jenny McCartney which identified in stark horror the kind of situation that could come about in Northern Ireland if an Executive were set up before terrorists had genuinely given up violence for good. The scenario that she describes is one in which Martin McGuinness, a man widely believed to sit on the IRA's Army Council—and to have sat on it when the bombs went off in South Quay and Manchester—is Northern Ireland's Minister for Education; not by any means a far-fetched scenario, since Sinn Fein is understood to want to hold the education portfolio.

Jenny McCartney asks us to suppose that the IRA, which still holds its guns and bombs, remains active on the streets, as it is now; that its members patrol Belfast housing estates, intimidate families and quell any dissent; that gangs of masked men haul people from their houses in the middle of the night and beat or shoot them for some alleged offence.

"Imagine", Jenny McCartney says, "that you're a teacher in a Belfast school, and one afternoon someone associated with the Minister for Education pays you a visit. He says that the Minister has certain ideas about a poster campaign or about a children's demonstration, and he'd be most grateful for your co-operation. Perhaps you don't like the idea. It might be too political and, in ordinary circumstances, you would politely refuse. But these are not ordinary circumstances. You are acutely aware of the Minister's paramilitary connections, and you're afraid that there could be nasty repercussions for yourself if you don't agree. So you say, 'Yes, of course; I'll see how we can set that up.'" In the course of that tiny, trivial exchange, Jenny McCartney says, and I agree with her, a very big thing has been lost—it is called freedom.

These are not fanciful fears—I wish that they were. They are a realistic assessment of what could happen in a part of the United Kingdom if an Executive is set up before decommissioning takes place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and others of my hon. Friends, and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), have tabled amendments. They are similar in effect to the assurances that were sought by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. If accepted, the amendments would minimise the harm that the arrangements contemplated in the Bill would cause; they would mitigate the damage; they would minimise the risk. Without those amendments, the Bill does not deserve the support of the House.

6.29 pm
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I hope sincerely that this legislation will never be used. It is a sad commentary on the situation that we are all in—those who live in Northern Ireland and those who legislate for it—that, at a time when people are about to enter a partnership, they want to know how they will deal with its demise. Perhaps it is an Irish thing, or maybe the Irish thing has permeated into British legislation. It is almost as if before the wedding, or before the wedding is consummated, the funeral cortege is arranged for either the bride or the bridegroom. That is what we are dealing with and that is where we are at.

Many serious contributions will be made to the debate, but the nub of the problem is that the Bill is based on suppositions. It is legislation for "What ifs". It is a charter for the mistrust that is so obvious today. Would it not have been better to introduce legislation when the set of circumstances with which it had to deal had become clear? I believe that that would have been the proper approach. In that event, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) would not have been talking about "What ifs", and other hon. Members would not have been basing their valid arguments on suppositions. The problem is that we are faced with legislation that is geared to deal with what may or may not become a fact. Surely it is better to legislate on the basis of fact, once that fact has arisen, than on the basis of suppositions.

I understand why the Bill is before us; let us understand the pressures under which it is being dealt with. The Unionist parties demanded that legislation be presented to deal with the failsafe clause. That is why the Bill is being presented now and not when the situation as to what has or has not happened becomes clear. On Second Reading, and when we deal with the amendments, we shall continue in terms of what may happen in future, what might happen in future and—what none of us has thought of—what may not happen in future.

I support the Bill in so far as it is in accord with the two Prime Ministers' "The Way Forward" and with the Good Friday agreement. I support it when it is in accord with those documents. However, there is one part of the Bill that is not in accord with them, and I shall oppose that part. I have tabled a new clause in my opposition to it.

From all of this we must retain the Good Friday agreement, "The Way Forward" and the means of solving our problems. As I have said, we are seeking to put in place new arrangements for failure before we even begin the journey that might bring us success. We are doing so in the dark, not knowing precisely what we might be dealing with. So be it; that is the decision that has been made. I am not happy that, only days before we may be going into government, we are busy making clear how little trust there is between all of us who will have to serve in government. It is hardly the prelude for which anyone would wish. So be it; this is the situation in which we must make decisions.

I have listened with great interest to the debate, and especially to the contribution of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon who asked four questions. He put three questions to the Government, and I have no doubt that they will answer them. His fourth question was directed to the Social Democratic and Labour party. It was asked also by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris). I shall take up the point. I stand by the Good Friday agreement. It is the agreement to which I owe my allegiance; I do not owe it to the Opposition, to a Unionist party, and not even to a Government with whom I am proud to be associated. I want to preserve the agreement and take every step in accordance with it.

The one way in which we can proceed in accord with the agreement is by means of a review, which is specified within the agreement. That is the only way in which "What ifs" or hypotheses can be dealt with in accordance with the Good Friday agreement. However, what is that review? I should have liked the right hon. Member for Huntingdon to be in his place. It is a collective judgment, but made by whom? Will it be made by the Government, by the Irish Government, by the SDLP, by the Ulster Unionist party, by the Democratic Unionist party, by the UK Unionist party, by Sinn Fein, by the Alliance or by the Northern Ireland women's coalition? A collective judgment must be made by all those parties, not by one or two of them, even if the two are the two Governments. The judgment must be made on the same collective basis that led to the signing of the Good Friday agreement.

As I have said, I stand by the Good Friday agreement. I stand also by the need for a review. However, it is suggested that one of us should pre-determine the collective decision made in the review. That one party—for example, the SDLP—would have the audacity to pre-determine what all the parties and the two Governments might decide in the review and the shape of everything that ensued as a result of it.

It is not merely a matter of pre-determining what the review might arrive at. There is a wish to pre-determine not only the judgment but the penalty. When asked to do that, I say, "Think carefully what you are asking. You are asking one political party to pre-determine the outcome of a review." That includes two sovereign Governments and all the other parties to the agreement.

When are we being asked to make the judgment and decide the penalty? Are we being asked to do that when things happen? No. Are we being asked to do so a month beforehand? Not necessarily. Is it to be two months beforehand? Not necessarily. What about three months beforehand? Maybe. Is it to be by 22 May? Definitely. Is it wise to make a pre-determination of the judgment and the penalty 10 months before events take place in circumstances of which we are not aware? Those circumstances could change not only by the day but by the hour. So I say to those who ask for that, "Think of what you are asking for." It is audacious. It would be arrogance on our part to assume that right, and it is unthinking on the part of others to ask that we do so. It would negate the very essence of the review system in the agreement, it would negate the way forward as determined by the two Prime Ministers, and it would negate the Good Friday agreement.

Penalty and judgment must be left until we know the circumstances. Note that I say "penalty"; I will not shirk that word. If those who make a solemn commitment under the agreement, which we stand by, subsequently renege on it against the wishes of nationalist Ireland or republican Ireland or Unionist Ireland, does anyone imagine that there will not be a penalty? Does anyone imagine that having broken faith and trust with all of us, such people will somehow escape unscathed?

Unionism, too, will not escape unscathed. Throughout the debate, little attention has been paid to the fact that part of the failsafe clause relates to the failure to work devolution. There is some evidence that that is a possibility. We have had empirical evidence for 12 months. It is there to be seen. Have we heard from those on the Opposition Benches calls on the Unionist party not to break its commitment to work the agreement, when month after month that was the case?

Mr. Trimble

Not so.

Mr. Mallon

I say to those in the Ulster Unionist party: apply the same standards to yourselves as you are asking us to apply.

Mr. Donaldson

You do the same.

Mr. Mallon

I can assure you that if any party associated with paramilitarism breaks its word to the people of Ireland in terms of the commitment given in "The Way Forward", we will not ignore it. We will not shirk consideration of penalty, as we will not shirk consideration of penalty if the commitment is broken by any of the Unionist parties.

Has any of the Opposition parties even questioned the situation in which two members of the Democratic Unionist party who could be in the Executive by the end of the week are on record as saying that they will not work parts of the agreement? Have you suggested any sanctions in your amendments to deal with that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying in and out of correct parliamentary language. I should be grateful if he would try to use it.

Mr. Mallon

You are correct, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to you and to the House.

I ask hon. Members to consider that there are more implications to the matter than one. Let us not forget that we are all doing a serious piece of business today.

I do not expect the Ulster Unionist party to renege on its commitment to devolution. I accept what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said earlier. I am not one of the people who question whether he will serve in an Executive with members of the nationalist or republican community. However, if there is to be a failsafe clause, let us all understand what it is and the implications of it.

Those implications are far-reaching. We hope to take a step this week. I ask those on the Unionist Benches especially to take that step. I ask them seriously to consider the effects of their not taking it. I understand the difficulties of the Ulster Unionist party.

I understand the difficulties of Sinn Fein as well. Do I take its word on decommissioning? I now have a way of finding out. I have a way of knowing whether it will or will not decommission. I have a way of measuring it, against the report of General de Chastelain. I have a way of measuring it in time, against the reports that General de Chastelain is to make in September, October, December and next May. I now have a way of finding out. It may not be the ideal way, or the way that would have been best suited had the legislation been introduced when problems arose and we knew what we were dealing with, but I have a way of knowing what will happen.

If some of the amendments are carried—I hope they will not be—we will never know whether the IRA will decommission. There are those who want a statement from the IRA saying that it will. Those are the same people who do not take the IRA's word. I am not recommending trust in that or any other organisation. I am simply saying that, for the first time, we have an opportunity to establish whether decommissioning will or will not happen.

For the first time, we have an opportunity to ensure that violent republicanism on the island of Ireland rids itself of illegally held weapons. That has never happened before. If it happens, it will be seismic for all of us. I suggest that, when we consider the implications of the Bill, we measure.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) told us of his experiences. They were touching experiences, and many of us have had similar ones. I have lived in South Armagh for 63 years. I know republicanism. I know violent republicanism. I know it well because I came from it. I know the psychology behind it, and I know what can and what cannot work with it.

The agreement can work, despite the fact that the legislation should not have been introduced at this stage. It can work because of the absolute commitment of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. Dispute what they say; disagree with their analysis; question tactics and question strategy, but do not ever question the fact that those two men have set out together to put the issue to the test. They have given us all a means of moving forward into something that is absolutely new to all for us. It is so new that it is frightening to many because of its implications.

I have heard two anecdotes today about what might happen if so-and-so from Sinn Fein became Minister for Health and so-and-so from Sinn Fein became Minister for Education. Does that not undermine the good arguments that have been put forward about how we deal with the coming together of Unionism and nationalism in Northern Ireland? That is so close that we are almost in touching range of it, although we could lose because of our own genuine convictions, which may be based on that which is not valid—and it is frightening, so frightening that it has frightened many, especially on the Unionist Benches. [Interruption.] I am referring not to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, but to some in his party who have not yet told the House what they will do if they enter an Executive and how they will work the agreement.

I refer specifically to the Democratic Unionist party. I await its Members taking the opportunity to tell the House that they will work the agreement fully if they take their seats in the Executive and that they will join the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, myself, my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and others in ensuring that those who break their word, given solemnly in the agreement, will not escape lightly. I address this question to Members across the Floor: is it conceivable to any Member of the House that those who have broken their word and their commitment and reneged on the agreement would be beneficiaries of the review, which is so necessary? I ask every Unionist Member of a political party who is present to think carefully about that.

I ask Members to think carefully about some of the amendments—not those tabled by all the Ulster Unionist Members, but those tabled by the leaders of the Ulster Unionist and Conservative parties—and their implications. Before they vote, they should ask themselves one question: will agreeing to those amendments bring forward the day of which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe spoke—the day on which he, I or anyone else will never again have to visit a scene of violence or violent death in this country or in Ireland? That is the question, and we have it in our hands to stop that violence now in a way that can be accounted for by all of us. By all of us, I mean Ulster Unionist Members especially. When they make their decisions, they must know that those of us who will be sitting in the Executive and involved in the review with them will not take lightly any breaking of word or commitment.

6.53 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The process of gentrifying members of Sinn Fein and elevating its leaders began many years ago. It started in secret meetings, but its first public manifestation came in 1993 in the joint declaration, which is sometimes referred to as the Downing Street declaration. The then Prime Minister recognised that it would not be palatable simply to bring those who were recognised as active IRA terrorists into the democratic fold as if nothing had happened—that there had to be a cleansing process and that Sinn Fein-IRA had to do something to make people believe that a change had taken place.

The two Prime Ministers set down in paragraph 10 of the joint declaration the criteria that they would apply to bringing Sinn Fein-IRA into the political process. They first required that there had to be a "permanent end" to acts of paramilitary violence. Sinn Fein-IRA balked at the word "permanent". Months of clarification were required, because they were not prepared to sign up to anything that might be deemed to be a permanent end to violence. Automatically, Unionists gauged that their refusal to say that they had permanently ended violence was an indicator that they would turn the violence on again if things did not go their way and they wanted to apply more pressure.

There have been many stages in the process but, to this very moment, the giving up of arms so that they could not be used in the future would have been the one clear indicator that Sinn Fein-IRA were putting violence behind them. Although that would not be a totally safe method of calculation, it would be a clear statement of intent that they were reforming their ways. That has not happened and I do not believe that it will.

During the referendum campaign, when many of us said that the Belfast agreement was silent on those issues and that there was no requirement to decommission before the Sinn Fein-IRA representatives entered government and the prisoners were released, the Prime Minister came out with a lot of promises. As the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said, the right hon. Gentleman made hand-written pledges that those who used or threatened violence would be excluded from the government of Northern Ireland and that prisoners would be kept inside unless violence was given up for good. In the House, he defined that as meaning decommissioning.

At the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister was asked by the Leader of the Opposition: Will you agree with me that prisoners should not be released early until the organisations they belong to have substantially decommissioned their weapons? The Prime Minister replied: The answer to your question is, yes, of course it is the case that both in respect of taking seats in the government of Northern Ireland and the early release of prisoners—the only organisations that qualify for that are organisations that have given up violence and given it up for good. The right hon. Gentleman came to Northern Ireland and pleaded with the people that they should believe him and take his promises and pledges that violence would have to be given up, that decommissioning would take place and that no one would be released from prison or enter government unless that had occurred.

We all know that our position has been vindicated. Although we find ourselves on the verge of government, Sinn Fein-IRA still have not decommissioned one bullet or one ounce of Semtex and they are being allowed into government under the Government's proposal without doing anything in relation to decommissioning. The Bill is therefore being introduced by a Government who once again find themselves toadying to the terrorists.

On a recent visit to No. 10 Downing street, I remember being left open mouthed as I saw two members of the IRA Army Council roaming freely around the corridors in their shirt sleeves. The previous Government knew that those people were responsible for giving the instructions to launch a rocket at No. 10 Downing street, but this Government consistently go along with whatever Sinn Fein-IRA demand because they know that they have the capacity to carry out more violence on the mainland against the citizens of the United Kingdom.

The Bill is unacceptable, and it would remain so even if the best of the amendments were accepted. That might make it less unacceptable, but it still would not be acceptable because it is predicated on the acceptance into government of Sinn Fein-IRA without any decommissioning whatever taking place. It merely—and in my view quite inadequately—purports to provide a failsafe against failure to engage in decommissioning ex post facto. So far from the Bill being a failsafe, it is a risk—as even the Secretary of State said from the Dispatch Box. That statement is a long way from the words spoken by the Prime Minister on the steps of Castle buildings, when he talked of the certainty that these measures would contain.

The Bill suggests that the so-called failsafe is triggered—an unfortunate term—by a failure to keep commitments. The commitments that are expected to be kept are set out in clause 1. What commitments have the IRA or—on the other side of the coin—Sinn Fein made? They are not set down in the joint statement or in the Bill. Who made them? When were they given? The IRA certainly has not made any. In the last IRA statement about decommissioning that is on record, the issue was "firmly ruled out"; it was "a red herring"; and talk of a "gesture" handover of weapons was "fanciful." The statement went on: The weapons belong to the revolution, not to any individuals. It added: Nothing would be surrendered until all objectives are achieved. There is no commitment from the IRA that has to be kept.

I suspect that the commitments referred to are not in the Belfast agreement, because that simply commits people to use any influence that they may have. No sanction is applied if they do not use that influence or if decommissioning does not take place. The provisional movement says that it will keep to the Belfast agreement, because that agreement does not require it to do anything more than to use whatever influence it may have.

The commitment referred to cannot be a commitment contained in the report of General de Chastelain, because there is no such commitment in that report. It cannot be any commitment contained in the declaration of Sinn Fein-IRA during the recent talks process. In that declaration, they referred to decommissioning and said that the full implementation of the Agreement would demonstrably facilitate the decommissioning process". After the agreement has been fully implemented and they have gained all the concessions, decommissioning might be facilitated.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his characteristic courtesy in giving way to me. I assure him that I have no wish to disrupt his speech, but I want to ask him a question. Is it his intention to take up a seat on the Executive or to refuse to take up such a position?

Mr. Robinson

It is clear that we are trying to ensure that the Executive will have excluded from it those who are still wedded to violence. In those circumstances, we would be delighted to take up a seat in what would be a more democratic process. I am sure that those are the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman envisages, and I hope that he will vote for that this evening.

The Sinn Fein declaration went on to say that, against the background of the full implementation of the agreement, we believe that all of us, as participants acting in good faith, could succeed in persuading those with arms to decommission". So the Sinn Fein statement contains no commitment to do anything other than say that decommissioning would be facilitated if it were given all the concessions contained in the Belfast agreement. In those circumstances it "could" succeed—not "will" succeed. Sinn Fein will not ensure that it does succeed, even though it has the capacity to do so.

It should be remembered that all the personnel involved in the IRA army council were in Castle buildings and were capable of taking decisions on behalf of the IRA. They could have clearly indicated that they were prepared to decommission.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I have followed the hon. Gentleman's speech closely. Would I be right in thinking that he has a problem with the very idea of sharing any power, authority or responsibility with any representative of the nationalist community? Would that be a fair summation of his views?

Mr. Robinson

No, but I would not expect to hear a fair summation of my views from the person who has just spoken. It has been abundantly clear from the moment that I stood to my feet that it is a requirement that those in government and exercising Executive power should be those who are exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means. There is no commitment to peaceful and democratic means if one has an armed terrorist organisation at one's beck and call with tonnes of Semtex, thousands of rifles and handguns, and even surface-to-air missiles.

The Bill is imprecise, weak and woolly. It has to be, because all roads lead back to the Belfast agreement, which is flawed. The bad judgment exercised a year ago still corrupts politics today. The agreement did not require decommissioning, so people are at present engaged in an exercise that requires something that they did not negotiate when they signed up to the Belfast agreement. There are no sanctions for those who do not decommission.

Let us turn to the sanctions contained in the Bill. According to the Bill, a number of things automatically happen if the commitments are not kept. It is not those who have defaulted on their commitments but those who support the democratic process who will be punished. The Assembly will be suspended, but Sinn Fein-IRA were opposed to the setting up of the Assembly. It is strange to impose a sanction against those who do not decommission by bringing down the one part of the agreement that they did not want in the first place. There will then be a review.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Which parts of the Belfast agreement did the hon. Gentleman's party want?

Mr. Robinson

It is remarkable that people who have been in the House over the past year are not aware that we fiercely contested the Belfast agreement, and asked the people of Northern Ireland to vote against it. I am glad to say that an increasing number of them have now changed their opinion. At the European elections in Northern Ireland, 60 per cent. of the Unionist people who voted, voted for candidates who were against the Belfast agreement and who asked people to vote for them by way of a referendum on those issues. Only time prohibits me from going into the by-elections that have taken place which show that movement.

The Assembly will be suspended and no action will have to be taken to stop the Patten commission, which is part of the Belfast agreement, or to stop prisoner releases.

On 5 July, Downing Street quietly whispered to several journalists that it was considering reviewing prisoner releases. That was on offer if the IRA did not decommission. The next morning's newspapers carried the stories: Blair offers 'review' of IRA releases". An official said that we will review prisoner releases if the IRA refuses to give up arms. Immediately, Sinn Fein-IRA got agitated. They demanded a meeting with the Secretary of State to seek assurances on those issues. No one stopped to ask the question: why would they be concerned? If it was their intention to decommission, why on earth would Sinn Fein-IRA be concerned that, if the IRA did not decommission, prisoners would stop being released? They would be concerned only if it was not their intention to decommission. If they intended to decommission, it would not matter what the sanction was, because it would not be applied against them. Clearly Sinn Fein-IRA did not, and do not, intend to decommission. They recognise that such a sanction would apply to them.

In reply to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), let me say that it is clear from the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 that the Secretary of State has the power to stop prison releases if there has not been co-operation on decommissioning. That power is expressly contained in section 3(9)(d). It is not, therefore, a question of introducing a new factor.

If anyone were to try to identify two issues in the Belfast agreement that were most closely in parallel, the issues concerned would be the issue of decommissioning and the issue of prisoner releases. There is a similarity. Both decommissioning and releases must be completed within two years; and nothing suggests that the Government should rush ahead on the release of prisoners while decommissioning lags behind. Indeed, there is no requirement for the Government to continue to release prisoners while decommissioning lags behind. There is a clear link. Certainly the sanctions should be applied in the current circumstances, and, along with others, I have tabled amendments on that very subject.

I have to say that the Secretary of State not only could but should already have applied the section to which I refer. It involves other issues, such as on-going violence, support for organisations that are involved in violence, and support for organisations that are threatening to use violence.

Everyone knows that the IRA killed Andrew Kearney. Everyone knows that the IRA murdered Eamon Collins, Brendan Fagan and John Downey. Everyone knows that the IRA was responsible for the shooting of some 48 people; for the beatings of at least 120 people; and for the recent attempt to kill Martin McGartland. Everyone also knows that, while people were sitting round negotiating in Castle buildings, the Garda Siochana apprehended two IRA men who were bringing components of a bomb into Northern Ireland with the intention of bombing the guts out of one of our towns. Despite all that, the Secretary of State says that she must view these things in the round—and, in the round, we find that things never happen.

The Garda Siochana made it very clear that the Provisional IRA was responsible in terms of the attempted bombing. The two persons who were arrested applied immediately to be admitted to the IRA wing at Portlaoise prison. It is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State has the capacity to act, and the reason to act; but she has not acted.

People ask why Unionists want legislative guarantees. Certainly, they could not depend on its being the view of a Secretary of State that such actions should be taken, or on the taking of such actions being the wish of a Secretary of State. As the only sanction in the Bill is a review, however, why cannot that review include an automatic expulsion of Sinn Fein-IRA?

The reason is simple: the SDLP and the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic will not have it. According to Mr. Ahern, Sinn Fein must join the Executive, and there must be inclusiveness. Mr. Ahern agrees with Mr. Blair that Sinn Fein-IRA could be excluded from government. He has insisted that an inclusive body represents the only way forward, and has said that that is why in the Good Friday agreement—and again last Friday—it was carefully ensured that the emphasis is on inclusion rather than exclusion.

This, incidentally, is the same Mr. Ahern who, on 14 February, said that Sinn Fein should be barred from the new Northern Ireland government unless the IRA starts to decommission its weapons. Mr. Ahern also said: Decommissioning in one form or another has to happen. It is not compatible with being a part of a government, and part of an executive, if there is not at least a commencement of decommissioning. That would apply in the North and in the South. One is inclined to ask what was responsible for this—I was going to say "change on the road to Damascus", but the change on the road to Damascus would not have been in this direction. What we have seen is a clear sea change of views on the part of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland. Was it caused by the threat of more IRA violence—by the knowledge that the IRA has the arms and the capacity to engage in such activities?

Last week, when we met the Minister responsible for the talks process, I told him that, according to the de Chastelain report, the joint statement and the draft version of the Bill, it was perfectly possible for Sinn Fein to be in government on Thursday, and not to do anything other than appoint a person to talk to the decommissioning body about the modalities. The terms of the de Chastelain report suggest that the best way of setting a timetable is through discussions with the paramilitary organisations; but the paramilitary organisations can say, "Yes, we will do it, but the logistics mean that we cannot do it until April." Sinn Fein-IRA could be in government for nine or 10 months, until it found an excuse—perhaps the Patten report, or perhaps something else—to say that things had changed, and that the agreement had not been fulfilled. Nothing in the Bill, nothing in the joint statement and nothing in the Minister's position suggests that that could not happen.

I asked the Minister to explain how such a scenario could be prevented. He could find no written evidence; he could only wave proudly a copy of a speech by the Prime Minister. As he will recall, I immediately pointed to other words of the Prime Minister—pledges that had not been kept.

The bottom line is this. The only currency that any politician has, particularly a Prime Minister, is his word. In regard to these issues, the Prime Minister has devalued that currency, and he is no longer trusted by the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.

7.16 pm
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Listening to the debate has made me think of other parts of the world where there has been conflict, violence and murder for generations. Other parts of the world have managed to come together, live together and rule their countries together. There is no reason why Northern Ireland should not be able to do the same, but that requires the building up of trust: it requires the making of that leap from time to time.

I have taken account of what Opposition Members have said about their worries in regard to clauses 1 and 2, but, if the present Secretary of State or some future Secretary of State dragged his or her feet in regard to the implementation of the recommendation, what purpose could that serve? Why would any Secretary of State wish to do that? [Interruption.] Opposition Members grin and make sedentary comments, but I want an honest answer. Why would any Secretary of State not want to act, given that the actions of the Government, the Irish Government and the former Prime Minister have been intended to produce an agreement?

Mr. Donaldson


Mr. Robert McCartney


Mrs. Fyfe

I will give way to someone who will tell me why the Secretary of State would not want to act in that way.

Mr. McCartney

I suggest that the reason is this. Terror and violence—especially violence aimed at the City of London—have driven the process from the beginning. That is the fundamental reason. The agreement is not about a political settlement; it is about the conflict resolution between the British state and Sinn Fein-IRA.

Mrs. Fyfe

I can only say that, if the hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that the process is about giving in to fear of IRA action—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] If hon. Members think that, they are dead wrong. What they are saying is ludicrous, and I cannot believe that the public generally, throughout these islands, agree with them.

If Members of the Assembly are not committed to its success, the Assembly will fall apart in any event, regardless of what the Secretary of State does or says. It is necessary to build up trust, and to act together.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does not the intervention by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) do a disservice to the people on the mainland, who stood up to terror, as did the people in Northern Ireland, and never gave in to all the terror that the IRA inflicted on innocent people? Therefore, it is most inappropriate to say that the agreement comes about simply because the British Government are frightened of the IRA. We stood up to terror for so long and we would do so time and again.

Mrs. Fyfe

I thoroughly agree.

None of the events is happening in a vacuum. Everything that is going on in Northern Ireland is under the inspection of the world's media and of people who care about peace and freedom everywhere. Do any of the hon. Members on the Opposition Benches really think that, if anyone who had been appointed to senior office continued to support violence, that would not be noted and commented on adversely, with the person likely to be thrown out of office?

I come from a nationalist family background. It is not easy for me to think well of people on the Unionist side, but I have met many of them over the years, especially since being involved in parliamentary politics. I know some people who have served prison sentences for acts of extreme violence and murder, yet, if those people have changed—I believe that they have—I would support their standing for election and their holding senior office in the Assembly. The point is not a person's past, but their willingness to change and to be part of the future, not the past.

Life does not bring total guarantees. We are not talking about buying a fridge. In any step in life, nothing is guaranteed, but we take such steps because we are human beings and we wish to live and to get on with our lives. We want to live in peace with our fellow human beings.

The debate has concentrated entirely on the history of nationalist violence. Listening to it, one would hardly believe that there had been any from the other side, but we all know that it has a long record of violence, too, so why not be honest about it?

I did not read The Sunday Telegraph article that has been referred to, but I recently saw in another newspaper a photograph of a tiny toddler, who was far too young to understand the words on the bib around his neck: "Born to walk the Garvaghy Road".

When I saw that picture, I thought, "For every toddler who is wearing such a bib, there is a toddler in a nationalist household somewhere being taught: do not trust these people. Do not hand the guns in. Hide them instead because you do not know what will happen."

It was pointed out earlier that it is not so much about counting guns as changing minds. I thoroughly believe that. It is about changing minds and getting people to change their attitudes because that is what really counts.

If Opposition Members do not support the Bill because of their ludicrous idea that it has been introduced because of fear of nationalist violence, I will not believe that that is an honest position. They are doing great discredit to good people on their own side. It was marvellous when the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) won the praise of the world for coming together to fight for peace. We should support their efforts and get behind them.

Opposition Members will not get behind us, but what are they saying? Are they prepared to let things unravel again? We have still to hear positive proposals that are workable and bring together Northern Ireland in the way in which we want.

The Scottish Parliament is up and running. The Welsh Assembly is up and running. All hon. Members are anxious to see the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running, but, to achieve that, a change in spirit and attitude on all sides is required.

7.24 pm
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) will forgive me if I do not follow her. We are limited in time and other hon. Members wish to speak.

I disagree with much of the Prime Minister's policy, but I commend him for his persistence, perseverance and efforts in trying to bring a solution to Northern Ireland. We all recognise that he has built on the considerable and sustained work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). We may be coming to a point where peace is possible in Northern Ireland and it behoves us all to help that process. That is not to say that the Prime Minister has not made mistakes along the way. Some of the wording of the Good Friday agreement was so poor and lacking in precision that it allowed all sides to interpret it differently.

Some people will suggest that it is better to have any agreement, however faulty, than none. I am not one of those. In a Province where there has been some 300 years of distrust, any dispute as to the meaning of the words in an agreement gives rise to the suspicion of bad faith. I fear that the Belfast agreement and its consequence—the Northern Ireland Bill—may repeat that mistake.

I held a position of profound juniority in the Northern Ireland Office, but I recognise that those who do not live in Northern Ireland cannot understand what it must be like for those who do, or what it must be like for Northern Ireland Members who have seen their family, friends, neighbours and constituents bombed, beaten, shot and terrorised. The only time when terrorism can be understood, if not condoned, is when there is no alternative, no democracy, no hope. That is not the case with the IRA in Northern Ireland. It has no such excuse.

As a Conservative and a Unionist, I believe that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but, as a democrat, I believe that, if the people of Northern Ireland want it otherwise, they should have it otherwise. Consequently, the IRA has no right to use weapons and no excuse to hold them. It should get rid of them if it wishes to be part of the democratic process.

There are risks with the Bill. We all know from bitter experience that the IRA takes, takes and takes and gives nothing back, but is worth taking risks for the prize of peace. There are dangers, but those dangers are rather less real than some would suppose. Using the cold calculation of the balance sheet, I ask: what is the downside for Northern Ireland? What is the downside for the Ulster Unionists if the IRA refuses to disarm? Some gestures of symbolic significance will have been made, but nothing in practice will have changed, and the blame for the lack of disarmament will be fairly put on the IRA. The upside is different. If the IRA does surrender its weapons, the long-suffering democrats in Northern Ireland will have won a famous victory.

There is no doubt that releasing murderers sticks in everyone's craw. Releasing murderers with no reciprocal action by the IRA has been a profound mistake. I regret the equivocation of the SDLP, which makes the Ulster Unionists' agreement to the Bill all the more difficult. I would prefer it if the Bill made it clear that terrorists had to disarm and that, if they did not, their apologists or spokesmen and only their apologists or spokesmen, would be ejected from the Assembly and Executive.

Even if the Bill is not amended, however, I shall not oppose it. I believe that there is a chance of disarmament, and a chance of peace. Although I detest and distrust the IRA, I believe that it should be given a chance to change. We should determine to give peace a chance.

7.30 pm
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

On the subject of balance, it is a great pity that, on the Conservative side of the debate, so few of the colleagues of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) have taken the same thoughtful line as he has. However, others have lived up to their reputations.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) lived up to his reputation of not being able to see a belt without hitting below it. His imputation of dishonourable behaviour by the Prime Minister will be widely resented on both sides of the House and across the country. I do not think that I am anyone's idea of a slavish Government loyalist or any type of toady, but I do believe that the efforts of the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and her Ministers have been widely admired, not only across the country but around the world. To do as the right hon. and learned Gentleman did in accusing the Prime Minister of having dishonoured his promises was unworthy of a man who held the high office that he held for so long in the previous Government.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)—always less clear, more circumlocutory than the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe—left me unsure about whether he was supporting the Government's peace process—the words "like the rope supports the hanging man" came to mind—or whether he would be in the Government Lobby today, as the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire will be.

Nevertheless, I was sure that the support—if it was there—offered by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon was far less unequivocal than the support that was given to him earlier in the process, in very dark and difficult times, by the previous Opposition Front-Bench team. At that time, the right hon. Gentleman, who was then the Prime Minister, was telling us that it would be gut-wrenching and turn his stomach to talk to terrorists. Later, of course, it emerged that that is precisely what he had been doing for quite a considerable time in secret, without informing the House or the country.

Lord Whitelaw—whom we buried recently; that great statesman—had an even earlier try at lifting terrorist prisoners out of Long Kesh and bringing them to a posh house in Chelsea, to try to broker the type of peace that we now have so nearly within our grasp.

I understand why the Ulster Unionists—

Mr. Donaldson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Galloway

No; I have no time.

I understand why the Ulster Unionists take the position that they do—I know where they are coming from and the constituency that they represent. They are right to negotiate and haggle, to the last second, to protect the interests of their constituents, who are a vital and important part in the whole picture.

What I genuinely cannot understand is how, today, the Conservative party—a once great national party; once a party of government—could make a turn to such breathtaking irresponsibility, playing fast and loose with people's lives—which is what they are doing—by becoming the mainland political wing of Ulster Unionism. They have shown that breathtaking irresponsibility by quibbling and haggling over how many days is "days" and how many weeks is "weeks", whereas Ireland has waited not decades, but centuries to achieve the type of peace that we now have within our grasp—[Interruption.]

Unionist Members scoff, but they do not cut a very handsome figure. They should remember that the people of the United Kingdom mainland are those whose blood and treasure has to be expended to defend the Union and the Unionist population; who, for decades, have sent their soldiers on to the streets of Northern Ireland, to try to keep the peace and fight terrorism; and who have expended billions of our taxes to try to keep that peace. It is about time that Unionist Members remembered that they have to try to keep the British population on side as well, and stop being so selfish and irresponsible about it.

It is simply not true that the nationalists and the republicans have given nothing in the process. It is simply to fly in the face of reality to assert—as has been done today—that, somehow, they have come out winners in the process. The republican tradition has abandoned for all time the notion that anything other than the consent of the majority of the people of the six counties can change the constitutional course of events. That is a monumental change in republican thinking.

The Irish Republic has abandoned articles 2 and 3 of its constitution—[Interruption.] It has promised to do, and will do so, according to the terms of the agreement. Those articles were central to the very foundation of that state.

The IRA has for a very long time been on a military ceasefire. When I heard the former Home Secretary recite the dismal litany of events to which he was witness—las all of us were—and all the blood and suffering that he saw in his time in government, I wondered how he could seem so sanguine about the possibility of returning to all that.

In the 60 seconds left to me, I say only that, if the process all comes crashing down, the echoes will be long and loud in Ireland, both north and south, and here on the British mainland. Many more people will suffer the awful misery to which the former Home Secretary referred. Avoiding that is the prize in front of us—making all that a part of the troubled history of Britain and of Ireland, and looking forward to a new future. Only a madman would wish to take risks—

Mr. Howard


Mr. Galloway

I am sorry to say that I have no time. I have been told to sit down at 7.38 pm, although I have waited all day to make this speech.

Only a madman would wish to risk bringing all that crashing down, rather than allow days or weeks to pass before we could see whether the promises that have been made are going to be kept.

7.38 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway), I have been waiting all day—to reply to the speeches.

The debate has been one of those occasions in the House that will be memorable. We have had a relatively short debate on an exceptionally important issue. I think that all the different points of view that have been expressed add richness, if nothing else, to the House and its debating facility. I think also that no one in the Chamber—from whatever party he comes, or whatever views he may have on the Good Friday agreement—is opposed to the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

All those who have spoken in the debate want peace, although they may, of course, come from different directions on the issues. Most of them expressed a desire for a political settlement. Certainly, the bulk of those who have spoken want a political settlement that is based on the Good Friday agreement—for which the people of Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly, by a 71 per cent. majority.

A couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister expressed three principles to the Northern Ireland parties. First, did they agree with an Executive which was truly inclusive? Secondly, did they agree that there was a need under the Good Friday agreement to decommission? Thirdly, did they agree that there was huge significance in the role of the Independent Commission on Decommissioning, headed by General de Chastelain? The parties were asked to address those issues. That was the basis on which the two Prime Ministers went into the negotiations in Castle buildings the week before last.

We have looked today at certainty, testing, assurance and failsafe. Some of us think that we have got it right; others think that we were getting it right, but that we have not quite got it right. We will reflect on the points made during the Second Reading debate, and those to be made in Committee later this evening. Those points can be raised again—and addressed if necessary—in the other place.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) opened the debate, and talked about the Good Friday agreement being a huge compromise—which it is. In a sense, we have been talking today about the compromise between unionism and nationalism going forward. That makes legislation very difficult. We are not legislating for an Assembly in Cardiff or a Parliament in Edinburgh. The basis upon which the Bill is founded is the Good Friday agreement. That, in turn, is based upon an arrangement that means we can have devolution, and all the other institutions that go with it, only if we can carry through unionism and nationalism at the same time. That is extremely difficult, but it is vital in considering the Bill and anything else that appertains to the Good Friday agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the slow progress on decommissioning, and he is right. We have had slow progress, although we have made progress, on various aspects of devolution, but that is not unexpected. After 30 years of conflict and distrust—and even longer periods of dislike, and even hatred, between the communities of Northern Ireland—who would have thought that this could have been done quickly?

When George Mitchell said after the agreement was signed that the troubles were beginning and that the difficulties were starting in terms of implementing the agreement, he was right. In many respects, it is right that we negotiate hard and that we discuss with great intensity the matters that are before us—whether it is the number of Ministers in the Cabinet, the North-South implementation bodies or, vitally, the question of decommissioning and its relationship with devolution.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell and others referred to a timetable, and we shall discuss that in greater detail later. However, I must stress above all that the Independent Commission on Decommissioning must be genuinely independent. We cannot compromise that. What we do in this House—legislating, as we do, for the British Parliament—is not enough on its own, because the agreement is based on an understanding between nationalism and unionism. So far—and so good—both nationalism and unionism have expressed the highest confidence in the Independent Commission on Decommissioning, and in General de Chastelain personally. I know that the right hon. Member for Bracknell shares that view. It is vital that that independence is retained.

We will see in the debates to follow that the general laid down an indicative timetable, and referred to a timetable in paragraph 21. His statement on the Friday in question mentioned "days" at the beginning of the process of decommissioning, and "weeks" in terms of actual decommissioning taking place. We will return to that matter later, and in some detail.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell referred to exclusion. The effect of excluding, expelling or suspending is all the same because, ultimately, we will end up in the same place. I repeat—we are dealing not with Cardiff or Edinburgh, but with Belfast and the agreement based on the concord between unionism and nationalism. We will end up all the time with review—inevitably, because that is what the Good Friday agreement said, and that is what the people voted for.

If the process goes wrong, if decommissioning does not occur, if devolution does not occur, or if all other aspects of the agreement are not working, the only way in which we can resolve the matter is through review, according to the Good Friday agreement. We have a part to play, and that is why we are meeting today. Things have developed, in the sense that the purpose of the meeting of the two Prime Ministers at Castle buildings was to try to get out of the deadlock and the impasse. The sequencing of devolution and decommissioning is precise, as is the method by which we would contest those who would go back on their pledges.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), in a powerful speech, referred to the commitment to inclusion, which he made eloquently. He and his party have said that they are not opposed to an inclusive Executive. He said that his party was concerned about the guarantees, the failsafe, the assurances and the certainties, but that the idea of an inclusive Executive was part of his party's policy. I agree with that entirely.

The right hon. Gentleman was concerned that, while the review could lead to the exclusion of the offending party, it could lead also to his own party coming under pressure to overlook a breach and to move forward with the Executive unchanged. No one can be certain of the outcome of any review, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and his party that they will come under no pressure from this Government in those circumstances.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume)—who, with others, has been instrumental in bringing about this process—indicated, rightly, that people in Northern Ireland were not politicians and that they were anxious that there should be progress. I agree entirely. Outside this Chamber, and outside the Northern Ireland Assembly, there are 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland who want and deserve peace and political stability. A great burden lies on our shoulders collectively as politicians to try to ensure that that is achieved.

It is important politically to remember that, if Sinn Fein advances politically, the party which has more to lose than any other is the SDLP, in the sense that the politics of Northern Ireland will result, inevitably, in people voting for nationalist parties and people voting for Unionist parties. The hon. Gentleman's points were valid, and we will look again at them.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) started this process and we pay tribute to him for that role, including his campaigning for the Good Friday agreement in the referendum in Northern Ireland. He helped to persuade many people to vote for it. He made a number of important points, some of which I shall try to answer.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we would encourage General de Chastelain to publish the full schedule and timetable for disarmament. The joint statement calls for the commission to specify two key dates—when the process should start and when actual decommissioning should begin. It must be completed by May 2000, and the commission will report in September, December and May—and more often if necessary.

General de Chastelain said in his report of 2 July that he was prepared to define a detailed timetable for decommissioning, following discussions with representatives of the organisations. Clearly, there will be a detailed timetable. Under the Bill, if the general lays down a timetable, it must be kept to, or he will blow the whistle. I recognise that the publication of the full timetable would encourage confidence. Equally, it is a matter for the general and his colleagues to decide whether they should do that. He has a vital, but delicate, task. He must command confidence on all sides if he is to succeed. I can ensure that the general sees the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman, and we will take it from there.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether any breach of the disarmament schedule would lead to suspension. The answer to that is yes.

Mr. Cash

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Murphy

No, I had better press on. I have only five minutes left to answer everyone, and it is important that I reply to the points raised by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon. A breach of the disarmament schedule would lead to suspension. Failure to take any step specified by the commission leads automatically and immediately to suspension.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon asked whether prisoner releases would be stopped if a party were excluded from the Executive. We have already made it clear that, under the Good Friday agreement, prisoner releases are linked to the continuing ceasefires. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said that one of the factors to be taken into account under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 is whether an organisation is fully co-operating with the Decommissioning Commission.

My right hon. Friend keeps the prisoner release scheme under close review on the basis of the best security advice available. Clearly, if the process is suspended because decommissioning commitments are not being met, that factor would weigh especially heavily on my right hon. Friend's judgment about the status of the relevant ceasefire. Equally, if the Assembly, on a cross-community basis, decided that a party should not hold office, that, too, would be a relevant consideration in deciding whether any linked paramilitary organisation is on ceasefire. I have not the slightest doubt that in any review that would follow suspension for that reason, that those other matters—especially prisoner release, but others as well—would be open to discussion.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon also asked whether we could confirm that the British and Irish Governments are agreed on the Bill. Our relationship as Governments has never been closer and we agreed fully on the way forward. We will work together to implement the proposals made by the two Prime Ministers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made the point about the silence of the guns. That is significant and nobody underestimates it. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik)—we thank him and his party for their support on the Bill—referred to civil society and the significant fact that the people in Northern Ireland want this to work. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) rightly emphasised the fact that the process is two-sided, and that we cannot go ahead without unionism and nationalism both agreeing on where we go. He also emphasised the principle of consent.

I understand the feelings of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) about the issue that he raised, especially because of his earlier ministerial position, but I suspect from his comments that he was not too keen on the idea of inclusivity in any event, even if we did not have this failsafe legislation in place.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) asked why we are legislating now. That is a fair question and we all hope that the legislation will not be used, but if it were and we were in a recess, it would difficult to recall Parliament to consider the matter. It is also better to have the legislation because a failsafe mechanism will give assurances to all concerned. The whole House will have heard the hon. Gentleman's assurance that, in a review such as that to which I and others have referred, the defaulters will not be the beneficiaries and his party will not shrink from penalties if necessary.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) talked about my waving papers at him in our meetings last week. We will be waving more papers at him during the Committee stage of the Bill, but I am not sure that he is keen on the whole business anyway. Certainly, I know that he and his party have made it clear that they are in favour of devolution to Northern Ireland. I only hope that he and his colleagues will be able to support devolution in Northern Ireland when that occurs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) emphasised the need for trust in the whole process. She has been committed to the role of women in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to her for that. I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) for his support, despite his misgivings about the process and the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Kelvin gave his usual rousing speech.

The people of Northern Ireland are looking to us in this Chamber and to the parties in Northern Ireland to settle this impasse and to break the deadlock. Unless there are any better ideas, this Bill is the best chance to ensure that devolution and decommissioning occur. Can anyone give me any assurance that any other idea would produce decommissioning better than the suggestions in the Bill? Is there any other way to test Sinn Fein on decommissioning? Is there any other way to bring nationalism and unionism together so as to ensure an opportunity to test the arrangements? I do not think so and, as a consequence, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 312, Noes 19.

Division No. 234] [7.55 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Bell, Martin (Tatton)
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)
Ainger, Nick Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)
Alexander, Douglas Bennett, Andrew F
Allan, Richard Best, Harold
Allen, Graham Betts, Clive
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Blackman, Liz
Ashton, Joe Blair, Rt Hon Tony
Atkins, Charlotte Blunkett, Rt Hon David
Banks, Tony Boateng, Paul
Barnes, Harry Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Beard, Nigel Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Breed, Colin
Begg, Miss Anne Brinton, Mrs Helen
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) George, Andrew (St Ives)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Browne, Desmond Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Burden, Richard Godman, Dr Norman A
Burstow, Paul Godsiff, Roger
Butler, Mrs Christine Golding, Mrs Llin
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Gorrie, Donald
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NEFife) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Grocott, Bruce
Campbell-Savours, Dale Grogan, John
Cann, Jamie Gunnell, John
Casale, Roger Hain, Peter
Caton, Martin Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Cawsey, Ian Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Chisholm, Malcolm Hancock, Mike
Clapham, Michael Hanson, David
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Harris, Dr Evan
Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Healey, John
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Clwyd, Ann Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Coaker, Vernon Hesford, Stephen
Coffey, Ms Ann Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Cohen, Harry Hill, Keith
Coleman, Iain Hodge, Ms Margaret
Colman, Tony Hoey, Kate
Connarty, Michael Home Robertson, John
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hood, Jimmy
Corbyn, Jeremy Hoon, Geoffrey
Corston, Ms Jean Hopkins, Kelvin
Cotter, Brian Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cousins, Jim Hoyle, Lindsay
Cox, Tom Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cranston, Ross Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hume, John
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Hutton, John
Cummings, John Illsley, Eric
Cunliffe, Lawrence Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland) Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Jenkins, Brian
Dalyell, Tarn Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Uanelli) Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Dawson, Hilton
Dean, Mrs Janet Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dismore, Andrew Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Donohoe, Brian H Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Doran, Frank Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Dowd, Jim Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Eagle, Maria (L 'pool Garston) Keeble, Ms Sally
Edwards, Huw Kelly, Ms Ruth
Ellman, Mrs Louise Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Ennis, Jeff Khabra, Piara S
Etherington, Bill Kidney, David
Feam, Ronnie Kilfoyle, Peter
Field, Rt Hon Frank King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Fisher, Mark Kumar, Dr Ashok
Fitzsimons, Lorna Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Flint, Caroline Lepper, David
Flynn, Paul Leslie, Christopher
Follett, Barbara Levitt, Tom
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Foster, Don (Bath) Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Fyfe, Maria Linton, Martin
Galloway, George Uwyd, Elfyn
Gapes, Mike Love, Andrew
Gardiner, Barry McAllion, John
McAvoy, Thomas Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
McCabe, Steve Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Roche, Mrs Barbara
McDonagh, Siobhain Rooker, Jeff
Macdonald, Calum Rooney, Terry
McDonnell, John Rowlands, Ted
McFall, John Roy, Frank
McGrady, Eddie Ruane, Chris
McGuire, Mrs Anne Ruddock, Joan
McIsaac, Shona Russell, Bob (Colchester)
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Ryan, Ms Joan
Mackinlay, Andrew Salter, Martin
McNamara, Kevin Sanders, Adrian
McNulty, Tony Sarwar, Mohammad
MacShane, Denis Sawford, Phil
Mactaggart, Fiona Shaw, Jonathan
Mahon, Mrs Alice Sheerman, Barry
Mallaber, Judy Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Mallon, Seamus Short, Rt Hon Clare
Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter Singh, Marsha
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Skinner, Dennis
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Martlew, Eric Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Maxton, John Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Meale, Alan Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Merron, Gillian Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Soley, Clive
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Southworth, Ms Helen
Milbum, Rt Hon Alan Squire, Ms Rachel
Moffatt, Laura Steinberg, Gerry
Moonie, Dr Lewis Stevenson, George
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway) Stinchcombe, Paul
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Stoate, Dr Howard
Morley, Elliot Stott, Roger
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Mudie, George Stringer, Graham
Mullin, Chris Stuart, Ms Gisela
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
O'Hara, Eddie Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Olner, Bill Temple-Morris, Peter
Öpik, Lembit Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Organ, Mrs Diana Tipping, Paddy
Osborne, Ms Sandra Touhig, Don
Palmer, Dr Nick Trickett, Jon
Perham, Ms Linda Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Pickthall, Colin Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Pike, Peter L Tyler, Paul
Plaskitt, James Vaz, Keith
Pollard, Kerry Vis, Dr Rudi
Pond, Chris Wareing, Robert N
Webb, Steve
Pope, Greg Welsh, Andrew
Pound, Stephen White, Brian
Powell, Sir Raymond Whitehead, Dr Alan
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Wicks, Malcolm
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Primarolo, Dawn Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Ken Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Quinn, Lawrie Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Rapson, Syd Willis, Phil
Raynsford, Nick Winnick, David
Wise, Audrey Tellers for the Ayes:
Wood, Mike
Worthington, Tony Mr. David Jamieson and
Wyatt, Derek Mr. David Clelland.
Beggs, Roy Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Body, Sir Richard Swayne, Desmond
Cash, William Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
Donaldson, Jeffrey Thompson, William
Forsythe, Clifford Trimble, Rt Hon David
Gill, Christopher Wilkinson, John
Hunter, Andrew Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfied)
McCartney, Robert (N Down)
Maclean, Rt Hon David Tellers for the Noes:
Paisley, Rev Ian Mr. William Ross and
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Rev. Martin Smyth.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Further proceedings stood postponed, pursuant to Order [this day].