HC Deb 08 February 2000 vol 344 cc196-220
Mr. William Ross

I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 1, line 22, leave out subsection (1).

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 16, in page 2, line 3, leave out subsection (3).

No. 20, in page 2, line 4, at end insert— (3A) The Secretary of State shall publish the complete text of a review under the Validation, Implementation and Review section of the Belfast Agreement. (3B) The Secretary of State shall publish the complete text of any report from the Commission on Decommissioning that may be made in connection with the review conducted under subsection (1).'.

Mr. Ross

I promise not to go on quite as long this evening as I did a week or two ago, because, unfortunately, we have tighter time restrictions.

Amendment No. 15 would delete the lines printed in italics at the bottom of page 1 of the Bill. I do not understand why they are printed in italics, but they say: "As soon as is reasonably practicable after section 1 comes into force, the Secretary of State must take steps to initiate a review under the Validation, Implementation and Review section of the Belfast Agreement." Amendment No. 16 would remove from subsection (3) the words: Before making a restoration order, the Secretary of State must take into account the result of the review conducted as a result of subsection (1). Several issues cause me concern. At no time during the Secretary of State's statement to the House last week or his answers to the subsequent questions did he refer to a review. The review came out of the blue. It has already been pointed out that the Secretary of State has other powers that he could use, but he has chosen to go for a review.

May we be told why we were not informed last week? Was it because the Bill had to be drawn up at the very last minute? I doubt it. I have been here long enough to know that Governments tend to have all sorts of contingency plans on the shelf, to pull out of a pigeonhole when needed and polished up. If the right hon. Gentleman knew before his statement that he was going to have a review, why did he not tell the House and the people of Northern Ireland? That straightforward question should receive a straightforward answer.

Did the right hon. Gentleman think that the weapons problem could be dealt with some other way—that he could go down another path, which turned out to be blocked? He made it perfectly plain in his answers on 3 February that weapons had to be dealt with or there would not be devolution because the agreement had not been fully implemented. We hear about full implementation when it concerns something of which the terrorist organisations approve but not when it is something of which the law-abiding population might approve. Stopping the release of prisoners and other things to put on pressure are not done.

The Government's one real lever against the IRA was prisoners. They and their families were exerting pressure on the IRA, on the ground. None of those people should have been let out the gate until such time as weapons were given up. That is the view of everyone in Northern Ireland who understands the mentality of those folk. The Government refused to understand. They threw away their strongest card and let out prisoners, so their leverage against the IRA disappeared. I have no doubt, as the release of prisoners is to continue, that it will be played out right up to July, until the very last of those fellows is out through the gate—including the two chaps that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) mentioned, who were sentenced for a double murder only last week.

There could be no doubt where the Unionist population stand. To them, weapons always have been, and are, the litmus test of whether or not the IRA-Sinn Fein system of terror, murder and intimidation will move to democracy. Weapons are the key. The distance that my hon. Friend has travelled is not a distance that I would have travelled. My experience of those people, given that I live among a fair number of them, is perhaps greater than some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I know how they think and react. If one wanted to put pressure on those people, it had to be done in a different way than giving in to them.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) also recognised that point? He said that there should be no guns on the table, under the table or outside the door.

Mr. Ross

Perfectly correct, but that view seems to have vanished into the past. The SDLP, it seems, wants to forget about that. All it wants now is an ounce of Semtex left at the door—token decommissioning. We were told that at the weekend. It is not sufficient for the people of Northern Ireland and certainly not sufficient for the Unionist party. Its position is perfectly clear. After this time, there must be a massive giving up of weapons and explosives—the means of violence and war.

During the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who has just left his place, I referred to the Secretary of State's words on 3 February, when he was very precise about his intentions. He said that he would not be suspending the agreement—that it would remain intact, as would the consequences of its creation and all its actions.

I am not clear how the Secretary of State intends to proceed with the review. The Belfast agreement contains three conditions under which a review can take place. [Interruption.] I understand that the two Ministers on the Front Bench know all about this and do not have to listen. I would like to know which of those three conditions applies in this instance. The agreement states, first: Each institution may, at any time, review any problems that may arise in its operation and, where no other institution is affected, take remedial action in consultation as necessary with the relevant Government or Governments. It will be for each institution to determine its own procedures for review. Under that procedure, the Assembly can take its own decisions and talk only to the Governments as necessary. I assume that the institutions mentioned refer to the two Governments and the Assembly, rather than to the various bodies which flow from the operation of the Assembly.

The second set of circumstances is: If there are difficulties in the operation of a particular institution, which have implications for another institution, they may review their operations separately and jointly and agree on remedial action to be taken under their respective authorities. That would seem to involve a combination of institutions, all having to take separate reviews—followed by a joint review—and then agreeing. That is rather complicated, and I cannot see it meeting with much success if what the Secretary of State said about the frailty of the process and the structure is accurate. A structure that cannot stand another election and still survive has a mighty poor chance of surviving into adulthood.

The third set of circumstances is: If difficulties arise which require remedial action across the range of institutions, or otherwise require amendment of the British-Irish Agreement or relevant legislation, the process of review will fall to the two Governments in consultation with the parties in the Assembly. Each Government will be responsible for action in its own jurisdiction. In this case, the two Governments have to take the lead and then consult with the parties in the Assembly. They do not have to get the parties in the Assembly to agree with them—they can go ahead in any case.

Which of those courses of action—or which combination of them—applies in this case? It might be difficult to have a combination, and it may have to be one. What criteria will the Secretary of State use to make up his mind? When he does make up his mind, will he tell the House which set of criteria he is taking into account and applying? When the review is set up, can we be told what items it will look at? How are the decisions within the review to be reached? Who will make the decisions? What evidence or reasons will be published so people understand what is going on?

Clause 3(2)—which refers to the restoration, as it were—gives the impression that the Secretary of State should not be involved in the review because, if he were, he would have to be not only the investigator and the chairman, but the jury and the judge in regard to whether or not he would restore the Assembly to operation. In those circumstances, we need to know the evidence. We need to know who will chair the review. We need to know the criteria, and the task that the review is being given.

The only reason for this debate is the refusal of the terrorist organisations to hand over their weapons—their firearms and their other means of murdering, blackmailing and intimidating the law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland, and of this wider nation. If we are to go beyond the weaponry, we must be told why, what steps are to be taken into account and what is to be reviewed in the next few weeks.

9.15 pm

It has already been said that we are here tonight because of the failure of the IRA to decommission and to surrender its weapons to lawful authority in Northern Ireland or in the Irish Republic, and for that reason we should have sight of the de Chastelain reports—both the one that has been completed and any future reports. That is the key. If people could see the report, the debate today would be far more sensible. People would know exactly where they stood and we would not have had all the spin doctoring and the smoke and mirrors of the past week. The lack of precision, the double meaning, the ambiguity, and the nods and winks giving the impression that something is happening when nothing is happening, have been the root cause of the suspicion and anger that we have had in Northern Ireland for so long.

I tell Ministers—not that I expect them to take it on board, but I tell them anyway—that the mere fact that they refuse to publish the de Chastelain report only adds to the anger and suspicion, and makes any settlement far more difficult. It may be that, because Ministers live in the rarefied world of spin doctoring that so many in the House now inhabit, they are incapable of understanding the effect of the refusal to release the report on ordinary men and women in Northern Ireland, but the effect is real and the report should be published.

Mr. Hunter

I tabled amendment No. 20 in the spirit of the words of my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) to avoid the ambiguity and obtain the clarification that is lacking. As clause 2 (3) stands, before making a restoration order, the Secretary of State must take into account the result of the review conducted". I submit that a requirement to take into account is wholly inadequate and what is needed is the requirement contained in amendment No. 20. First, the Secretary of State should be required to publish the complete text of the review that has been undertaken and, secondly—and more importantly, in the light of the general thrust of our debate this evening—he should be required to publish the complete text of any report from the commission on decommissioning.

At this stage, with little time left, I shall not rehearse the arguments again, because they have been forcefully presented by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Government have totally failed to convince us as to why the de Chastelain report should not have been made available to the House and amendment No. 20 would ensure that that would never happen again.

Mr. Robathan

I shall not detain the House long, because I merely wish to speak briefly in support of amendment No. 20. I notice Ministers muttering on the Treasury Bench, but perhaps they should consider more fully the implications of what they are doing. The issue of the de Chastelain report is a question of confidence and trust. There can be no trust if we are not allowed to see the report. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether it refers to the intention of the IRA and Sinn Fein to decommission. We are being asked to legislate without knowing what on earth the report says, but that is leaping hopefully in the dark.

The Secretary of State said on Second Reading that there is no body of opinion in the nationalist community that is opposed to decommissioning. So can the Minister tell us what was in the report? Was there anything to suggest that a body of opinion in the nationalist community—that must include everybody in the nationalist community—is opposed to decommissioning?

If Sinn Fein is inextricably linked to the IRA, we must know about Real Sinn Fein, Continuity Sinn Fein and all the other splinter groups. They were in the IRA about two and a half years ago. Are they really so different? Does the Minister have any information—is there any in the de Chastelain report—about such groups as Real Sinn Fein and their links with the rest of the Provisional IRA? It is as certain as it could be that the leadership of the IRA and of Sinn Fein know who is in Real IRA because they used to have an organisation that included them. That relates also to the prosecution of the Omagh bombers, of whom only one has so far been arrested. Does the report say anything about that? It has been alleged that two Members of this House, Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness—not yet hon. Members, because they have not taken the oath—may know who these people are. Have they helped in any way in the prosecution of the Omagh bombers?

We need to see that report so that we can make a judgment on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom. We do not trust Ministers to make it for us.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I, too, do not want to detain the House. However, I was most disappointed at the Minister's earlier suggestion that we were playing some sort of game over this issue, which goes to the heart of the matter. If the report is not published and made known to us, and if we are not given a chance to debate it, how will it be possible to convince Sinn Fein-IRA that this House and our Government are serious about the need for decommissioning? If we are not to have the opportunity to question Ministers on how much movement they require before considering invoking clause 2, how will we know—and how will they know—whether or not the whole process is nothing more than a charade in the eyes of Ministers? Will the Minister clarify again whether the Government have a right to publish the report independent of any permission or agreement from the other Government, who claim that it is their property as well? In the absence of a clear reply, we do not know whether Ministers can activate clause 2 when they believe it appropriate to do so without the prior agreement of the other Government. Neither do we know what change there must be in circumstances, and what criteria the Minister will objectively apply before invoking clause 2.

Mr. Thompson

Clause 2 provides that, after the Assembly is suspended and the Executive members lose their posts, a review has to take place. The review seems to be very limited, as it centres mainly on decommissioning—when it will take place, if it will take place, when weapons will start to be given up and when it will be completed. These matters have been debated on numerous occasions. As a result of understandings reached in the last review, it was assumed that they had been resolved. However, as we have come to see, they have not been resolved. It is unlikely that they will be resolved in any review—certainly not to the satisfaction of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.

The review should be much wider, taking into account the changes that have taken place in the people of Northern Ireland and their views, especially in the Unionist community. For it is absolutely clear that the majority of people in the Unionist community no longer support the agreement.

We have always been told that any future Government of Northern Ireland and any future Assembly must have the support of the majority of both sides of the community. Support is obviously lacking on the Unionist side of the community. If support were lacking on the nationalist side, we would be told that a wide-ranging review would be needed. However, it seems not to matter when support no longer exists in the Unionist part of the community—it seems that we shall plod on anyway.

I implore Ministers to undertake a wide-ranging review that considers all the issues, rather than just decommissioning. We need a thorough review so that we may achieve proper administration for Northern Ireland that is democratic, accountable and supported by all the people.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The Secretary of State's explanation of the Government's reasons for not publishing the de Chastelain report are totally unsatisfactory. We have not got to the bottom of the question whether the Irish Government have a veto. We had the bizarre statement that if General de Chastelain produces a third report, it will, even if entirely unpalatable and full of unwelcome news, be published along with the second.

By not publishing the report, the Government have let fly a flurry of speculation. First, there is speculation about what the report contains—and that may be damaging, because rumour builds on rumour, and speculation on speculation. Secondly, there is speculation about why the Government are not publishing it. Their refusal does them no credit, and it does the House no credit given that our whole debate has been triggered by the report and the IRA's refusal to disarm. Hon. Members are grown-ups, and the general public watching our proceedings must find it bizarre that we have not been made party to the critical information that has triggered the debate. I appeal to the Minister to give us a serious and sensible reason why the report has not been published.

Mr. George Howarth

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) seeks to remove the requirement for a review. Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 contradict the main purpose of suspension, which will come about only if it becomes clear that the political institutions no longer carry cross-community support and confidence. If that happens, it will be essential to bring the process back on track through discussion and negotiation. In other words, we will need a review.

That fact was recognised during the negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday agreement, which is why the agreement includes a section titled "Validation, implementation and review". If suspension occurred without a subsequent review, we might find ourselves in a dangerous political vacuum, and that could lead to the destruction of everything for which we have worked for so long. Almost certainly, the Good Friday agreement would end, because suspension without a follow-on would end the story.

A desire to see that state of affairs come about may well lie behind the hon. Gentleman's amendments. The Bill is intended not to suspend the agreement, but to save it. Although I know that the hon. Gentleman—he posed a series of questions, but he appears to have left the Chamber—would disagree with me, I hope he would accept that we are being consistent. I am convinced that the twin proposal of suspension followed by review will bring us to a positive outcome. We cannot do that by suspension alone. I cannot in all conscience recommend that we accept amendments Nos. 15 and 16.

9.30 pm

I understand the rationale behind amendment No. 20, tabled by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter)—that the review be carried out as openly as possible. The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) made a similar point. Given the nature of the discussions that are likely to take place, complete public openness will not always be possible if we are to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Right hon. and hon. Members can envisage circumstances in which some talks would need to take place away from the public gaze. In the past, some talks between parties have taken place in a way that protected the participants and allowed them the space to decide in which direction to move.

However, it is our intention to be as open as possible and to make as much information as possible available to the public, to the House and to anybody else. At present, it is not entirely clear how the review will operate; we do not know who will chair it, or how, when, where or between whom the meetings will take place. Those details will need to be worked out, if and when the institutions are suspended.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry speculated that more detailed arrangements might be in hand, and were ready to be executed. However, in reality, we shall have to cross the bridge, and then my right hon. Friend and others will have to make the arrangements. We cannot give detailed answers at present, because we have not yet crossed that bridge—of deciding on suspension.

Until the shape of the review and its terms of reference are finalised, it is not possible to say whether there will be a report. However, the provision is not one of such import that it should be included in the Bill. It is a marginal issue when compared with provisions elsewhere in the Bill.

The second part of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Basingstoke concerns the publication of a decommissioning report during any suspension period. At present, I cannot say whether a further decommissioning commission report will be issued soon. General de Chastelain may have something new to report at any time, but it is within the commission's discretion to decide whether and when to issue such a report. If the general issues another report, I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be brought to the attention of the House and that its primary findings will be made public. Consequently, I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. William Ross

I have been a Member of this place for a fair number of years, Sir Alan. It is rare that a Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and asks hon. Members to accept legislation such that we know not what it will do, nor how, nor why, and we know not who is in charge of it. In the light of the Minister's inadequate response, we must press the matter to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 301.

Division No. 66] [9.34 pm
Beggs, Roy Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Flight, Howard Swayne, Desmond
Hunter, Andrew Thompson, William
Maclean, Rt Hon David
Paisley, Rev Ian Tellers for the Ayes:
Robertson, Laurence Rev. Martin Smyth and
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Mr. Andrew Robathan.
Abbott, Ms Diane Bradshaw, Ben
Ainger, Nick Brinton, Mrs Helen
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Alexander, Douglas Browne, Desmond
Allen, Graham Buck, Ms Karen
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Burden, Richard
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Burgon, Colin
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Burstow, Paul
Atherton, Ms Candy Butler, Mrs Christine
Atkins, Charlotte Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Austin, John Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)
Ballard, Jackie
Barnes, Harry Campbell-Savours, Dale
Battle, John Cann, Jamie
Bayley, Hugh Casale, Roger
Beard, Nigel Caton, Martin
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Cawsey, Ian
Beith, Rt Hon A J Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Chaytor, David
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Chidgey, David
Benton, Joe Clapham, Michael
Berry, Roger Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Best, Harold Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Betts, Clive Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Blackman, Liz Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Blears, Ms Hazel Clelland, David
Blizzard, Bob Clwyd, Ann
Borrow, David Coffey, Ms Ann
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Coleman, Iain
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Colman, Tony
Connarty, Michael Howells, Dr Kim
Cooper, Yvette Hoyle, Lindsay
Corbett, Robin Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Corbyn, Jeremy Humble, Mrs Joan
Cotter, Brian Hurst, Alan
Cousins, Jim Iddon, Dr Brian
Cox, Tom Illsley, Eric
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Cummings, John Jamieson, David
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Jenkins, Brian
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dalyell, Tam
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Darvill, Keith Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dawson, Hilton Khabra, Piara S
Dean, Mrs Janet Kidney, David
Denham, John Kilfoyle, Peter
Dobbin, Jim King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Doran, Frank Kirkwood, Archy
Dowd, Jim Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Drew, David Laxton, Bob
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Lepper, David
Edwards, Huw Leslie, Christopher
Efford, Clive Levitt, Tom
Ellman, Mrs Louise Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Etherington, Bill Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Field, Rt Hon Frank Linton, Martin
Fisher, Mark Livsey, Richard
Fitzsimons, Loma Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Flint, Caroline Love, Andrew
Flynn, Paul McAvoy, Thomas
Follett, Barbara McCabe, Steve
Foster, Rt Hon Derek McCafferty, Ms Chris
Foster, Don (Bath) McDonagh, Siobhain
Fyfe, Maria Macdonald, Calum
Galbraith, Sam McDonnell, John
Galloway, George McFall, John
Gardiner, Barry McGrady, Eddie
George, Andrew (St Ives) McIsaac, Shona
Gerrard, Neil McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Gilroy, Mrs Linda Mackinlay, Andrew
Godman, Dr Norman A McNamara, Kevin
Goggins, Paul McWalter, Tony
Golding, Mrs Llin McWilliam, John
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Mahon, Mrs Alice
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Mallaber, Judy
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Grocott, Bruce Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Grogan, John Marshall, David (Shettteston)
Hain, Peter Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Martlew, Eric
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Maxton, John
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hanson, David Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Harris, Dr Evan Miller, Andrew
Harvey, Nick Moonie, Dr Lewis
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Moore, Michael
Healey, John Moran, Ms Margaret
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Heppell, John Moriey, Elliot
Hesford, Stephen Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hill, Keith
Hinchliffe, David Mountford, Kali
Hoey, Kate Mudie, George
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Mullin, Chris
Hope, Phil Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Norris, Dan Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
O'Hara, Eddie Smith, Jacqui (Redditeh)
O'Neill, Martin Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Öpik, Lembit Snape, Peter
Organ, Mrs Diana Soley, Clive
Pearson, Ian Southworth, Ms Helen
Perham, Ms Linda Squire, Ms Rachel
Pickthall, Colin Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Pike, Peter L Stinchcombe, Paul
Plaskitt, James Stoate, Dr Howard
Pollard, Kerry Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Pond, Chris Stringer, Graham
Pope, Greg Stuart, Ms Gisela
Pound, Stephen Stunell, Andrew
Powell, Sir Raymond Sutcliffe, Gerry
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Prescott, Rt Hon John
Primarolo, Dawn Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Prosser, Gwyn Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Purchase, Ken Temple-Morris, Peter
Quinn, Lawrie Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Timms, Stephen
Rammell, Bill Tipping, Paddy
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Todd, Mark
Rendel, David Touhig, Don
Roche, Mrs Barbara Trickett, Jon
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Truswell, Paul
Rooney, Terry Turner, Dennis (Wdverh'ton SE)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Rowlands, Ted Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Roy, Frank Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Ruane, Chris Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Ruddock, Joan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Tyler, Paul
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Vis, Dr Rudi
Sanders, Adrian Webb, Steve
Sarwar, Mohammad White, Brian
Savidge, Malcolm Whitehead, Dr Alan
Sawford, Phil Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Sedgemore, Brian Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Shaw, Jonathan Winnfck, David
Sheerman, Barry Wise, Audrey
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wood, Mike
Shipley, Ms Debra Woolas, Phil
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Worthington, Tony
Singh, Marsha
Skinner, Dennis Tellers for the Noes:
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Mrs. Anne McGuire and
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Mr. Tony McNulty.

Question accordingly negatived.

THE CHAIRMAN then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour.

Clauses 2 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

9.46 pm
Mr. Mandelson

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

Having listened to the debate, I have no doubt how most hon. Members would sum up the views of the House. There are those in the House who reject the entire notion of inclusive government. They would rather not have self-government than share it with those whom they consider beneath contempt.

Those who reject self-government because they cannot bear the idea of sharing it with others do not speak for the majority of people in Northern Ireland, who have demonstrated beyond doubt that they like devolution, they like having their own Executive, and they like having locally elected people who are democratically accountable—local voices taking decisions on local issues, and people with local accents in charge of local affairs.

What unites most of us is not a rejectionist mentality. Most of us, of whatever party or leaning, want the Good Friday agreement to succeed. There are aspects of it that some do not like, but they realise that the agreement stands or falls as a whole. It must be taken as a job lot. It cannot be cherry-picked. It must go forward together or not at all.

Most of us in the House commend the Unionists for letting devolution happen, and we share their disappointment that decommissioning has not followed. I do not believe that any hon. Member would honestly or realistically deny that the original deal following Mitchell was that if the Unionists went first, others would follow, and that following devolution, a start on decommissioning would be made not long afterwards.

What also joins most of us in the House is that we are not obsessed with attaching blame to anyone. We are not interested in spreading recrimination for our current difficulties. We would prefer people to make the agreement work, rather than stand accused of acting in bad faith. Accusing people of bad faith and of letting others down gets us nowhere. I am struck and I feel encouraged by the marked absence of recrimination.

Mr. Thompson


Mr. Mandelson

No, I am sorry, I shall make my speech. The hon. Gentleman has had his time.

It is striking that right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to the debate were overwhelmingly positive. They wanted the agreement to succeed. They were not interested in playing some ridiculous, destructive blame game. We can agree thus far. However, we must consider what we should do now that decommissioning has not begun, and what the Ulster Unionists should do in its absence. Most Ulster Unionists are running on empty because of the disappointing lack of progress. Consequently, the Executive is close to collapse, in a matter not of weeks but, tragically, of days. What is the right course of action?

There are no easy options for anyone. Some are marginally less disagreeable than others. Several hon. Members who contributed to today's debate suggested that the Government are motivated simply by a desire to head off a Unionist veto or to deal with Unionist blackmail, and that our actions are determined by a metaphorical Unionist gun, which is pointing at our heads. That is not true. We face a complicated, real-life political predicament, and we must deal with it. People have genuine attitudes and prejudices; they have become genuinely exhausted and despair of the situation. We must face that reality and work out a response to it that preserves our achievements, saves what has been created and ensures the endurance of the possibility that the institutions and the very important Executive will flourish permanently. I am firmly set on that course, not on some short-term manoeuvre or tactics that will simply tide us over the next day or two.

We are not considering any individual. We are not trying to save the skin of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), although his skin is pretty valuable, and worth saving if we can. I believe that because he has shown admirable leadership of his party; because we would never have formed the Executive and set up the institutions without him; because he has a great deal of leadership left in him; and because, if he relinquished the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party, I would fear for the consequences for Northern Ireland, given his likely replacement.

We are not considering going back to the bad old days of Stormont, and government by one side of the community. We shall not do that now, later or at any time. Under no circumstances or terms will we entertain for one moment a reversion to that form of government in Northern Ireland.

I appeal to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to whatever extent they found the attitudes of some Ulster Unionist Members who contributed to the debate lacking, not to take a similarly one-sided view in their analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland. The new institutions in Northern Ireland cannot function with the support and confidence of one tradition alone. The new Executive needs two legs to walk on. At the moment, one leg is badly disabled and out of action. I do not think that the Unionist leg is out of action permanently, but it is dragging its foot slightly lamely as a result of a collapse in confidence following Unionist disappointment over the lack of decommissioning since the Executive was set up. I regret that and wish things were different. If I were a doctor with a miracle remedy at my disposal, I would apply it to that Unionist leg and hope for an immediate or overnight cure, but I am afraid that one is not available to me.

There is still a chance that we can repair what has gone wrong before the weekend, which I entirely accept is the next watershed that we face. I appeal to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann not to despair and not to turn off, but to remain open to new ideas and new proposals that might yet be canvassed in the coming days and to keep the channels open. We will need all his strength and energy during the review if we are to succeed in resurrecting the Executive and the institutions, should it prove painfully necessary to implement the Bill before the weekend.

I say to my hon. Friends from the Social Democratic and Labour party that I understand only too well why they feel that the option of suspension—putting the Executive and the other institutions on hold—is so very painful. The nationalist people whom they represent in Northern Ireland have been shut out of government for so long through no fault of their own, so it is deeply disappointing—almost too much to bear—to have staked their claim in the ground of the new Executive only to have it so cruelly removed after only eight weeks. I fully understand and deeply sympathise. If I could do anything to avoid that, I would do it. If there is anything that the Government, together with the Irish Government, can do before the end of the week to avoid that, we shall do it.

I understand why the prospect of returning to direct rule is so unattractive and so disagreeable, but, although this may be unfair, perhaps it is all right for the SDLP to indulge itself somewhat by not facing up to the harsh and unpalatable reality of what we have to do. For others, I am afraid that there is no alternative to the heavy lifting that we have to undertake and no alternative to putting the institutions on hold to create a pause to give us time—a breathing space—so that we can work hard with it and with others to resurrect that which we hold so dear.

Mr. Tony Benn

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that positive statement. May I make a suggestion, which might be helpful? The Bill gives him the right to suspend the Executive and the Assembly. It is an undated cheque. He can suspend them at the end of the week if there is no news—or in a year or two years—without coming back to Parliament, but Parliament has to pass an order for them to be restored. Can he give the assurance, which would be very welcome, that he would come back to the House to make a statement in the light of the contemporary circumstances, which might be quite different, if at any time and for any reason it was necessary to bring the Bill into force, even though there is no legislative provision for that? That would give us an opportunity to consider and endorse his proposals.

Mr. Mandelson

That is a tempting offer by my right hon. Friend, and I fully understand the spirit in which it was made. I am afraid that I may not have that scope; there may not be that flexibility, between now and when I have to act, to come back to the House to make a statement and to give the House a further opportunity to debate the matter. If it were possible, if I had that latitude, I would certainly use it, because I regard it as very important on an issue as important as this, on which there are such strongly held feelings, to give people any and every opportunity to debate it properly in the only place in which democracy—live, open democracy—has been able to operate in relation to Northern Ireland for so long.

I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to this debate. I very much hope that, in the weeks and months ahead, if we have to take this painful decision before the weekend, it will not be too long before I can return to the House with better, more positive and constructive news. I hope that I can show how the parties together, as a result of the review that we intend to make, have been able to chart a new way through these very difficult waters, and how we are able ultimately to get the progress we want, not only in creating proper, democratic, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, but in having the decommissioning that is an essential part of this peace process, without which the politics in Northern Ireland will not work.

I am confident; I am optimistic. I will certainly use all my energy to make sure that we get out of the dip—the trough—that we have now slipped into. I hope that it will not be too long before I can return to the House and give it better news.

10.2 pm

Mr. Öpik

In view of the Secretary of State's response to his right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I imagine that this is the last time that we shall have a chance to debate this matter before the Bill can be used. That is regrettable because, at the very least, a short debate would have been helpful. I am sorry that he did not feel able to give that guarantee.

Nevertheless, decommissioning has been widely debated tonight, and it is obvious that we are close to a watershed on the whole issue. I have just three short comments to make. First, I re-emphasise how important it is to take seriously the points made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), because he represents a legitimate and considerable body of people in the community in Northern Ireland who will regard the enactment of this Bill—the suspension of the Assembly—as a very negative statement with regard to devolution as a whole. I plead with the Minister to be extremely sensitive to the need to ensure that there are confidence-building measures in place for those communities, a willingness to explain exactly what is going on and an assurance that this is not a one-way walk from the Assembly to a dark place from which we had all sincerely hoped we had moved forward.

Secondly, it is important for us to recognise the potential for division and recrimination, the noise created by this between the communities as all sides blame each other for the potential suspension of the Assembly. The Government must play a part in ensuring that we do not end up with own goals as a result of the implementation of a suspension.

Thirdly, we need to remember that this is an emergency only if we make it so. The Bill is probably right. It is not a matter of principle; it is a matter of political probabilities that we are discussing it at all. However, it is right only so long as we make sure that the political temperature is kept down as it is moved forward. I see the Bill as an attempt to avert an emergency on 22 May, by which time, as we all know, full decommissioning is meant to have taken place. I think that the Government should play it by ear, and listen carefully as the public in Northern Ireland inevitably respond to any suspension.

Let me conclude with an emotional response. I feel very sad about what we have done today. In comparison with where we were, say, five years ago, we have made tremendous and unexpected progress, but it now seems that we are going to take a couple of steps back. In fact, that is not surprising: a characteristic element of the Northern Ireland peace process has been the taking of two steps forward and one step back. I hope that this really is just one step back, and that we shall not allow the process to begin to atrophy or stall just because the difficult decision to suspend the Assembly has been made.

I say to the Government, "Please, please be sensitive to the dangers of the Bill. Please be sensitive to the likely reaction in nationalist and republican communities, who will be very disappointed about the fact that things have gone backwards." I say to the whole House that, given that we have supported the Bill by and large—and we do need to be sombre about what it will do—I sincerely hope that, if implemented, it will be seen as a staging post. Nevertheless, I feel that, having seen sunlight on the Province, we are now walking back into a valley.

10.6 pm

Mr. McDonnell

This has been a sombre debate. I contrast it with the time, nearly two years ago, when we had a sense of hope and a sense of the future. It was then that we realised that the Belfast agreement might give us the opportunity of ensuring that the future of the island of Ireland would be determined not by the gun or the bomb or by British mandate, but by the Irish people themselves.

The agreement gave the Unionists the possibility that their future would be decided neither by some form of brute force nor by a British sell-out. They would be a party to decisions: that is why they would regain the structures of a statelet. For republicans and nationalists, there was the acceptance of the sovereignty of the Irish people as a whole, and the prospect of a mechanism to create a united Ireland. The agreement gave all of us—both traditions—peace and an opportunity to involve ourselves in policy making and governmental structures that would have an impact on the day-to-day lives of the citizens of the Six Counties of Northern Ireland. It offered the chance of a normalisation of politics—of the politics that we have taken for granted on this island: politics that are determined by electoral mandates and policy discussion in a civilised framework.

The agreement gave us the chance of a radical reform programme, the achievement of equality, respect for human rights and, in every area of policy and everyday life, a debate about what the quality of life should be. I am sorry that some quarters have appealed tonight for a retreat from that programme of reform, for it is important that we press on.

For some of us, the agreement provided the hope of a united island of Ireland at some time in the future, on the basis of agreement and mutual respect for different traditions. It provided the hope of an Ireland strengthened by the process of agreement. We accepted that peace was never to be a single act and that there were never to be any armistices. It was a process that would be achieved in stages. There must be incremental steps: lessening violence, removing violence, engaging in dialogue, achieving the appreciation of different perspectives and the understanding of different views, and securing agreement for a way forward.

That is why the Bill is such a step backwards—and it is a major step backwards. It removes the structures of the government of Northern Ireland that would make possible the debate, the process of reform and the dialogue. I am confident that we shall eventually restore those structures and achieve peace, but, as we have heard today, there is a history of structures being abolished or suspended that goes back about a quarter of a century.

I believe that the Bill poses a risk. Some people are trying to use the decommissioning issue to undermine elements in the Good Friday agreement, and some are trying to undermine the agreement overall. Decommissioning has become a weapon in the hands of anti-agreement elements—of rejectionists. It was used first as an excuse to delay the setting up of the Executive; now it is used to put the whole peace process in jeopardy. But what does decommissioning mean? The IRA has not fired weapons or exploded bombs since the restoration of the ceasefire on 20 July 1997. Before that, the ceasefire had lasted from 13 October 1994 to 9 February 1996. With the exception of the tragedy at Canary wharf, the IRA had held a disciplined ceasefire, with weapons out of commission for more than five years.

No one in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s would have ever been optimistic enough to hope that that could be achieved within that time scale. The weapons are out of commission. We are urged today to suspend the arrangements and structures that have consolidated that ceasefire, that form of decommissioning. Why? Because some want to press some extraordinary process of surrender—and surrender is what it will be viewed as.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

All the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate so far, including those who voted against Second Reading, have pointed out that they are in favour of decommissioning. Is that a position that my hon. Friend adopts? As he is closer to contacts with Sinn Fein than I will ever be, will he press decommissioning upon them, because it is the friends, or the people who have links with Sinn Fein, who might be able to shift its position?

Mr. McDonnell

Decommissioning has been recognised as a responsibility. That is why the agreement was signed, but decommissioning itself is a process and the achievement for most of us was peace, the lack of bombs and the lack of the use of the gun. That has been achieved. That is an argument of good faith, which has been demonstrated, but the ramifications of pressing the process to its nth degree have already been explained: the risks of splits and jeopardy for all. This week's bomb is a reminder of the problems and of how it is difficult to hold organisations and traditions together.

Mr. Winnick

Most of us were against the IRA campaign of terror, as we were against the so-called loyalists on the other side during those long 30 years. We made our position clear. Will my hon. Friend take into account the article in The Irish Times today—which I have already quoted in an intervention—by my friend the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who pleaded with the IRA for some form of decommissioning? We should bear it in mind that it was he who set the peace process in motion in the first place.

Mr. McDonnell

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Of course, we are all pleading with all sides to move forward together on a path to peace and to decommissioning in the end, but let us make it clear that the agreement contains no provision for the suspension of power and did not set a deadline—the deadline has been set as a result of an external intervention by the Unionists. It is the exercise of a Unionist veto on the agreement, a veto that is dangerous.

The Unionist veto was dangerously used in 1975 and 1985. There have been periods when it has undermined the democratic institutions that British Governments have tried to establish in the Six Counties. We are seeing it again now. Why should we allow a timetable to be imposed by one of the parties to the agreement which is not in the agreement?

A lasting peace can be founded only on trust. It is clear that sufficient trust has not been established between the parties to the conflict. The irony of the Bill is that it suspends the operation of the key body that is engendering trust—the Assembly. The Assembly is the key forum, in which representatives from all the constituencies and all the parties are able to meet, mix, discuss and work together on common problems in the interests of their community. That process is a key foundation stone of building trust to secure decommissioning. After only eight weeks' operation, we are asked to suspend that key body of trust and confidence building.

The Bill's wide-ranging powers are shocking. The Secretary of State is able by order not just on this occasion through the Bill, but on future occasions, to suspend the Assembly and all the mechanisms associated with the agreement without full and adequate debate. Orders are never adequately debated in the Chamber. That wide-ranging power does not even contain a review element; there is no review element on revocation or restoration. It is government by order. There is no power in the legislation for consultation with the Irish Government, although I accept Ministers' assurances on that point.

I oppose the Bill. It will not help the peace process; it is dangerous; it is undemocratic; and it cannot be supported. The Belfast agreement was founded on an agreement to secure by consent peace and a future for the island of Ireland. The Bill rides roughshod over the concept of consent, without even consulting the Northern Ireland Assembly or going back to the people of Ireland.

If we are not careful, the Bill will undermine the peace process. I therefore urge care on the Secretary of State. I urge him not to enact the Bill immediately, but to allow more time for discussion and, if necessary, to bring together again the parties that founded the Belfast agreement. This short-term measure could have long-term ramifications, and I urge other hon. Members to vote against it.

10.15 pm
Mr. William Ross

I have occasionally listened to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) speak on Northern Ireland and Irish affairs, but I rarely find myself in agreement with him. However, I agree with all those who complain about rushed legislation. In the years that I have been in this place, I have seen that every time a new piece of legislation is rushed through, we have lived to regret it in one form or another.

In this case, I believe that the Bill is the inevitable consequence of the IRA failing to live up to the commitments that it appeared to give. IRA spin doctoring did good service. In Northern Ireland, however, people like clarity, and one cannot get away with trying to conceal reality in ambiguous language. Eventually, reality breaks through.

I regret that we have not managed to examine the rest of the Bill's clauses and amendments, few though they are. Various issues were raised in the amendments that should have been debated. I do not believe that this is a happy day for anyone. To some extent, I also regret it. However, my reasons for regretting it are different from those that have been expressed hitherto.

My regrets stem from the fact that we are in this position today because we did not at the very outset address the hard issues of weaponry and IRA objectives. If those issues had been settled initially—three, four or five years ago—we would not be debating this Bill. We would have come up with a totally different agreement and a totally different Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Although we probably would have had something at a much lower level, it would at least have been workable and provided us with a sound foundation for the future in Northern Ireland—with that part of the United Kingdom remaining firmly within this Kingdom. That, of course, is the crux of the matter. Republicans of all stripes seek to destroy the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within this Kingdom. It is around that political and constitutional issue that all the battles have been fought and all the violence has taken place, and from which all the horrors that we have suffered have flowed.

Unless and until certainty is introduced, and unless and until doubt is removed about the long-term political and constitutional future of Northern Ireland, we can expect violence to come back in one form or another. That old, old sermon has been preached in the House for many years by me and by many other hon. Members, but I fear that it has not yet been absorbed. I think that, in any Parliament, we get to the stage when people start to absorb the lesson, learn from it, understand it and accept it. Then, we have a general election and a new group of hon. Members have to be taught all over again. It is a learning process, perhaps, for many right hon. and hon. Members, but it is a learning process that the people of Ulster have paid for in blood.

10.19 pm
Mr. McGrady

When the Bill is passed today, as I am sure it will be, it will be a very traumatic experience for the political process in Northern Ireland. In 1974, I participated in the formation of the Executive. In the intervening 26 years, we have struggled to re-establish that which we had then. It is true that, at that point, the Executive—that partnership—was brought down by the violence of the loyalist paramilitaries and the extreme loyalist political parties. Times change over a quarter of a century and I thought that we had built an edifice that would withstand the test of the coming weekend.

My party is opposed to the Bill, as we showed by voting against Second Reading. We do not see any merit in it, or even understand the strategy involved. Because the leader of one party gave a pawn ticket to his party that certain things would happen by a certain date, we are condemned to be the unserving elected representatives of Northern Ireland for an indefinite time. As many people have said, in Northern Ireland it is much easier to destroy than to build.

I understand the difficulties and the gamble that the Government are taking, but we think that the gamble is wrong. We do not understand the purpose of the Bill other than to protect the leadership of one of the eight parties in the Assembly. If the Bill, with all that could flow from it, is directed to that one end, as I fear that it is, it does not say much for the Government's understanding of the circumstances of Northern Ireland and our capability—it takes time but it has been well illustrated over the past 24 months—to muddle through our differences somehow and come out again at the other end.

I have experienced 30 years of killing and maiming. I say clearly that weapons should have been decommissioned—indeed, they should never have existed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said many months ago, the process is for the slow learners who failed to understand what Sunningdale was about. I would not like to contemplate the aftermath of the failure of 1974 being repeated.

If the Secretary of State's intention is to achieve decommissioning, I assure him that he is going about it in the wrong way. I sincerely want decommissioning. I have opposed violence all my life. I know that promises and understandings given during the Mitchell review in the last weeks of November have not been fulfilled by Sinn Fein. The question was who was to jump first—would it be devolution or decommissioning? The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party took the courageous step of jumping first. My understanding was that decommissioning would be the second phase and would happen before Christmas. If that had happened, the de Chastelain report of 31 January would have been positive. I understand that it is not, although I have not seen it.

We have been let down yet again by the paramilitaries, but let us pause with this thought: are the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries—let us not forget that they have not decommissioned either—working together to ensure that the democratic process fails? Do they see the development and success of the Assembly—I assume that its last meeting was held today—as a danger to their programme of violence? Do they see no future for themselves? Is that why they are trying to break the process?

Getting eight different parties to work together has not been easy. Even the members of the Democratic Unionist party, who are opposed to the agreement, are working in all the Committees and other paraphernalia of the Assembly, even if they are in separate rooms from the rest of us. That is an evolutionary process. We have a lot to tolerate in one another and the only way is participation in the Assembly. I fear—virtually dread—that the effects of the Bill will come into force prematurely, without giving us the chance to create our solution to our problem. The Bill is a bad idea.

I understand the sincerity and integrity of the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues in presenting the Bill to the House. We must beg to differ on interpretations of what will happen. I hope sincerely that the Goverment are right and I am wrong.

10.25 pm
Mr. Hunter

Unusually, I find myself supporting the Government. I had no hesitation in voting for the Bill on Second Reading, and in the prevailing circumstances, the Government are taking the right action.

I deeply regret, however, the tone and tenor of the Secretary of State's early comments. As long as he equates opposition to the Belfast agreement with opposition to peace, the right hon. Gentleman will alienate himself increasingly from a significant body of thinking. I have never concealed my personal opposition to the agreement and have incurred much unpopularity for so doing. I do not believe that that agreement will generate or create political stability—without which there can be no lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Civilised society has core values that include the absolute rule of law, a system of justice free from political intervention and genuinely accountable democratic structures—so the Belfast agreement and the political arrangements that flow from it are ultimately doomed to failure. I demand the right to express that view without being accused of being opposed to peace. Every time the Secretary of State makes such an allegation, he is alienating himself from an important body of thinking in the province of Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

I regret that tonight's debate has been accelerated, although I appreciate the reasons. Only two clauses in this Bill of nine clauses were debated in Committee. It is most unfortunate that so much of the Bill is being passed without detailed consideration by this House. I hope that will be put right in the other place and that there will be amendments, so that our debate can be prolonged.

I particularly regret the fact that we did not debate one of the Bill's deficiencies, in clause 9. The Secretary of State said that the Good Friday agreement stands or falls together. I only wish that were so. The agreement contains a number of independent strands that are not related. If we had reached clause 9, I had hoped to debate the desirability of linking suspension of the structures and institutions of direct rule with the accelerated release of prisoners. I hope that point will be raised in another place.

I support the Bill but regret that it did not receive more consideration. I regret that the Secretary of State continues to equate those who oppose the Belfast agreement with those who oppose peace.

10.29 pm
Mr. Barnes

Two speeches have expressed fully the view of those who are opposed to the Bill, and they should be responded to—one was from the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), and the other was from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I know and respect both Members, and they speak well and from the heart. However, their arguments were flawed and I wish to try to counter them.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that things are different now, and he wishes that state of affairs to continue. Everyone can agree with that, and there has been a fantastic change in the nature of Northern Ireland politics. However, we have to ask how that came about. It came about because of all the work done to establish the Belfast agreement, which is still in place.

The Assembly and the Executive extended the arrangements and started to bring people together. As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, the policy was one of jumping first and attempting to take others along afterwards. As that has not occurred, we have a problem. If suspension did not take place and if there were no decommissioning, the Assembly and Executive would go forward on a false prospectus. We must seek to tackle and correct that by the suspension method if decommissioning does not take place.

The second argument of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was that the chances of achieving decommissioning were lessened with the suspension. I do not know whether they are lessened or improved, and I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman knows, either. If suspension occurs, we will at least avoid the collapse of the Executive, which would have been much more damaging in terms of decommissioning.

We know that Sinn Fein has many interests in keeping the process on board. Its future in democratic politics is open. It can become a major party within Northern Ireland, and a major party within the Republic of Ireland, holding the balance of power. We should expect Sinn Fein to be involved in decommissioning, to achieve those hopes.

The third argument from the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was that the suspension played into the hands of those who are against the Belfast agreement. That is entirely wrong. Without the suspension, we would play into the hands of those—especially in the Unionist camp—who wish to see a majority of "no" voters and who wish to stop the developments.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh's fourth argument was that there was no such thing as a soft landing. I do not think that anybody is arguing that there is an easy or soft landing; there are many difficulties. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) argued that neither decommissioning nor going back to the bombings was on the cards, and that we would need to work carefully in continuing our efforts.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said that the desire to use weapons had gone. If that desire has gone, it seems to me that the circumstances are then much easier for weapons to be handed in. Those two things should go together, and the record of exilings, beatings and other incidents suggests that the desire has not yet gone.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield argued that suspension was a victory for the rejectionists—a similar argument to the one used by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. My right hon. Friend's major argument, however, was that democracy was taken away from Northern Ireland by the Bill. That is not quite true. Democracy, in some senses, is certainly weakened by having the institutions taken away. There are alternative democratic institutions that will operate—but what is democracy, especially in a context in which people live in fear of guns?

I have just finished reading once more Nye Bevan's book "In Place of Fear", which he wrote in 1952 and in which he talked about the need for democracy. He recognised that democracy was weakened in circumstances in which people were exploited and placed in fear, and he said that democracy could not function properly unless the conditions of exploitation were removed. He directed his remarks mostly at class power and wealth in society, but we can apply the principles in his book to the situation in Northern Ireland. Democracy will be distorted if the gun poses a threat to its operation.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I have followed my hon. Friend's speech with care. However, how are we likely to be able to persuade Unionism to come back into the Assembly and the Executive, given that the Anglo-Irish agreement has now gone and that articles 2 and 3 are changed—which were the two main points that Unionism wanted to achieve in the negotiations? They have been achieved but there has been no quid pro quo. How will the situation be restored and, in particular, how will we maintain the Irish dimension, which has also now gone?

Mr. Barnes

I believe that the Unionist population will ensure that the politicians respond to those concerns. A change has taken place, as the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said, and it is a fantastic alteration in Northern Ireland politics that no one wants to let go. The commitment that has been made by the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party means that it is possible to maintain the change. What has to happen is that the rest of the Unionist camp, who are trying to realign and reorganise, have to be outmatched. If we put a little faith in Sinn Fein being able to advance towards decommissioning, we may also put some faith in the Ulster Unionist party and other forces in Northern Ireland—such as the Women's Coalition and other people—in the hope that they will bring about that change.

10.37 pm
Mr. Thompson

Having lived in Northern Ireland all my life, I have listened in amazement to some of the speeches that have been made today. Many of those who have made speeches may have been well meaning, but they have shown that they do not know very much about Northern Ireland.

We have tried to press the Secretary of State on why he has not produced the de Chastelain document. I suggest that he is embarrassed to do so, because there is nothing in the document. The former Secretary of State and the Prime Minister assured us that there was a tremendous change happening in the IRA and that it would decommission. Indeed, we have heard this evening from the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that he expected to see decommissioning. Many reporters also expected to see decommissioning. The fact is that they have all—including the Government—been fooled by the IRA because it does not intend to give up any of its arms. It is an embarrassment to the Government to have to acknowledge that, especially to the Prime Minister.

We have listened to many speeches in praise of the wonderful Assembly and all the good things that are supposed to be happening in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State waxed so eloquent on the subject that he was carried away by his own enthusiasm, oratory and spin doctoring. Then he had to tell us that the situation was on the brink of disaster and that it no longer had the support of the Unionist community, which it does not. He also told us that a crisis would develop at the weekend unless he took action. He told us that if the leader of the Ulster Unionist party resigned, the whole thing would collapse. He said that there could be another election, but that would be a disaster because a majority would not be returned supporting the agreement, so the only alternative was to suspend the agreement.

Thirdly, as the Secretary of State spoke from the Dispatch Box this evening, I noticed the change of tone from last week, when he told us that Sinn Fein had betrayed the Ulster Unionist people and the people of Ulster by not decommissioning. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman talked about all the people of Ireland, in fact.

Mr. Mandelson

Will the hon. Gentleman way?

Mr. Thompson

No, I will not give way.

Mr. Mandelson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way and allow me to correct what he said?

Hon. Members

Give way.

Mr. Thompson

I will not give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman clearly is not going to give way.

Mr. Thompson

A tremendous change was signalled by the right hon. Gentleman's statement this evening, when he said that we must not blame anybody. He has said very little about the IRA this evening, but he has been very patronising to the members of the Ulster Unionist party. Let me say this to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: he should not ignore the views or the decisions of the Ulster Unionist people because, ultimately, nothing can work in Northern Ireland without their consent.

This has to come—there has to be suspension. But in any review, let the Secretary of State recognise that he must satisfy the views of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland if there is to be eventual peace in Northern Ireland.

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

The House divided: Ayes 326, Noes 7.

Division No. 67] [10.42 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Coffey, Ms Ann
Ainger, Nick Coleman, Iain
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Colman, Tony
Alexander, Douglas Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston)
Allen, Graham Cooper, Yvette
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Corbett, Robin
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Cotter, Brian
Ashton, Joe Cousins, Jim
Atherton, Ms Candy Cox, Tom
Atkins, Charlotte Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Austin, John Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Banks, Tony Cummings, John
Barnes, Harry Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Battle, John Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Bayley, Hugh Darvill, Keith
Beard, Nigel Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Beggs, Roy Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Berth, Rt Hon A J Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Benton, Joe
Berry, Roger Dawson, Hilton
Best, Harold Dean, Mrs Janet
Betts, Clive Denham, John
Blackman, Liz Dobbin, Jim
Blears, Ms Hazel Doran, Frank
Blizzard, Bob Dowd, Jim
Borrow, David Drew, David
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Edwards, Huw
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Efford, Clive
Bradshaw, Ben Ellman, Mrs Louise
Brinton, Mrs Helen Ennis, Jeff
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Etherington, Bill
Browne, Desmond Evans, Nigel
Browning, Mrs Angela Field, Rt Hon Frank
Buck, Ms Karen Fisher, Mark
Burden, Richard Fitzpatrick, Jim
Burgon, Colin Fitzsimons, Loma
Burns, Simon Rint, Caroline
Butler, Mrs Christine Flynn, Paul
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Follett, Barbara
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Fyfe, Maria
Cann, Jamie Galbraith, Sam
Caplin, Ivor Gardiner, Barry
Casale, Roger Gerrard, Neil
Caton, Martin Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Cawsey, Ian Godman, Dr Norman A
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Goggins, Paul
Chaytor, David Golding, Mrs Llin
Clapham, Michael Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Grieve, Dominic
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Grogan, John
Clelland, David Hain, Peter
Clwyd, Ann Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Coaker, Vernon Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) McCabe, Steve
Hanson, David McCafferty, Ms Chris
Harris, Dr Evan McDonagh, Siobhain
Harvey, Nick Macdonald, Calum
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McFall, John
Healey, John McIsaac, Shona
Heath, David (Somerton & Frame) MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Heppell, John Mackinlay, Andrew
Hesford, Stephen McNulty, Tony
Hill, Keith McWalter, Tony
Hinchliffe, David McWilliam, John
Hoey, Kate Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Mallaber, Judy
Hope, Phil Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Howells, Dr Kim Marshall, David (Shetteston)
Hoyle, Lindsay Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hughes, Ms Beveriey (Stretford) Martlew, Eric
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Maxton, John
Humble, Mrs Joan Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hunter, Andrew Meale, Alan
Hurst, Alan Merron, Gillian
Hutton, John Michie, Bill (Shefld Heeley)
Iddon, Dr Brian Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Illsley, Eric Miller, Andrew
Ingram, Rt Hon Adam Moonie, Dr Lewis
Jackson, Heten (Hillsborough) Moore, Michael
Jenkins, Brian Moran, Ms Margaret
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Wewyn Hatfield) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Moriey, Elliot
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Jones, Helen (Wanington N)
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW) Mountford, Kali
Mudie, George
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Mullin, Chris
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jones, Martyn (Ctwyd S) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Naysmith, Dr Doug
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Morris, Dan
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Khabra, Piara S O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Kidney, David O'Hara, Eddie
Kilfoyle, Peter O'Neill, Martin
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Öpik, Lembit
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Paisley, Rev Ian
Kirkwood, Archy Paterson, Owen
Lansley, Andrew Pearson, Ian
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Perham, Ms Linda
Laxton, Bob Pickthall, Colin
Lepper, David Pike, Peter L
Leslie, Christopher Plaskitt, James
Levitt, Tom Pollard, Kerry
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Pond, Chris
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Pope, Greg
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Pound, Stephen
Lidington, David Powell, Sir Raymond
Linton, Martin Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Livsey, Richard Prescott, Rt Hon John
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Primarolo, Dawn
Loughton, Tim Prosser, Gwyn
Love, Andrew Purchase, Ken
McAvoy, Thomas Quinn, Lawrie
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Stringer, Graham
Rammell, Bill Stuart, Ms Gisela
Raynsford, Nick Stunell, Andrew
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Rendel, David
Robertson, Laurence Taylor, Ms Dan (Stockton S)
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Temple-Morris, Peter
Rooney, Terry Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Ross, William (E Lond'y) Thompson, William
Rowlands, Ted Timms, Stephen
Roy, Frank Tipping, Paddy
Ruane, Chris Todd, Mark
Ruddock, Joan Touhig, Don
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Trickett, Jon
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Truswell, Paul
St Aubyn, Nick Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Sanders, Adrian Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Savidge, Malcolm Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Sawford, Phil Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Sedgemore, Brian Twigg, Derek (Hatton)
Shaw, Jonathan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Shipley, Ms Debra Tyler, Paul
Singh, Marsha Vis, Dr Rudi
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Walley, Ms Joan
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Webb, Steve
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S) Winntok, David
Snape, Peter Wise, Audrey
Soley, Clive Woodward, Shaun
Southworth, Ms Helen Woolas, Phil
Squire, Ms Rachel Worthington, Tony
Steen, Anthony Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Stinchcombe, Paul Tellers for the Ayes:
Stoate, Dr Howard Mrs. Anne McGuire and
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Mr. David Jamieson.
Connarty, Michael McNamara, Kevin
Skinner, Dennis
Corbyn, Jeremy
Dalyell, Tam Tellers for the Noes:
Galloway, George Mr. John McDonnell and
McGrady, Eddie Mr. Tony Benn.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

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