HC Deb 16 July 2002 vol 389 cc216-60 7.33 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I beg to move,

That this House regards the Belfast Agreement as representing the best hope for peace and normalisation available or likely to be achievable in Northern Ireland; is deeply concerned, therefore, at the failure by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries to implement essential aspects of it, including decommissioning, which should have been completed two years ago; welcomes recent conciliatory statements by the President of Sinn Fein and the Loyalist Commission; believes that continuing evidence of military activity by Sinn Fein-IRA makes it clear that this organisation has been in breach of its obligations under the ceasefire and the Agreement; regards as quite inconsistent with any declared adherence to democratic methods the failure by the chairman of Sinn Fein to condemn the attempted murder of a Catholic policeman in Ballymena; considers that no peace process can succeed unless rewards only follow performance, and that there is some penalty for breaches; and calls upon all parties to do all they can to contribute to the implementation of the Agreement, forbearance, mutual understanding and respect between the two communities in Northern Ireland, and avoidance of all forms of violence.

Our intention in tabling the motion and our decision to call this debate appears to have borne fruit already. It is significant and welcome that the IRA issued a statement of apology at 5 pm—presumably the time when it thought the debate would start, not knowing that it would be preceded by a statement in the House. A fundamental premise of the Opposition's policy on Northern Ireland and the peace process, to which I shall have occasion to return in the next few minutes, is that it should include an element of reciprocity or balance. Good behaviour should be rewarded, but bad behaviour should be penalised. People who fulfil their obligations should get their due reward, but people who break them should face sanctions.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

There is almost no other Member to whom I would give way so early in my speech. If the First Minister will allow me to finish the next few sentences, I shall give way to him then.

The IRA statement is clearly an exceptional event in Northern Ireland—apologies do not come easy to any of us, and are rare in the history of Northern Ireland and, I believe, unprecedented in the peace process and the troubles, which together have lasted for 30 years. It follows that we should be prepared to respond positively to what, after all, are only words, albeit important words. Deeds will and must follow, but it is right for us to take account in our deliberations of the positive aspects of the IRA statement. My recommendations to the Government will be influenced by this evening's event.

Mr. Trimble

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. Does he agree that the apology from the IRA tonight may have been prompted by the investigative pieces on which some journalists have been working for the anniversary of bloody Friday in a few days' time and questions being asked about the complicity of certain individuals in those murders and bombings? He said that good actions should be rewarded and evil deeds punished. Does he not agree that it is significant that the statement says nothing at all about the recent violence in which the IRA has been involved and nothing about its future conduct? Consequently, it does not release the Prime Minister from the need to make clear what the Government will do in the event of breaches by the republican movement. If the Government use it as an excuse not to fulfil those undertakings, they will create a very dangerous situation indeed.

Mr. Davies

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Clearly an apology of that kind, as I said, is not a deed or act of decommissioning, or the winding-up of the IRA. We need dramatic deeds from all concerned if we are to make a success of the peace process. Nevertheless, what has been said this evening should not be ignored—it would be irresponsible to do so. People who have lost family members to terrorism in the past 20 to 30 years will not be minded to take seriously any statement from that quarter—I thoroughly understand that. However, we have a responsibility to determine policy for the nation as a whole, and must do so on the basis that I have set out. We must respond positively when there is clearly a will on the other side to take a positive step forward.

The reason for the IRA's decision to make a statement is a matter of speculation, and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has given the House his interpretation. The fact that he and I in our different ways have been putting pressure on the Government to introduce more discipline in the process is probably not irrelevant to this evening's news. As for the timing, it looks as if the debate brought the statement forward. Clearly, however, there has been a careful rethink in the IRA, and we must think carefully about how to respond.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Did my hon. Friend note with regret that the IRA statement fails to make any absolute commitment that there will be no more violence? The absence of that commitment must be treated cautiously.

Mr. Davies

I thoroughly agree. That must indeed be treated cautiously, as I have suggested. As my hon. Friend said, the statement is far from adequate but, nevertheless, it is a remarkable and striking document. We should therefore proceed on the basis that I have already set out.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)


Mr. Davies

I shall not take any more interventions at the moment, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later, if he wishes to persist.

The motion was deliberately drafted to avoid any overt criticism of the Government, although it may well be that not only ourselves but others in the House may have occasion to make such criticism in this debate. We have an opportunity this evening to make criticism when we believe that that is both necessary and constructive. The motion has been drafted in the hope that it could form a broad basis for agreement across the House on the peace process.

I have discussed the motion with the Secretary of State. I understand that the Government do not feel able explicitly to support it, but the right hon. Gentleman and I have agreed that if the Government do not table an amendment to it, I will not press it to a Division, and on that basis it will, I hope, stand uncontested on the Order Paper. That agreement means that if there should nevertheless be votes at the end of the debate, I shall call on my right hon. and hon. Friends not to take part in them.

There are three reasons for holding the debate today. Each one forms a proper theme for the debate, and I shall deal with each in turn. First, the intention was to give Parliament a badly needed opportunity, which I fear would otherwise have been denied it, to discuss this vital issue. We shall listen open-mindedly to everything that is said from all parts of the House this evening, with particular attention to the views expressed by hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies. I hope that the Government will also listen open-mindedly to the points made by the official Opposition and Back Benchers on both sides.

Secondly, the purpose is to set out our own reading of events, and our own concerns, which remain considerable. Thirdly, since I fear that I have been, and continue to feel that I must often be, critical of the Government's tactics in handling the matter, although we are entirely united on the objective and on our commitment to the Belfast agreement, I think it right to set out in a little detail this evening our alternative view of the right tactics, and to try to influence the decisions that the Prime Minister this morning recommitted himself to take by the time the House rises for the summer recess.

On the need for the debate, I do not feel it necessary to apologise for that. One of the criticisms of the Stormont period that is often made in Northern Ireland—very legitimately, in my view, and it applies as much, I fear, to the period of the MacDonald or the Attlee Administrations as it does to times when the Conservative party had a majority in the House—is that we consistently ignored Northern Ireland. I am afraid that that mistake is in danger of being repeated.

The Government have not given us any opportunity for a debate this Session. They did not offer a statement on the Weston Park decisions last year, which went quite outside the Belfast agreement and considerably changed the agenda of the peace process—in my view, they unbalanced it. Our own attempts over the past two weeks to secure the promise of a debate or even a statement on the Hillsborough meeting and on the decisions that the Government have promised to take before the House rises have failed, although we have tried on many occasions.

Whether that reluctance to account to Parliament and to discuss the issue in the Chamber is a reflection of the Government's own unease with their policy on Northern Ireland, or whether it is simply a manifestation of their general attitude to Parliament, I do not know. In either case, it is regrettable.

On the situation in Northern Ireland as we see it, the Government like to repeat that everything is far, far better than it was during the 30 years of the troubles before 1998. That is most certainly correct, and a very welcome change it is. The institutions are undoubtedly working well, and there is far less violence than there was 10 or 20 years ago. However, there are dangers in reciting that mantra too often, even if it is followed, as it usually is, by the statement that of course the Government are not complacent.

The fact that the situation is better does not mean that it is satisfactory. There have been 13 sectarian murders over the past year in Northern Ireland, instead of more than 100 a year, as was typical during the 1970s and 1980s, but that is still a hideous state of affairs. As the latest excellent Select Committee report makes clear, there is a terrorist beating almost every day; and we ought to be concerned with the direction of events, as well as with the present state of affairs. Although things are far better than 10 or 20 years ago, the Government's mantra tends to ignore the fact that things are a good deal worse than we were entitled to believe they would be at the time of the Belfast agreement four years ago. Very little progress has been made with IRA decommissioning, and none at all with loyalist decommissioning, though decommissioning was supposed to be completed two years ago.

No progress has been made at all in dismantling paramilitary organisations. The recent Select Committee report suggests that many of them have been considerably strengthened. Last month, for the first time in four years, there was shooting in the streets after vicious rioting in east Belfast, and five people were wounded. I dread to think what would have happened had one of them been killed.

I suppose that one good measure of progress—or perhaps I should say one bad measure of regress—is the walls. They are such an obvious, hideous symptom of the abnormality of life in Belfast and Londonderry. Since 1998, they have been considerably extended. The Government are extending them in east Belfast as this debate proceeds. I hardly think that anyone in the House would regard that as a measure of positive progress.

The truth is that confidence in the peace process in Northern Ireland, especially but not only in the Unionist community, is at an all-time low since the establishment of the process itself. That has many consequences. One is that the political parties that have invested most in the process—I pay tribute to their political courage in doing so—by accepting the agreement wholeheartedly and by implementing it, the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party, are currently on the defensive.

Given the recent course of events, there is every reason to suppose that after the Assembly elections next May, the two largest parties will be one that rejects the agreement in principle, and another which, while saying that it accepts the agreement, continues to fail to implement it, does not recognise the police force and continues to maintain a paramilitary organisation on an active footing, and cannot bring itself to condemn terrorist murder—a disgraceful failure by the chairman of Sinn Fein-IRA, to which we refer in our motion.

As I said earlier, we shall give full credit where credit is due for positive statements or positive moves, but we shall be ruthless in meeting statements and above all moves away from the agreement or breaches of it, of which there have been far too many.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Will the hon. Gentleman keep in mind that the man responsible for the Abercorn bombing was Mr. Gerry Adams? He was in charge of the IRA at that time. Is it not interesting that in the document that has been issued, the IRA offers apology to non-combatant families? Thus the police are viewed as a legitimate target, and those serving in all the forces of the Crown and in the other back-ups are looked upon as legitimate targets. Surely, in the light of that, the letter prompts the people of Northern Ireland to ask, "What will be the pay-off for the letter?"

Mr. Davies

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I understand why he says it. As I said earlier, I do not believe that the statement is the last statement that needs to be made—far from it. It is not even the first of the deeds that we require to complete the process; it is a beginning and a positive move. We would be foolish, and we would be betraying the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, if we attempted simply to ignore it.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

I will, but I shall not give way very much this evening, for the simple reason that we do not have long. This is an Opposition day. We had to get the time for the debate this evening. The Government did not want a debate. I hope that if the hon. Gentleman feels frustrated at not having opportunities to express his views on Northern Ireland—his views are always well thought through, and for many years he has played a distinguished role in the matter—he will add his own probably more convincing and persuasive pressure to mine on the Secretary of State to ensure that in future we get debates in Government time.

David Winnick

The hon. Gentleman may have a point, and I am grateful to him for giving way. He said that the chairman of Sinn Fein did not condemn a terrorist murder. He was right to refer to that, and it was wrong of the person concerned not to have condemned it. Where is the difference between the two sides?

Mr. Davies

I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman means by the two sides.

David Winnick

The hon. Gentleman condemns the chairman of Sinn Fein for not having condemned the terrorist murder. What is the difference between the hon. Gentleman's condemnation and ours?

Mr. Davies

I hope that there is none. If the hon. Gentleman tells me that there is none, and we can agree on that, I shall be delighted. I have already said that the whole purpose of our motion was to try to establish a basis for common agreement, and the motion includes that condemnation, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied.

I mentioned a possible scenario at the elections next May. I suppose that one could devise a scenario in which, irrespective of the outcome in May, the peace process could go forward uninterrupted. However, one would have to be quite optimistic to do so, and positively Panglossian to assume that the peace process will go forward on that outcome of next May's elections. Good policy is never made on the assumption of a best-case scenario. That prospect should make us all consider very seriously the actions that we need to take now, rather than delaying the difficult decisions until we approach next May.

Of course the Government genuinely, and indeed desperately, want the peace process to succeed, as we all do. They are rightly proud of the Belfast agreement. It is not an ideal document, but it was never going to be, and we accept it with its imperfections as the best available basis for peace in Northern Ireland. What a terrible irony it would be if that achievement by the Government—I pay tribute to them for it—were eroded by their own inept actions, failures to act or abdications. But can they really escape responsibility for the failures of implementation thus far and for the decline in confidence to which I referred? After all, it was the prospect of a complete and permanent end to violence that persuaded many people to swallow their objections to measures such as the early release of terrorist prisoners and the inclusion of parties such as Sinn Fein in government before IRA weapons had even begun to be decommissioned.

All parties to the agreement are supposed to be committed to the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. They pledged in the agreement to use their influence to bring about the complete disarmament of all paramilitary organisations by May 2000. We were told by no other a person than the Prime Minister that there would be effective sanctions against those parties that failed to deliver. As he put it in the House, The only organisations that can qualify to take seats in the government of Northern Ireland and can expect the early release of prisoners are those that have given up violence for good…There must be an absolute giving up of violence, and it cannot be just a tactical ceasefire for a tactical reason."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.] Then there was the Prime Minister's speech at the Balmoral showgrounds, in which he set out the factors by which any ceasefire should be judged—a judgment which he said will necessarily become more rigorous over time". Then we had the Prime Minister's handwritten pledges. I quote: prisoners kept in unless violence is given up for good". I quote again: those who use or threaten violence excluded from the Government of Northern Ireland". Those were all fine assurances. Yet what happened in reality? Almost the exact opposite: the prisoners were all released, despite the fact that there had been no decommissioning whatever. That was a colossal error—we said so, and voted against it, at the time—and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), whose judgment, sadly, has been vindicated by events.

Why was it a colossal mistake, and could that have been anticipated at the time? Indeed it could, first because the Government abandoned their major instrument of leverage for nothing at all; and secondly because they deprived any member of the IRA army council who might have been willing to decommission of his major argument. We can all make mistakes, but the extraordinary thing is that, when no decommissioning had taken place and three years had passed, the Government made the same mistake again. At Weston Park they offered a whole new raft of concessions—including an amnesty to on-the-run terrorists and former terrorists allowed to sit as independent members of district police partnerships—that were not required by the Belfast agreement. Last December, the Government offered yet another concession: special status in the House for Sinn Fein-IRA Members of Parliament. In other words, they made full payment for no delivery, then, when there was still no delivery, they further rewarded the other party with an unanticipated bonus. Few people in the history of human affairs have found it very profitable to negotiate in that way.

How did the IRA respond? Two weeks after Weston Park, it showed its contempt by publicly tearing up the agreement on the methodology of decommissioning that it had signed with General de Chastelain. It looked as though decommissioning would never even begin. It certainly did not do so as a result of Weston Park. Then followed, fortuitously, the FARC incident and, tragically, 11 September, and American pressure produced the first act of decommissioning. The electoral imperatives of the Irish elections produced the second act. Now, the vital question is who or what will produce the third act. The IRA may be rethinking its strategy—we shall have to evaluate tonight's statement—but the fact remains, and it must be faced, that in its deeds the IRA has been going in the other direction. The Castlereagh break-in and the evidence of new targeting in March this year were evidence of that.

We cannot go on like this. The Government must appreciate that the peace process, like any peace process, must be based on two things. First, there must be a sense of balance and fairness. Both sides must be seen to be gaining benefits—all the dividends and bonuses cannot be paid only to one side. Secondly, there must be some proper structure of incentives, so that rewards follow performance and breaches result in penalties.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

To pursue the hon. Gentleman's list of criticisms of Government policy, the actions of the Conservative Administration in negotiating and having secret discussions with terrorists who had not declared a ceasefire were in the same category of strategic decision as the actions that the hon. Gentleman is describing. Why does he think that the previous Government's actions were acceptable, whereas those of the current Government are not?

Mr. Davies

There is no comparison at all to be made between opening negotiations with someone and actually making concessions. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not see the distinction between those two things.

So much for general analysis and principles, important as they are. In the rest of my remarks I shall be strictly pragmatic and practical, because that is what is called for. I shall answer this precise question: what should the Government do now? I urge them to do five things. First, to restore confidence in the communities, especially those in Belfast and Londonderry affected by the recent violence, the Government need to act to tackle the crisis of morale and numbers in policing. The regular force has already fallen below the levels envisaged by Patten—and Patten assumed an environment in which there had been a complete end to sectarian violence. That is why, in the circumstances, it would be madness to get rid of the full-time reserve. Without the full-time reserve, the Police Service of Northern Ireland simply could not cope.

Thus the Government should give two commitments immediately: first, that they will not allow numbers to fall further; and, secondly, that the full-time reserve will be offered new contracts when they fall due for the foreseeable future, and until a new determination has been made by the Chief Constable that there is a qualitative and sustainable improvement in the security situation.

The second thing that the Government should do now is act on the vital issue of linkage, reciprocity and a proper structure of incentives to perform. The official Opposition have the greatest sympathy for the First Minister's demand that the Government take powers to exclude from the Executive parties that are in breach of their obligations. It may be a little late now to use those powers in respect of past breaches, but it had been my intention to urge the Government immediately to introduce legislation to take those powers so that it was clear that they could be used immediately and decisively if there were any further breaches. In the light of the IRA's statement this evening, it is perhaps not the right moment to introduce legislation of that kind, but I hope that the Government will take every opportunity to make it absolutely clear, in private or by whichever other means they feel is expedient, that they will not be taken for a ride for a third time—that no more free concessions will be available and that at last some element of reciprocity and discipline will be introduced into the peace process.

I also urge the Government to concert with our Irish partners and American allies to ensure that there are real financial and other penalties for organisations, be they loyalist or republican, that are specified as being in breach of the agreement. The Secretary of State will know that that is a technical term in relation to the peace agreement, and the present procedure, which he has already used once, is a complete paper tiger, a sword of clay. That is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, and I hope that he will take action to remedy it.

Thirdly, the Government should make it clear that there can be no question of making the Weston Park concession of an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists at the present time, or at any time, except as part and parcel of a final settlement involving the winding-up of paramilitary organisations and the end of the armed struggle. That offer has, in any case, never been endorsed, ratified or even considered by Parliament, and any moral obligation on the Government has now surely been obliterated by the successive IRA breaches since it was formulated. Those breaches started with the IRA's involvement with FARC, which we now know was going on while the Weston Park negotiations were taking place.

Fourthly, the Government should have the courage explicitly to endorse the Taoiseach's demand that decommissioning be completed by next May. I taxed the right hon. Gentleman with this the other day at Question Time, and he again evaded the issue, offering a mealy-mouthed fudge to the effect that the Government have no disagreement with the Taoiseach on the need for urgent decommissioning. That was precisely the phrase used by the Prime Minister in his letter of two weeks ago to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and more or less the wording used by the Secretary of State to me last week. That formula is simply not adequate. There is a devastating lack of conviction and credibility in a fudge of that kind, and I am surprised that the Government cannot see that.

The Government should make it clear that, whatever the result of next May's elections, no party can sit on the Executive if it has not fulfilled its undertakings under the agreement or remains tied to a paramilitary organisation that has not done so. The parties should know the score now, and the Northern Ireland electorate should know the score as soon as possible—certainly well in advance of the elections.

Finally, the Government should look again at the suggestion that I made last October, which they ignored, confident perhaps that their own approach would work. Since then, there have been successive serious IRA breaches. My suggestion was that the Government should attempt the negotiation of a comprehensive solution—what I called a programmed process leading to full decommissioning. I emphasise that that should involve not a renegotiation of the Belfast agreement, but simply a timetable for its implementation, for decommissioning by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries, and for recognition by Sinn Fein of the new police force. I urge the Government to accompany that with an attempt to negotiate an arrangement on other issues, including the Weston Park issues, provided that they are balanced by the disbanding of all paramilitary structures and the definitive ending of the armed struggle.

The negotiation of a comprehensive, timed or programmed global package such as this may seem ambitious. Of course it is. Perhaps the IRA's statement makes it clear that the time is more fertile for this than it has been up to now. In any event, I am convinced, after many months considering the problem and speaking to all sides in Northern Ireland, that no one there will make real concessions unless it is clear what proportion of the final price to be paid any particular move represents, and precisely what they will receive in return. Unless the package being negotiated is demonstrably final, everyone will hold back to keep something for the next round. On that basis, it will take until kingdom come to get to peace and genuine normalisation in Northern Ireland.

I know that the Secretary of State has been battling hard, and that he has been particularly active in recent days and weeks in trying to broker some de-escalation of the tension in the flashpoints of east and north Belfast, and in the context of the marching season. I want genuinely to congratulate him on that. He has already had considerable success, and of course he has our full support in continuing those efforts, as I have already told him privately.

The Secretary of State knows, however, as we all do, that violence such as this is more the symptom than the cause of the problem. The cause is a sense of unfairness, a sense that the other side is getting a much better deal, and a belief that the peace process is a failure or a fraud, or, if it was not a fraud at the outset, that it has now become one, and that people must look to their own sectarian groups or even paramilitary organisations to protect themselves and their interests.

No one in the House can or should rest content until the people of Northern Ireland can enjoy the same peaceful and normal life under the rule of law as exists elsewhere in the United Kingdom, or, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland. I am convinced that the peace process is the only way of getting there. It is in genuine trouble, but the flame is still there and it needs to be fanned back into full and vigorous life. I hope that the signal that we have had from the IRA this afternoon is an indication that this is a good time to do that, and to negotiate the full and final completion of the peace process. That will require not only considerable effort but considerable toughness, but, if it succeeds, it will finally bring about the peace in Northern Ireland that its people have prayed for and dreamed of for so long.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Before I call the Secretary of State, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches in this debate.

8.5 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid)

I welcome this opportunity for the House to consider the peace process in Northern Ireland. This is a short debate in which to consider a subject that is immense both in its historic magnitude and in its complexity. Because of that complexity, it would be easy for any of us to grasp each or any passing event to justify the no doubt contrary opinions that will be expressed tonight.

Although there is no inevitability about the success or otherwise of any human endeavour, I have no doubt that some hon. Members who speak tonight will claim scientific—in some cases dogmatic—precision in relation to their predictions and prescriptions for the future. Those of us not blessed with such foresight recognise that, in the midst of any massive social or political transformation, it is often difficult to discern the broad sweep of historical change above the headline of the moment. It is all too easy to concentrate on the minutes, thereby losing some appreciation of the movement of the hours, especially when the minutes show up all the imperfections that we have inherited from an imperfect past.

Some of those complexities can be seen in the last few weeks' contrasting, contradictory, complex and, at times, seemingly incompatible series of events. For example, we have just seen an almost unprecedentedly peaceful few days over the 12 July period. I thank the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) for ascribing to me the efforts that I have made, but efforts have also been made by the people in the communities themselves. We have recently seen the apparent paradox of the Assistant chief constable warning against the potential for mobilisation of republicans into given communities one day, and, within 24 hours, the same officer congratulating not only republicans but leading members of the IRA for having helped to contain the violence.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

The only reason why the police officer to whom the Secretary of State refers changed his mind was that spikes, bottles and weapons of terrorism that were being lined up in Ardoyne to attack a planned Orange parade were revealed by the good intelligence of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and people such as Gerry Kelly and others were put on the back foot because they had been denying that they were planning that kind of republican violence. Is the right hon. Gentleman not misrepresenting the facts of what happened over the weekend?

Dr. Reid

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman is factually wrong. The assistant chief constable said that he changed his mind because he saw that leading republicans—in his own words—helped to marshal and restrain some of the young people. The point that I was making was about the complex and contradictory nature of events that we have to assess, and the difficulty of distinguishing passing events from the greater movements of historical change.

As I said, we had an unprecedentedly peaceful 12 July weekend, and I was going on to say that it came at the end of a worrying few weeks in which we had ghastly reminders of just how far we have to go: the home of four young children gunned and petrol bombed in Coleraine; a house petrol bombed in Antrim; a funeral cortege insulted and assaulted in Londonderry; a Catholic church burned out—and so it goes on. Those are all testimony to the bigotry, sectarianism and mindless hatred that still exist with some people and in some areas of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

The Secretary of State mentioned a number of incidents. I am sure that he would want to add to that list the murder of my constituent William Morgan, who was buried today. He was a young man with a wife and family—his wife is pregnant—done to death by vicious sectarian thugs. The police have described it as a murder. I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to convey his condolences and those of the House to the wife and family.

Dr. Reid

Yes, indeed, I have no hesitation in doing just that. Tragically, what I was presenting to the House was not a comprehensive list of the ghastly reminders of which I spoke.

It should not surprise us, then, that a series of surveys—the most recent from the university of Ulster only last week—has illustrated the decline in the optimism generated by the first IRA ceasefire in 1994 and then by the Belfast agreement in 1998. In 1996, for instance, 44 per cent. of Protestants and 47 per cent. of Catholics thought that inter-community relationships were better than five years previously. By last year, the totals had dropped to only 25 per cent. and 33 per cent. respectively.

That drop in confidence has been particularly noted—and sometimes highlighted in the House—on the Protestant side, but that is not the whole story, because between 2000 and 2001 there was a significant increase among both Protestants and Catholics who viewed their own community as the underdog. Both sides see their own community as beleaguered or besieged. As someone remarked to me recently, sometimes the problem in Northern Ireland is the inability of either side to acknowledge the other side's victimhood.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford mentioned balance. It is important to get a balanced appreciation of exactly where we are. If we look at the broader canvas, despite some of the ghastly events that I mentioned, we can see a much more balanced picture. There have been real gains in the everyday life of the Province, and it does not contribute anything to our appreciation of where we are if we dismiss them too lightly. Of course, we must not regard them as exclusively optimistic without taking into account the balancing factor of how far we have to go, but there has been real progress.

We now have a Northern Ireland which in the recent past has achieved the fastest economic growth of any region in the United Kingdom. For the first time in decades, more people are staying in or returning to the Province than are leaving it. Economic investment, tourism and commercial activity have been returning and accelerating. For the most part, young people and families can enjoy a night out. For all the imperfections and blemishes, normality is returning—perhaps more slowly than we would like, but we can still trace its advance.

Troop levels, at about 13,500, are the lowest since 1970, and routine military patrolling is down by about 50 per cent. over the past four years. Over the same period, employment has grown by almost 5 per cent., with 650,000 in work—more people than ever before. Unemployment is at an historic low, and the standard of living for the vast majority of people has been improving.

All those factors must be weighed in the balance in any discussion of the peace process. Above all, that terrible index, the total of the tragic loss of life, which has been the dreadful hallmark of three decades of conflict, is at an all-time low. None of that should be dismissed lightly. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the worst year of the troubles, as a direct result of which, in that single year alone, 470 people in Northern Ireland died. Twenty years ago—10 years later—there were still nearly 100 people who lost their lives in a single year. Even 10 years ago, there was almost the same total of people who died directly as a result of the troubles. Last year. 16 people were killed, and this year four people have lost their lives to date. That is four too many, and every single death is one too many, but it does no justice to how much we have achieved to pretend that it is not significantly different from the huge total that we lost even 10 years ago.

Let me give one figure that I have given before: in the three and a half years before the IRA ceasefire, no fewer than 350 lives were tragically lost in Northern Ireland, while in the three and a half years after the Belfast agreement, 50 lives were lost—a seventh of the earlier total. As I said, there are still huge problems and every death is one too many, but let us not embark on this debate without realising how far we have come.

This afternoon, to add to the complexity of the course of events in Northern Ireland, we had another statement from the Provisional Irish Republican Army, to which the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford referred. That IRA statement is, I believe, a welcome acknowledgment of the grief and loss that that organisation has caused over the years of pointless and tragic conflict, and the deaths for which it was responsible.

I especially welcome the fact that the statement includes an open apology to the families of many of those who died. Of course, actions speak louder than words, but the words that we have heard today are, I believe, more persuasive than those that the IRA had hitherto brought itself to utter. I strongly hope that it means that at last the IRA has turned its face unequivocally against violence. If it has, Northern Ireland has a bright future, but the real test is whether the transition from violence to democracy continues and gives confidence to the whole process.

To make a reality of the acknowledgement and the expression of regret, in terms that ordinary people, and especially those who have suffered, can appreciate, they need to be able to have the confidence that the events that caused that tragic misery, pain and loss will never return, that the conflict is in the past, and that the resolution of difficulties in the future will be carried out by democratic means.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

I fully accept that progress has been made, but the Secretary of State will also accept that the situation is far from satisfactory. If the IRA was truly sorry, would not the best way of showing that to the people of Northern Ireland be to agree to disarm totally and unequivocally?

Dr. Reid

I would not disagree with that sentiment, and that is what we want to see. We want all paramilitaries in Northern Ireland to disband completely, and I shall in due course comment on the other side of the coin, as it were. Here, I am merely trying to give the balance for which the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford asked, by saying that we have come a very long way indeed. Yet the risks, challenges and dangers are there for all to see. In a sense, if what has been achieved so far gives succour to those who hope for the best in Northern Ireland, the blemishes and the imperfections that remain are all too often a portent to those who fear the worst in Northern Ireland.

How is it, then, that we have come as far as we have, and yet still face a future clouded in uncertainty and in threat? One analysis argues that moving any long-standing conflict towards settlement requires at least four elements. First, there has to be leadership that is willing to compromise for peace. Secondly, that leadership has to be sufficiently courageous and strong enough politically to make the compromises, to make them stick and to sell that agreement. Thirdly, the outlines of the settlement have to enjoy wide support across the dispute. Fourthly, there has to be a process that people are willing to enter into—a process that is sufficiently robust and resilient to stand the setbacks. At times, there will be setbacks, violence and other backward steps, because of circumstances, or because there are opponents of the entire process itself.

That is not a synopsis of my analysis, but one written some time ago by ambassador Richard Haass, President Bush's envoy, who went on to say: I think over time our ability to continue moving forward in Northern Ireland would depend on the political ability of leaders to make the kind of gestures and statements and compromises they are going to have to make. And they are only going to be able to do these things if they have prepared their own people and essentially made the case for compromising, saying yes, we are going to have to start doing this or stop doing that, but here's why, on balance, we are better off. And I think we need to see more of that". The truth is that in Northern Ireland we have come as far as we have only because people on all sides have been prepared to give that leadership. Everyone has had to compromise, but there is still too much of a tendency to play down the compromises that others have made. It took guts as well as vision for the Ulster Unionist party to go into government with republicans. That was not easy, and it took courage. The UUP and everyone else knew that Sinn Fein continued to be linked with the IRA, but it accepted that a process of transition was under way, and that it would not be completed unless everyone was prepared to take some degree of risk.

The republican leadership took considerable risks by entering into and participating in a partitionist Government, moving into the arena of decommissioning, and taking responsibility for making Northern Ireland work, rather than simply destroying, or attempting to destroy, it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and his colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party showed great courage and leadership by opening up dialogue with republicans when others were not prepared to do so. I also pay tribute to the previous Prime Minister, John Major, who took tremendous risks and showed tremendous courage in opening discussions with the IRA not at a time when there were some imperfections or local orchestration of violence, but when that organisation was in the process of murdering innocent civilians through terrorist activity. John Major's action was heavily criticised in many quarters at the time, but I pay tribute to him for his courage and his leadership, for withstanding that criticism, and for recognising the historic immensity of the opportunity that had opened up to him and the then Conservative Government.

However, it was not easy to authorise secret contacts with the IRA in the course of an active terrorist campaign. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford made an emollient speech. I hope that, in recognising that we are perhaps taking risks and making judgments, he also recognises that we are at least doing so after a prolonged ceasefire. The courage required by his own former party leader some years ago to take such action in the midst of a terrorist campaign was even greater, but perhaps the criticisms of him would also have been even greater. It was not easy for John Major—and nor was it easy for this Government—to agree to the early release of prisoners, or to try to tackle the problem of the "on the runs".

None of this has been easy—especially, of course, in Northern Ireland. Leadership there has traditionally been of the exclusive type—speaking for one's own community—rather than the inclusive type that is demanded, almost by definition, by this peace process. However, in a very real sense this process will work only if one person's problem becomes everyone's problem.

Of course, it is not just Governments and party leaders who have had to show leadership; hundreds of thousands of people throughout Northern Ireland have done so in their own communities. I believe that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford was in Londonderry yesterday, speaking about some of the problems, and I welcome his regular visits. The accommodation that the Apprentice Boys and the residents in Londonderry have reached in recent years has required real local leadership and a willingness to accommodate conflicting aspirations.

I understand the anxieties of those who express concern about a current imbalance in the process and about its underlying moral integrity. There are genuine and legitimate questions that the Government must answer in that regard. We have all faced some tough decisions, and I will continue to do so. On occasion, there is real anguish involved in making such judgments. However, it not good enough for serious politicians who wish to change history to will the ends without having the courage to confront the means of reaching them. Anyone who seriously wishes to change our country and the future in a major way must not merely pay lip service to outlining and supporting some beneficial objectives; they must have the guts to face up to the tough means that are sometimes required to achieve those objectives.

We will not change the course of history simply by wishful thinking or risk aversion; nor will we do so by being fastidious over every step required along the way. General de Gaulle once wrote that achieving the right outcome sometimes necessitates—[Interruption.] I am asked to read the quotation in French. It sometimes necessitates une certaine rudesse dans les procedures". C'est très simple pour les ècossais parce qu'en Glasgow on parle dans la gorge.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the Secretary of State that if he is going to quote in a foreign language, it is imperative that he give the English translation immediately afterwards.

Dr. Reid

D'accord, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The rough translation of General de Gaulle's contribution is, "It is worth putting up with some imperfections and rough edges if it's the only way to achieve a worthwhile objective." Roughly translated too, my later comment was that it is very easy for Glaswegians to speak French because they also use the back of the throat when speaking.

The difficulty—and I freely admit that it is a difficulty—is determining how much it is legitimate to accept by way of imperfection. Let me say clearly that the Government do not believe that there can be peace at any price. I want to clear up some misconceptions. It is simply not true that the Government have been prepared to turn a blind eye to continuing illegality, or to regard any level of violence as somehow acceptable, depending on who carries it out. The police continue to pursue with vigour all those responsible for sectarian violence, on both sides of the community. Any imputation that the police in Northern Ireland would respond to political directives or persuasion and stop doing what they do best reflects badly not on the police, but on those who make it.

Since 4 May, there have been 30 arrests in connection with violence in north and east Belfast. It is not the case that no one is ever arrested. There has been a thorough investigation—and it is continuing—since the break-in at Castlereagh, and it will follow the truth wherever it leads. irrespective of the outcome. The police will be correct in acting in that way.

Our efforts against organised crime are overseen by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for security. Those efforts also cover organised crime linked to paramilitary groups, and they have been stepped up considerably over the past 12 months. They have achieved considerable success, and that will continue.

It is not true either that we apply a double standard to Sinn Fein, or that we will be content if the IRA's transition from violence to democracy for some reason gets stuck part way through. Ultimately, there can be no half-way stopping house or comfortable staging post between violence and democracy where people can rest indefinitely.

We recognise that there is a process involved, but it goes far beyond ending violence alone. It involves establishing institutions, liberties, rights and opportunities in a context in which violence becomes ever more illegitimate, even for those who have used it before and tried to justify it.

Full rights carry full responsibilities, and participation in the Government of Northern Ireland carries particular responsibilities. I believe that the republican leadership understands that, and that it is committed to the completion of the transition. However, we accept that others—some of them are in this House—have concerns, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has indicated that he will say more on this issue before the House rises.

I wish to make it clear that neither the enemies of this process, nor our partners in it, should misjudge our motives or our resolve in completing that transition. They should not misjudge our commitment to the process. Some people portray the process as one of appeasement, and suggest that there is something weak-kneed, lily-livered and intrinsically appeasing about engaging in a process of talk, words and jaw-jaw. I remind them that the person who coined the phrase that jaw—jaw is better than war-war was no appeaser. People who have suffered from the conflict know more than anyone else what price has to be paid when politicians fail to solve problems through democratic means. Our security forces and armed forces have suffered more than anyone else, because they are the ones who have been asked to try to solve those problems with their lives.

Mr. Quentin Davies

I hope that the Secretary of State is not going to set up an Aunt Sally of his own invention and then attack that. No sensible person—certainly no Opposition Member—has ever suggested that entering into a dialogue or a negotiation constitutes appeasement. We have been concerned that the negotiation has not been balanced, and that there have not been clear demands that the other party in the negotiation fulfils its obligations under accepted agreements. It is essential that that balance and discipline be maintained, and that is what we are asking for. Under no circumstances would the Opposition suggest that we should not talk. We should talk to everybody.

Dr. Reid

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. However, let me say, in as non-partisan a manner as possible, that it does nothing to promote confidence in the peace process or our sincerity in it to characterise the process, in a misleading way, as a one-way series of concessions to republicans and to talk—inadvertently at times—in the language of the sweetie shop or the headmaster's study. A human rights commission is not a concession to republicans. Human rights are the rights of everyone in the United Kingdom and, indeed, wider.

Mr. Davies

I have no problem with that.

Dr. Reid

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees. An equality commission and equality of opportunity are not concessions to the republicans or gestures to a ghetto in west Belfast, but things to which every child and family in Northern Ireland should have access. A police service that the whole community can participate in and support is not a concession. [Interruption.] I am going through all the elements about which the hon. Gentleman appears to give the impression, perhaps inadvertently, that he regards as concessions to one side. I am glad if he agrees that these are not concessions but elementary rights that should be extended to all the people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Davies

I do not want this evening's debate to proceed in too controversial an atmosphere. However, we have always supported the Equality Commission and human rights—never have I characterised them as concessions. The right hon. Gentleman knows our concerns about concessions such as amnesties, but I hope that we will not spend our time in this debate criticising each other for something that we have not done.

Dr. Reid

Okay. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is worth saying that we are dealing in this process largely with rights that should be extended to all the people in Northern Ireland.

David Burnside

Will the Secretary of State please explain why, for the first time since 1920, we have institutionalised sectarian discrimination in employment policy for the police in Northern Ireland? How can he define that as equality by any definition of the term? If he has an example of institutionalised Government discrimination from 1920, perhaps he will tell the House.

Dr. Reid

I would like to say that once again the hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole community in Northern Ireland, but I do not think that he would receive cross-community support for his assertion that there was previously no institutionalised discrimination in employment or any other field. Indeed, I would go further—we are trying to create a fair and just society in Northern Ireland. I agree with what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said earlier. Perhaps if we—by which I mean successive British Governments—had spent a little more time considering Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972, we would have had a different past and perhaps a brighter future. However, we are now concerned with the establishment of a just and fair society in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hunter

Before the Secretary of State concludes his speech, will he address the specific point of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) about the argument for legislation to facilitate expulsion if it is deemed necessary?

Dr. Reid

I think that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford decided that he would not press the case for that tonight. In any case, there is provision in the existing legislation, should such a course of action be judged proper, in that a resolution can be placed before the Assembly on which it can make a decision. Despite the fact that the issue was not raised tonight—

Mr. Davies


Dr. Reid

The hon. Gentleman says "abdication", but I suspect that we have an entirely different view both formally and in terms of our general attitude towards devolution. I believe that devolution means devolution—that if we create a police board, we do not dictate to it how it should deal with the full-time reserve, as he suggested that I should do tonight. If one creates a local authority, one does not dictate to it how it should do things. If one creates an Assembly to bring together the people of Northern Ireland then, for goodness' sake, give it some role in the major decisions. Incidentally, if one goes into an agreement with other parties, it is not as easy or as beneficial as he makes out unilaterally to rip up that agreement and start adding bits to it.

My argument is that there are already mechanisms to reach the objective that the hon. Gentleman appears to want to reach if it is decided that we have reached such a crisis in the peace process.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

If what the Secretary of State said is the case, why on 10 April 1998 did the Prime Minister say this in a letter to the leader of the Ulster Unionist party: if…these provisions meaning the provisions for exclusion— have been shown to be ineffective,"— as they have been on a number of occasions— we will support changes to these provisions to enable them to be made properly effective in preventing such people from holding office"?

Dr. Reid

First, the provisions can hardly have been proved to be ineffective when they have never been tried.

Mr. Donaldson

They have.

Dr. Reid

The provision that I mentioned—the Secretary of State putting a resolution before the Assembly to exclude Sinn Fein—has not been tried, so the hon. Gentleman cannot assert that it has been found to be ineffective. Unless it has been tried and failed, there is no evidence for that.

The hon. Gentleman and I know each other well enough—I hope that that does not hinder his career—to get to the point. As he said when he was making a speech the other day, splendidly bedecked—I watched him on television—he wants Sinn Fein excluded. That is his judgment. Therefore, his complaint is not about the mechanism for exclusion; it is that the Government do not want to exclude Sinn Fein, and certainly not at this point in time. That is a genuine political difference and a political judgment. He need not be so modest as to hide that behind a deficiency in the mechanism that exists. It is a difference of agreement. He is absolutely plain that he wants to exclude Sinn Fein from government, on the basis, presumably, that that will help Sinn Fein move towards politics and away from violence. That is his judgment. To me, it is not instantly, entirely and intuitively a logical position, but I understand that it is a political position, and it is a credible one.

Mr. Davies

I think that the Secretary of State may be missing the point, which is purely practical—that one has no credibility in this life in threatening a sanction that one is not in a position to enforce. The right hon. Gentleman will get no leverage in the negotiations with Sinn Fein by suggesting that one day there might be a majority of Sinn Fein and Social Democratic and Labour Members who might like to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive. If he wants to use that mechanism, he will have to take powers in this House. That was my point. However, he quoted me correctly. Due to the fact that the other circumstances have been changed by this evening's statement, I have not pressed him as I had intended to introduce that legislation immediately. If things deteriorate and there are further problems, we will do that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That was a very long intervention. I remind the House once again that this is a very short debate.

Dr. Reid

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not want to ignore anyone who wanted to intervene. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, however, that is a debate for another day. Whatever the differences here, there is no disguising the fact that we face difficulties in the peace process and it is right that the House should have an opportunity to discuss those tonight. All I ask is that in so doing we try to measure up to the scale of the challenge. The British Government certainly recognise the role that we have to play during the coming days and weeks to try to re-create the trust and confidence that the process requires.

I hope that the Opposition and other hon. Members will do likewise and that they will clarify the ambiguity, or equivocation, about their support for bipartisanship. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford knows that, despite our differences, we have tried to facilitate matters and to work together when that was merited. I hope that we can continue to do that whatever our tactical differences, because the people of Britain and the people of Northern Ireland want to see us united in our determination to make the process succeed if it is humanly possible to do so. We cannot guarantee success; there is no preordained destination for the journey we are on.

All of us in these islands would do well to take to heart the words—I am glad that they are in English—of Abraham Lincoln at the end of another long and painful conflict. He said let us strive—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves". Whatever differences the debate may reveal over tactics, I hope that I, too, can say, let us stand united in our shared objective of securing a peaceful and just end to an ancient conflict.

8.46 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

First, may I say how pleased I am that the Conservatives have abandoned what was bound to be a short-lived policy of pulling out of the cross-party agreement on Northern Ireland? I understand why they did so, although more than anything else, I suspect that their position was unsustainable.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I do not know how many times I have had to correct the hon. Gentleman on that point. The Conservative party never gave up on the Belfast agreement. It never gave up on the bipartisan approach in so far as the agreement was being followed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will finally get off that tack.

Lembit Öpik

I apologise to the Conservatives for so profoundly misunderstanding their position in the past. I offer my complete and unequivocal apology. Goodness knows how I got that impression.

I shall take the hon. Gentleman at his word. It is great to hear the Conservatives reaffirming their commitment to the bipartisan agreement. I need say no more on the subject—the record is clear as to what the hon. Gentleman and I have said. That is a matter of celebration because some of us were confused—at the very least—as to the Conservative position.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

If the hon. Gentleman is confused, may I refer him to his remarks last week, as his words are becoming repetitive? He said: I am pleased that his party has abandoned its short-lived withdrawal from the cross-party consensus on Northern Ireland. That always struck me as an unsustainable position, and it is to the Conservative party's credit that it is inside, rather than outside, that process."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 277WH.] I hope that clarifies the hon. Gentleman's memory, if nothing else.

Lembit Öpik

The words are repetitive only because the hon. Gentleman has repeated them. He will of course be aware that they were spoken during an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. The good news needs celebration in an even more public context because I am sure that I was not the only person in the United Kingdom who was unclear about the Conservative position. Let us put the matter to rest; it could not be clearer, from the exchanges of the past few minutes, that the Conservatives are expressly involved in the bipartisan agreement in a positive and strategic way. There can be no one in this place who is not pleased about that.

However, the Conservatives still paint a fairly gloomy picture of where we stand as regards the Northern Ireland peace process. Surely, no one can deny that things are better than they were 10 years ago, despite the underlying level of violence in the communities—a point that has already been mentioned.

No one can question the seminal importance of the work of former Prime Minister, John Major, as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland rightly pointed out. As I have said in other speeches, there is no doubt that John Major kick-started the current peace process by taking significant risks as Prime Minister and straying beyond what might have been regarded as the safe path in respect of Northern Ireland. No one can question whether the Good Friday agreement, for all the strains on it, exists and was signed by the majority of parties in the Province.

Those unquestionable facts, which have come to pass in the past decade, have served considerably to reduce the level of conflict in the sense of an organised campaign of terror in Northern Ireland and, indeed, on the United Kingdom mainland. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have raised a number of concerns, as they are entitled to do, and I should like to explore two of them—their criticisms of past political activity by the Government and their predictions for the future.

As for the former, it strikes me as ironic that a number of activities, such as prisoner release and the apparent non-enforcement of the decommissioning conditions, are so heavily attacked by the official Opposition. It seems to me that the Conservatives have set a great many of the precedents with regard to Northern Ireland political decision making. Their past approach tends to imply that we must allow the flexibility for a Government to make those kinds of tough choices.

For example, the Conservative party decided to launch the Anglo-Irish agreement. We must remember that that agreement was tremendously controversial at the time, not least in the Province itself, yet if that decision not been taken then, it would have been much less likely that the south of Ireland would have renounced its constitutional claim on the north.

Hon. Members have already mentioned the secret talks between John Major and the active terrorist organisation, the IRA, at a time when there was no ceasefire at all. I heard what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said in response to my intervention on that, but I take a different view. I feel that there is a great deal of similarity in making that kind of decision at the beginning of the 1990s and some of the decisions that have been taken to try to give the peace process momentum now. Obviously, I respect other hon. Members' right to differ on that issue.

Mr. McNamara

Does the hon. Gentleman recall of course that those three great steps forward were taken under Mrs. Thatcher?

Lembit Öpik

Indeed, some hon. Members may be even more surprised that Mrs. Thatcher, who was no friend of terrorism—no one would suggest that she was—presided over some comparably or perhaps even more controversial decisions in government than those that we have seen subsequently. There is no point in discussing in detail which decisions were more controversial; the crucial point is that successive Governments in the United Kingdom have found themselves operating in a way that one might regard as outside the norm of mainstream political activity in this country, but, at the same time, that seems to have delivered some results.

Of course another example is the introduction of an amnesty. Again, that concept was inspired by the Conservatives, not by the current Government. I do not say that to condemn the Conservatives in any way. In fact, I praise them for making those difficult decisions, and the only reason to discuss them in this context is that I believe that what we say in the House materially influences public opinion, not just on the United Kingdom mainland, but in Northern Ireland. To that extent, our self-restraint in accepting the risks that the Government are taking and not seeking to make it more difficult for those decisions to be played out in Northern Irish politics is an important aspect of what we can do to influence the process positively.

A responsible Government take difficult decisions, and a responsible Opposition reflect that. Certainly, speaking for the Liberal Democrats, we try to respect, from our position of opposition, what the Government are attempting to do. We make our concerns known publicly as well as privately, but we do so in the sense that, at heart, we are all trying to achieve the same thing and therefore that these are matters of judgment, rather than of principle, when we try to go in that direction.

I also heard the Conservatives' concerns about predictions of the future. Perhaps the most worrying predictions involve the 2003 Assembly elections in Northern Ireland.

If I understood correctly what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, he would be implying that an anti-agreement party on the unionist side—a loyalist party—and Sinn Fein on the nationalist or republican side could, in their prediction, be the two largest parties in Northern Ireland. That may be possible, but who are we to predict aloud and to think that it will not have a material impact, to some extent, on the fortunes of parties in Northern Ireland? There is an interrelation in that sense.

Even more crucially, were that analysis correct, there is a contradiction in the argument that we heard. This is the contradiction: if we assume, for the sake of example, that Sinn Fein becomes the largest party on the nationalist or republican side, and if we impose further restrictions that prevent it from being able to function within the Executive, we are basically saying that we would be willing to disfranchise all the people in the community who chose to vote democratically for the voice of Sinn Fein. How could that benefit the process?

Much of the time we have sought to bring these organisations—the paramilitary background is intimately linked with an organisation such as Sinn Fein—into the peace process. In effect, we have tried to say that there is a better, peaceful, democratic way to achieve outcomes than the paramilitary way that has been tried previously. I do not feel that using the stick of excluding such organisations from the Executive will have any effect other than, first, strengthening support for them in the communities that they represent, and, secondly, providing a degree of pressure within those organisations that makes it even less likely that we will manage to resolve these issues.

Mr. Blunt

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik

I shall do so in a moment, as I want to say one more thing.

There must be a limit. We cannot keep writing a blank cheque and retreating, allowing these organisations to do anything they want and to disrespect completely, in this case, the Good Friday agreement. I worry, however, that the threshold is being set rather low by those who feel that we should take the approach of wielding a very large stick and a relatively small carrot.

Mr. Blunt

The hon. Gentleman is getting into the area of difficulty. Will he tell us exactly what threshold he has in mind? Plainly, it is not acceptable—whatever democratic mandate the party may have—for a party that advocates the use of illegal violence to achieve its objective to be part of any Executive under any system. Where does he want the threshold to be drawn?

Lembit Öpik

Surely this is the problem. When I am the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I will have to make decisions with all the information available to me in 2006. At this point, however, we cannot pretend that there is a table of figures and conditions determining what is and is not acceptable. There are too many variables in the system. The hon. Gentleman knows well that previous Conservative Secretaries of States continually made course corrections to Northern Ireland policy because that was the only way that they could operate. In the same sense, if the solution now were as simple as describing the particular threshold, we would not spend so much time discussing it, and I am absolutely certain that the Conservatives would not have chosen to devote their Opposition day debate today to this matter. The reason it was helpful that this subject was chosen is that we must discuss these matters and accept that there are grey areas on which we can disagree but on which, nevertheless, a Government must make decisions.

Were I to attempt to give a more specific answer to the hon. Gentleman, I would say that I would probably set the threshold rather higher than him. I would therefore guess that if, or when, the Liberal Democrats run Northern Ireland policy we will set the threshold in a slightly more flexible way than the Conservatives will do in 2090—[Interruption.] I shall leave it to the listening public to determine whether that is an optimistic or pessimistic assessment. We may be hit by an asteroid before then anyway.

Mr. Dodds

The Irish Prime Minister, Mr. Ahern, has made it clear—as did all the parties in the Republic during the recent general election—that the presence of Sinn Fein in their Government cannot be contemplated. Why is it so difficult for the hon. Gentleman to set a threshold in terms of part of the United Kingdom?

Lembit Öpik

I observed Sinn Fein's performance in the south of Ireland election with great interest. It is not for me to tell the Irish Government what to do.

Let me answer the hon. Gentleman's question. The reason why it is so difficult for me to set a threshold is that we have a peace process which is in part implementation and in part negotiation between the parties in Northern Ireland, and which takes place at the same time as interaction with Dublin and with Westminster. In my judgment—this is a crucial point—the process seems to be working: it seems to be taking us to a place where we have not been for three decades. I mean that in a positive sense. As I have said, the organised campaign of terrorism against the state has been, if not entirely removed, massively reduced. The troubles in the communities themselves—the levels of community violence—remain, but I think that on balance we are making progress.

I say this to the hon. Gentleman. If a process is to be judged on the basis of outcomes, it seems reasonable—to the Liberal Democrats, anyway—to say that the outcomes delivered justify the approach taken. I accept that others have different views—we have already heard them—but the Government are reasonable at least in making that calculation. Then we enter the grey area of thresholds, which we have now probably covered adequately.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I accept that the only outcomes the hon. Gentleman or anyone else can consider on the basis of knowledge are those that we have experienced already. Surely the problem here is considering future outcomes of which we are not certain.

Lembit Öpik

If that were not the challenge, and if there were not such difficult questions to answer, we would not have jobs, because there would be no such thing as politics. Essentially we are sharing our predictions of what we think we can achieve, probably agreeing by and large on the desired outcome of peace and normality in Northern Ireland, but differing in our identifications of the best way forward. That is the point made by the hon. Gentleman. This is a debate about process rather than outcomes, and I think the differences between the parties are based on our assessments of what is most likely to work.

What the Liberal Democrats still think is most likely to work is the Good Friday agreement. It contains the conditions for power-sharing and devolution, for human rights legislation and for many other developments—including, obviously, decommissioning and reform of the police service. In itself it cannot deliver peace, but it provides the preconditions for the achievement of peace. It basically constitutes conflict management, but if the conflict is to be resolved it is necessary to address the underlying institutionalised sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

We agree, then, with the Good Friday agreement. My suggestions and observations relate partly to it, and partly to other ideas that we would like the Government to take seriously. First, let me point out that the Good Friday agreement itself institutionalises sectarianism. By referring repeatedly to two communities, it implies that the objective is to get those two communities to live in peace. I suggest that the objective is actually to get Northern Ireland to regard itself as one diverse community living in peace. That would be more productive—quite apart from the fact that talk of two communities tends to exclude those who do not see themselves as naturally falling into one camp or the other. There is certainly an opportunity for reform in that context, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government will consider seriously how to take sectarianism out of the agreement.

Secondly, there is a great need for symmetry. The Government have sometimes been shaky on that. For democrats here who take the process seriously, one of the greatest strains is imposed when they feel that there has been a unilateral agreement with one side or the other. I would cite what looks like a unilateral agreement involving "on-the-runs" as a rather badly managed example. As far as I can tell, the Prime Minister probably exceeded his brief in terms of maintaining symmetry, thus creating a poisoned chalice that has been bouncing around in our debates over since word came out from Weston Park that there seemed to be some kind of agreement.

Symmetry works, but the apparent absence of symmetry does not and that simply makes it more difficult for those who feel hard done by to maintain support within their communities. That is one of the great strains on the Unionist side at the moment.

Transparency is important. When people say that there is no plan B, no one believes them. There is always a plan B in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dodds

There is always an alternative.

Lembit Öpik

There is always an alternative. Although we may disagree about the alternatives, it is naive of the Government to say that there is only one route forward, not least because that disfranchises those who, for perfectly respectable reasons, take a different view. The Government are more likely to include all sides if they acknowledge that there is more than one way forward and that we are discussing which is the best. Transparency will come if the Government acknowledge that and are willing to open the door even to those groups and individuals with whom they disagree. That takes place much of the time, but some groups, particularly those who are sceptical about the agreement, have been excluded. That has not helped the process as whole.

Decommissioning needs to occur, but the issue must be kept in context. It is easy to use decommissioning as a means of barring progress. Let us remember the symbolic importance of decommissioning and recognise that what has already happened is quite significant. To that extent, it is disingenuous for us always to call for full decommissioning as the precondition for progress. Full decommissioning must occur, but it is likely to take place in parallel with progress.

It is important that there is a greater flexibility in the Government's handling of legislation when everyone but a Minister agrees on something. On more than one occasion, time has been wasted in the House because the Government have not shown flexibility in a debate or taken on ideas that are evidently common sense and shared by a cross-section, from nationalist through to loyalist representatives.

I am an optimist with regard to Northern Ireland. The Orange Order deserves nothing but the highest praise for its handling of Drumcree this year. That is an example of responsible management in what could have been a very difficult and fractious occasion. By the same token, today's statement by the IRA is strategically important. It does not go all the way to saying that the war is over, but it goes a long way towards having the kind of tone that we need to hear from the IRA if people are to become more confident about its true intent.

It takes courage, cool judgment, symmetry and time to achieve peace in a region that has been troubled not for 30 but for hundreds of years. All of us want the same peace, but we argue about the process. Although I have criticisms of the Conservatives' position, I do not question the sincerity of their commitment to the peace process as a whole. I am glad that they have chosen to allocate their time to this debate, because all views need to be heard. We leave it to the public to draw conclusions about with whom they agree.

I pay credit to the many people on both sides of the House who take the peace process seriously. They have invested an enormous amount of time and resources and have taken personal risks. I would like to think that, in a couple of years, we will have a further debate in which we can celebrate the mutual contribution of all and move on to other matters with regard to Northern Ireland.

9.8 pm

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

There are certain things on which we can agree. There remains in Northern Ireland far too much paramilitary violence, including punishment beatings and other acts of violence and hooliganism that are directed at both the majority and minority communities. When the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke about such matters, I intervened to say that the chairman of Sinn Fein should certainly have condemned terrorist violence. I am not aware of any Labour Member—certainly not those on the Front Bench, or any Back Bencher—who would take a very different view. We can also agree that the IRA has not turned itself into a pacifist or semi-pacifist organisation. No less than the hon. Gentleman, I would like Sinn Fein to urge the IRA to disband. Although I welcome the decommissioning, which took place under pressure, further acts of decommissioning would be welcome, and that includes decommissioning by the loyalists. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is right: we should recognise that there has been a lack of decommissioning by paramilitary loyalist groups and terror gangs.

It is easy to draw attention to what is wrong and what we condemn. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who now plays a leading role in Northern Ireland affairs, recognises that what he condemns, we condemn—on that, there is no divide. However, when we consider what has been achieved, we should accept that substantial progress has indeed been made since the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998.

For the first time since Northern Ireland came into existence as a separate state more than 80 years ago, a devolved Administration represents both communities. All the main political parties serve on the Executive, including the Democratic Unionist party, which has never accepted the Good Friday agreement. Surely it is progress that Northern Ireland is governed by elected representatives of both communities. That differs greatly from what happened there all those years before direct rule was imposed by the Heath Government in 1972.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to draw attention to the fact that far more people would undoubtedly have been murdered had the terrorist violence continued to the same extent. Surely that is progress. He mentioned what happened in 1972. Terrorist outrages, which did not occur only in Northern Ireland, took the lives of many innocent people, including members of the military and the police. They, too, were innocent, like the civilians who were killed. I have never questioned their innocence, and I have condemned IRA violence from the beginning, as hon. Members who have served in previous Parliaments know. There has been no ambiguity in my position, and I am not a lone voice; my party has always taken that position. The fact that lives have been saved from terrorist violence and murders cannot be ignored.

It has been argued—it is an unfortunate argument and not one that the Tory Front Bench makes—that only one side has won from the Good Friday agreement. We will hear it argued tonight that the nationalists and republicans have won and that the Unionists have lost out. That is a false argument, and it is not only the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party who employ it; too many people in the main Unionist party—including some hon. Members, although not the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, and constituency activists—argue that the Good Friday agreement has sold out the Unionist community. I see hon. Members nodding in agreement, but it is simply not true that only one side is a winner.

IRA and Sinn Fein had to recognise that terror would not force the United Kingdom to end partition. The IRA's standard argument was that terror upon terror would force a British Government to leave Northern Ireland. I am not aware that that has happened.

Before the agreement, Sinn Fein strenuously denied that Northern Ireland had any legitimacy. It said that Northern Ireland was a statelet, that it had no right to exist and that its existence as such should end. Now Sinn Fein Members sit, rightly, in an Executive in a devolved Administration. They have accepted the partition that they always refused to recognise. Is that in any way a sell-out of the Unionist community?

Sinn Fein has had to accept that there can be a change in Northern Ireland's status only with the support and agreement of a majority of the community. That is democracy. That has been the view of Members on both sides of the House and of Governments for over 30 years during the violence. There has been no sell-out on that principle. For years, the constant complaint of Unionist politicians was that it was unacceptable for articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution to lay claim to Northern Ireland. Following the Good Friday agreement and a necessary referendum in the Irish Republic, those parts of the constitution have been dropped.

I do not see how it can be argued with any logic that the Good Friday agreement has been of benefit only to one side of the community. Some Unionist politicians simply cannot accept the whole concept of power sharing in Northern Ireland, the changes in the police force, which were long overdue, or the legislation to outlaw all forms of sectarian discrimination.

The shadow Secretary of State was absolutely right to say that we neglected Northern Ireland for years on end. He complains that there are not enough debates on the subject, and he may well be right. We should, however, consider the sheer neglect of Northern Ireland. There had been no change since 1920—a Protestant state for a Protestant people. There was a great deal of discrimination, and the minority community was treated in a shabby and brutal manner. That was the position for years, and we all ignored it, including Labour Members and Labour Governments. That has changed, and it is absolutely right that it has done.

There are those on both sides of the sectarian divide who are totally opposed to the Good Friday agreement. We know from the horrifying tragedy at Omagh that there are those on the republican side who believe that there has been a sell-out by the IRA and Sinn Fein; and, unfortunately, as I have said, there are those on the Unionist side who do not accept the Good Friday agreement.

It is essential that the agreement is defended in every conceivable way by hon. Members on both sides of the House. When we combated terrorism over the years we had a united House. I understand the Opposition's view that their support for the agreement does not mean that they should not be willing to point out the difficulties, as they have done today, and to recognise that certain things need to be done. However, what needs to be recognised, not only by Unionists but by Conservatives, is that some Opposition Back Benchers have never accepted the agreement.

I make an appeal, with all the sincerity that I can command, to Conservative Members, and in particular to the shadow Secretary of State: if we believe that the agreement is the best way forward for Northern Ireland and that significant gains have been made, we should stand together in its defence despite all the blemishes that have been identified, many of which have yet to be tackled. We should form a united front against the wreckers, who have but one objective—to destroy the agreement that was signed four years ago.

9.19 pm
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

May I deal first with the statement from the IRA that has been referred to by a number of speakers? It has been welcomed by a number of people, but as someone whose family have lost two members, murdered by the IRA, both police officers serving in Northern Ireland—Samuel Donaldson, who was murdered in Crossmaglen in 1970 and his brother Alexander who was murdered in the mortar attack on Newry police station in 1985—I cannot see anywhere in it an apology for their murder.

No one should lose sight of the fact that the IRA is still playing a game in which it regards police officers and soldiers as legitimate targets. Gerry Adams, I remind Members, recently said of recruits to the new Police Service of Northern Ireland from the Roman Catholic community: I think that they will be accorded exactly the same treatment the republican movement accorded to the RUC. No more. No less. Of course, there was recently an attempted murder of a police service recruit in Ballymena—an attack that Sinn Fein refused to condemn. None of us should fall into the trap of giving legitimacy to a statement that still plays the game of claiming that police officers or soldiers are legitimate targets. My family have not received an apology from the IRA, yet their grief and sense of loss is as deep as anyone's. More than 300 police officers have been murdered over the past 30 years—their families deserve an apology as well.

But apologies are not enough. We have heard words from the IRA before. Every time we get those statements, they receive the same welcome and the pressure is relaxed. Surely, that is precisely the time to keep the pressure on the paramilitaries. If we are to move towards the real and lasting peace that the people of Northern Ireland want, we cannot allow the paramilitaries to set the agenda. Let us be in no doubt that that is largely what has been happening in the peace process. The Prime Minister, before the referendum on the agreement, set out in detail the criteria by which he would judge whether ceasefires were genuine and whether the commitment of paramilitaries was for real. At Coleraine on 20 May 1998, for example, he said that those who use or threaten violence would be excluded from the Government of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister went on to say: And I say to you that is a reason for supporting this Agreement because in this Agreement we can provide that only those who renounce violence for good, once and for all, can take their place in the government of Northern Ireland or can get the benefit of the other arrangements under the Agreement. Is not the reality, however, that the IRA, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have all committed acts of violence and continue to do so and to threaten violence, yet have benefited from the agreement? All their prisoners have been released and Sinn Fein is in the Government of Northern Ireland. Where is the Prime Minister's commitment now?

At Balmoral showgrounds on 14 May 1998, the Prime Minister went into even more detail, setting out a series of criteria by which he and the Government would judge whether the ceasefires were genuine. He talked about a clear and unequivocal commitment that there is an end to violence for good the words "for good" are underlined— on the part of republicans and loyalists alike". He went on to say: as the Agreement expressly states, the ceasefires are indeed complete and unequivocal and that there is to be an end to bombings, killings and beatings…to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures and full co-operation with the Independent Commission on decommissioning, to implement the provisions of the Agreement. Then, crucially, he said: These factors provide evidence upon which to base an overall judgement—a judgement which will necessarily become more rigorous over time. But is it not the case that the judgment has become less rigorous over time, and that while the Secretary of State claims that there is no acceptable level of violence, violence today is at a higher level than it was when the agreement was signed? That is not my conclusion; it is the conclusion of the Police Service of Northern Ireland from its statistics, yet the Government say that the IRA ceasefire is still intact.

Using the same criteria, the Government announced that the UDA ceasefire had broken down. Is anyone suggesting that the UDA is guilty of a higher level of violence? Was it the UDA whose members were in Colombia developing new weapons? Was it the UDA that had three members convicted of running guns in a court in Florida? Was it the UDA that broke into Castlereagh police station? Was it the UDA that shot five Protestants in Belfast? Was it the UDA that was targeting me and other Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland?

Yet the IRA ceasefire, we are told, is still intact. I do not deem it to be intact, judging by the criteria laid down by the Prime Minister. Why do the Government differentiate between the UDA ceasefire and the IRA ceasefire? Of course, at the heart of the process are the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence, to which all the political parties in Northern Ireland without exception signed up. Those principles have been demeaned and broken on numerous occasions by all the paramilitary organisations.

One cannot help but conclude, therefore, that there are occasions and circumstances when the Government are prepared to turn a blind eye to the breaches of the Mitchell principles and of the ceasefire. I believe that we have reached a moment when decisions must be taken about the process. The evidence is clear. The IRA has not made a commitment to peace and democracy, it is in breach of its ceasefire and of the Mitchell principles, and Sinn Fein has failed to deliver on the undertakings that it gave in the agreement.

On 22 April 1998 here in the House of Commons the Prime Minister told us: it would obviously be a travesty of democracy if parties associated with paramilitary organisations held Executive office in the assembly while they continued to be engaged in or to threaten terrorism."—[Official Report, 22 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 811–2.] We are entitled to ask the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State why Sinn Fein Ministers are still in the Government of Northern Ireland when there is incontrovertible evidence that the IRA is continuing to use and to threaten violence on the streets and to engage in re-arming and in international terrorism.

A deadline of 24 July has been set by the First Minister for the Government to act and to deal with those transgressions. Let us be clear that another form of words from the Prime Minister will not suffice. In my opinion, nothing short of the exclusion of the Sinn Fein-IRA Ministers from ministerial office will suffice. The promise to act in the future is not enough. We have had those promises before and they have been broken.

The Unionist community wants to see action taken against those who have transgressed. If we simply admonish them and do not follow that up with some kind of sanctions, what we are saying effectively is, "Colombia is okay. Castlereagh is okay. Florida is okay. What happened on the streets of Belfast is okay. Just don't do it again." But they will do it again. History has taught us that if we let the terrorists off the hook, they will come back to do it again. The idea that we can draw a line under Colombia, Castlereagh and the recent street violence in return for the paramilitaries making some kind of recommitment to the peace process is a non-starter. The agreement has been broken by the paramilitaries, and the Government must now act to hold them to account and to restore public confidence. That must mean altering the terms to ensure that we have effective exclusion mechanisms to deal with those who are in default. That is what the Prime Minister promised that he would do on 10 April 1998 and that is what he must now do. That is where I depart from those on the Government Front Bench. It is time for the Government to legislate to introduce powers for effective exclusion mechanisms. We have to send the signal that no level of violence will be tolerated and that the terrorists must adhere to the agreement, or there will be consequences. That has been the problem in the past. Terrorists on both sides believe that they can play fast and loose with the process and get away with it, and to date—let us face it—they have got away with it.

It is time for the Prime Minister and the Government to draw a clear line to create the circumstances and make provision for the exclusion of those who have failed to honour their commitments under the agreement. I am told that that is not workable; that the way to bring Sinn Fein-IRA and others along the path to peace is not to exclude them from government. So why did the Prime Minister say that he would do it in the first place? Why does the agreement make provision for it? Why does the legislation make provision for it? Sometimes, we have to deal with the terrorists by taking sanctions and action against them to make them realise that, as the Secretary of State said, there is no halfway house and that when we say that we will exclude, we will exclude. Otherwise, they call our bluff, and the Government's bluff has been called too many times in the past. It is time for the Government to act. The people of Northern Ireland expect them to do so.

9.32 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I, too, welcome the opportunity to debate the peace process in Northern Ireland. The positive statements made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) in moving the motion and the eloquent response by the Secretary of State indicate the progress that has been made in the aftermath of the Good Friday agreement. I must say that I cannot completely agree with the Opposition spokesman's description of today's IRA statement as having been precipitated by the threat of the debate—that stretches credulity rather far. I would proffer the explanation mentioned by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) as a more likely cause, but my favourite choice would be the imminent prime ministerial statement that is forecast to take place before 24 July, which is only next week.

No single Act of Parliament, no single event, no single speech, no single comment and no single tragedy sums up the peace process. It is an accumulation of all those things. In Northern Ireland, the peace process is the assimilation of the experiences that we all have while living in that community on a day-to-day basis. It is not surprising that our experiences vary, even from area to area, nor that all have not benefited equally from the peace process. But to argue that it is collapsing is a false argument indeed. Anyone who lives in our community knows quite well that even the most superficial comparison between the past four or eight years and today would indicate very clearly that the peace process is working. That is not to say that it is a complete or perfect peace. A physicist once explained to me that darkness is the absence of light, so I can parallel that by saying that peace is the absence of violence or of those things that are the antithesis of peace. So, our interpretation of peace is that it is a summation of all our experiences, but that is not to say that they are not important milestones for us to note and to gauge as retrograde or progressive.

The ceasefires and the decommissioning were significant events for both sets paramilitaries. Last weekend, it was terrible in certain areas of east and north Belfast, but, generally speaking, 12 July 2002 was the most peaceful 12 July for many years, and, as a community, we are thankful for that. I pay tribute, as have other hon. Members, to those responsible members of the Orange Order who did not besmirch their true tradition by engaging in violence, to the general good order and to the by and large non-political expressions from the various platforms throughout Northern Ireland.

Let us dwell for a moment on what we mean by peace. It will not simply involve another round of decommissioning—important and welcome though that will be—or the disbanding of the paramilitaries' apparatus and the cessation of their activities, essential though that will be. As I said earlier, peace will be the sum total of our experiences.

The Secretary of State described the enormous strides that Northern Ireland has made over the last eight to 10 years in terms of economic improvement, industrial growth, social betterment, the equality agenda, amendments to criminal jurisdiction, and the reform and re-organisation of the police, all of which have made a major contribution to pinning down the existing quality of peace.

Neither peace nor the prosperity to which the Secretary of State referred have been enjoyed equally throughout our community, however. In fact, one could generalise by saying that many of the areas that suffer sectarian strife are the very areas that have not benefited from the peace dividend of higher employment, permanent jobs, better social conditions and better housing. It is no coincidence that that should be the case.

One of the most difficult aspects of progressing the peace process in the months and years ahead will be the question not of whether there is another tranche of decommissioning, nor of whether there will be evidence of complete demobilisation of the paramilitaries whom I abhor. It will be the question of whether we can create an atmosphere in which we can overcome the sectarian hatreds of centuries—not decades—that have been expressed by petrol bombs and pipe bombs, by the burning of houses, and by the eviction of one community by the other and vice versa.

Everything that we say contributes to the question of whether that problem can be resolved. Each of us, in the House and in Northern Ireland, has a responsibility to ensure that nothing that we say or do adds to the sense of injustice felt—correctly or incorrectly—by many. The reality is that injustices are felt, and we must do our best to alleviate them. That will eventually eradicate the hatred and sectarianism that are the root cause of all the inter-community strife that poses such a threat to the peace process.

I have no doubt that there are forces in Northern Ireland intent on destroying the peace process. There are others—we have heard expressions of this in tonight's debate—who, in some perverse way, would like to see the peace process falter, purely for political purposes. That would be a grave tragedy for the people of Northern Ireland, and I hope and pray that it will not happen.

It all depends on the approach that we take to these issues. Quite honestly, the 24 July deadline referred to by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson)—I heard it said also by a Member of the Legislative Assembly, possibly for Belfast North—which threatens withdrawal from the Executive by the Ulster Unionist party, is an invitation to disaster. It is playing into the hands of those who want to wreck the entire process and the relative stability that our community has established with great difficulty and sacrifice.

Sacrifices have been made by all parts of our community. No one can claim the privilege of being alone in making sacrifices for the greater good. We should acknowledge those sacrifices and compromises for what they are: a massive contribution to the common good of our community. It is legitimate to make robust statements on the political platform, but not to the extent of jeopardising the peace process, which has been so tenderly nurtured.

Lest my remarks on decommissioning and paramilitaries be misunderstood, I stress that it is an anathema that we have bodies in Northern Ireland with access to illegal guns and bombs. It is a constant background threat to the peace and stability that we are discussing, and it must be eradicated.

It is imperative that, in the fullness of time, without putting a deadline on it, paramilitary trappings be done away with. The organisation of paramilitarism has been translated partly into a political machine and partly into a mafia-type machine. It is a disgrace that the sovereign Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland should tolerate the existence of unofficial armed, trained and active armies within their jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, however, we shall have to wear that anomaly for yet another short while. I hope that that stain will soon be removed from our community.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Has it struck my hon. Friend that many of those who urge the leaders of the community to destroy the current basis of the Northern Ireland Executive are those who did not support it in its current form right from the start?

Mr. McGrady

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I agree entirely with the implication of what he said. Certainly, those who opposed the Good Friday agreement from its inception and those who oppose the concept of partnership, of working it out and living together, are the very ones who are now saying that the peace process is in danger, and exacerbating that danger by so doing.

I welcome some elements of the motion. It asks the House to regard the Belfast agreement as representing the best hope for peace and normalisation available or likely to be achievable in Northern Ireland". I subscribe fully to that. It then calls on "all parties"—I hope that that includes the Conservatives' sister party, the Ulster Unionist party— to do all they can to contribute to the implementation of the Agreement, forbearance, mutual understanding and respect between the two communities in Northern Ireland, and avoidance of all forms of violence. I support that.

9.45 pm
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

In last Wednesday's Westminster Hall debate, the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) suggested that a better description of that debate, which was entitled "Northern Ireland Peace Process", would have been "Northern Ireland political process". In doing so, he made a fair point. As I said then, it is difficult to reconcile Northern Ireland's recent history with anything remotely resembling peace.

We have heard again today of the IRA's alleged involvement in the break-in at Castlereagh police station. There are also the revelations of IRA activity in Colombia and its links with the narco-terrorist FARC group. We still await the chairman of Sinn Fein's unequivocal condemnation of the attempted murder of a Catholic policeman in Ballymena. The personal details of more than 200 people have been discovered on IRA intelligence files—from senior Conservative Members of Parliament, to forensic scientists. A rural police station in Rosslea, County Fermanagh, was attacked by Sinn Fein-IRA youth wing members, and violence recently broke out in Drumcree and the Short Strand area of Belfast.

That is hardly the stuff of peace. One need only look at the statistics on the shootings and assaults carried out by so-called loyalist and republican groups to see the hard evidence. There is the cowardly and brutish behaviour of the thugs and gangsters who carry out so-called punishment beatings. A stench of fear and intimidation is created by people who are little more than criminals. They carve out their turf in order to extort, threaten, peddle their illicit wares, and contribute to the misery of thousands of decent, law-abiding British citizens. The behaviour of those groups—their members are not all paramilitaries; some are straightforward criminals—would not be tolerated on the mainland, and nor should it be tolerated in Northern Ireland.

The problem is that organised crime in Northern Ireland is becoming institutionalised. As the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's detailed report on the financing of terrorism in Northern Ireland states: Nor is there any room for complaining that the problem is confined to Northern Ireland: these criminals are now turning their attention to the larger and potentially more profitable markets of Great Britain. The report includes a chilling table that estimates the running costs and fund-raising capabilities of such groups, according to which the Provisional IRA's running costs are in the region of £1.5 million a year, and its fund-raising capabilities are between £5 million and £8 million. The Real IRA's running costs are estimated at £500,000 a year, and its fund-raising capabilities are between £500,000 and £1 million. The UDA's running costs are estimated at £500,000 a year, and its fund-raising capabilities are between £500,000 and £1 million.

It is clear that many of those organisations have money left over to invest—to launder—in perfectly respectable mainland businesses, as well as in Northern Ireland itself. Indeed, it is reported that the Provisional IRA has employed accountants. One can only hope that the firm was Andersen.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I agree entirely with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but does he none the less agree that the Bush Administration, who have taken on global terrorism, should also address Sinn Fein-IRA's funding of terrorism in Northern Ireland through their fund-raising activities in the United States?

Mr. Swire

I do agree, although there is some evidence that the sums raised in America have dropped substantially in the post-11 September environment. The problem is more endemic in Northern Ireland because paramilitaries and terrorists are finding other ways to institutionalise fund raising and criminality.

We are told that there have even been instances of paramilitaries from opposing traditions acting together to further their illegal business aims. I welcome the Government's attempts to tackle that ever-growing problem through the establishment of the Assets Recovery Agency. However, I regret that, in the Westminster Hall debate to which I referred, the Minister of State while rightly stating that the Government take the recommendations in the Select Committee's report seriously—chose not to respond to my request that they commit to providing the agency with the resources that it needs from day one. Can it really be true that only 10 officers in the police service are assigned to investigate general organised crime by the paramilitaries? As the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) said, the police ombudsman in Northern Ireland employs 103 staff. That is 10 times more people to investigate complaints against the police than are employed to investigate complaints against criminals.

Many aspects of the Belfast agreement are either not working, or not working as well as they should. The Prime Minister, Jonathan Powell, or whoever is still driving these matters from No. 10, seem so preoccupied with the concept of a peace process that they ignore the reality of what is going on under their noses. Paramilitaries are making a mockery of the Belfast agreement. Whenever the Government make a concession or turn a blind eye, it only serves to undermine the agreement.

If the Government are serious about saving the peace process—there is every reason to suppose that they are—they should remember what the process was all about originally. The Prime Minister should be reminded of his famous speeches at the Balmoral showground and at Coleraine in 1998, when he set out the tests against which any ceasefire had to be judged. He said that they had to be complete and unequivocal, and bring an end to targeting, shootings, beatings and the procurement of new weapons. He said that paramilitary organisations would have to be dismantled and that the tests would become more rigorous over time.

The Government must get their priorities right. They should concentrate on helping those people who have been driven out of their country by fear and intimidation—something about which the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) always argues so positively. The Government should not concentrate on locating and absolving on-the-run terrorists, as was discussed at Weston Park.

The Government must get tougher on decommissioning. More guns have come into Northern Ireland recently than have ever been decommissioned. The Minister of State said last week that the two acts of IRA decommissioning were of enormous symbolic significance. To whom are they symbolic? To whom are they significant? We need real, unequivocal decommissioning, not piecemeal decommissioning carried out at times of political advantage to the terrorist organisations.

The Government must act firmly and fast. More importantly, they must commit whatever resources are needed to break the backs of the godfathers who are responsible for the misery in Northern Ireland, and to whom the peace process is a threat. If the police are given the resources to weed out the criminal gangs, the never-ending cycle of violence will be significantly reduced. The temperature in Northern Ireland will fall, and the peace process will have a chance of working. I cannot believe that there is one hon. Member in the Chamber tonight who does not want that, at least.

9.52 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I am sad to think that some people do not consider the statement made by the IRA today to be significant or important, and that they would disregard it. Such people talk of past pains as though they were suffered only by people on one side of the community, or by one family.

I believe that the IRA statement and its intentions must be tested. We must see where it leads us, but the statement contains an acknowledgement of the pain and grief suffered by the relatives of the people who the IRA consider to be combatants. It also makes apologies for the people who were viciously wounded or killed as a result of IRA activities. That makes it the most profound statement from the IRA that we have had, and we should recognise and welcome that.

We should welcome the statement, and then test it. The statement's penultimate sentence reads: We remain totally committed to the peace process and to dealing with the challenges and difficulties which this presents Some of those challenges and difficulties are within the IRA. One problem for the IRA's political leadership is maintaining the movement's unity and leading the movement through the peace process. That is part of the challenge facing IRA leaders, and we should understand that.

I am not making an apologia for the IRA. I regard it as responsible for the greatest setback in constitutional nationalism in Ireland and for the destruction of the civil rights movement there. It has caused attention to be turned away from the real grievances of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, and towards the violence that it caused to take place on the streets. People should be in no doubt about where I stand with regard to the IRA, but we must recognise the importance of the IRA statement.

Among various speculation about the significance of the timing, Conservative Members claim that the IRA statement has been made in light of the statement that is to be made next week. That may be the case. However, the date that the IRA has chosen to commemorate in the statement is the anniversary of one of the most bloody events that has ever occurred in Belfast, as a result of its bombing. Not only did people die, as it says in the letter, but hoax calls were made and terrible casualties were caused. For those of us who were active at the time and who remember, it was a most horrific occasion, and the IRA has chosen the anniversary of that day to issue its statement. We should recognise that and understand what has happened.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's remarks, as I lost my message boy, paper boy and a member of my choir on that occasion. However, does not the IRA's "search for freedom" imply that the fight goes on until it ceases to be ruled by this Government?

Mr. McNamara

I think that the IRA is talking about its political wish to obtain a united Ireland, which was recognised in both the Good Friday and Hillsborough agreements. That is what its political fight seeks to achieve. I understand that. However, it has grasped the constitutional, political method of seeking to achieve it. Again, we must remember that.

In our debate last week, I welcomed the progress that had been made by the pro-agreement parties and the implementation plan to consider progress under the Good Friday agreement and keep it going. I argued then, as I argue now, that the greatest thing to be achieved is the communities' acceptance, through their political representatives, that the Good Friday agreement and all that has flowed from it is theirs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) spelt out the political advantages for both parties and the material advantages for both communities. They said that it was not all give on one side and take on the other, but that both sides had to reach their communities. Powerful speeches were made.

Last week, I, along with many other colleagues in the House, received a delegation of women from Short Strand, who gave an account of what was happening in their community. They conveyed the nightmare that they, their families and neighbours experienced every day. That is no doubt repeated in other communities. They spoke with fear but not hate, and were confident of their own abilities and in the process of peace. They looked to their political leaders to promote political remedies.

I welcome the moves that have been made by all communities to address street violence in recent days. The Orange order has maintained a calming influence; in Derry, Sinn Fein stopped the persecution of people in the Fountain and the Waterside. I understand that Sinn Fein also took some of its young republicans to stay for a while in the Short Strand to understand what intimidation meant, so that they could understand what they were doing to the people in the Fountain. That was an extremely educative action.

I believe that in the year ahead, the institutions created by the Good Friday agreement must be made more robust and durable. That can be done only if the people operating the institutions reach out to others.

All eyes are focused on the Assembly elections, and all sorts of hypotheses are being put forward. The great thing is that everyone is concentrating on the election and what is going to happen. They are wondering about the results of a political process, which is something that did not happen to such a degree before. This is real politics. We should welcome and encourage that and do everything positive that we can to ensure that the arrangements that are established continue and flourish. The best way to achieve that is not to create new deadlines next week or new hurdles and obstacles to progress—hoops through which one particular party must jump.

Opponents of the Belfast agreement have pursued a relentless campaign to exclude Sinn Fein from the political process. The louder they shout for republican exclusion, the more disturbing is their silence over violence emanating from violent Unionism—from the loyalist paramilitaries. Conversely, the more they shout for the exclusion of Sinn Fein, the more they strengthen those elements within the republican movement who did not want the Good Friday agreement anyway and who say to their leadership, "There you are. You took these steps and everything that you have done is being thrown back in your face."

That is a dangerous attitude and one that I hope we will avoid in next week's statement. I hope that we will encourage the parties. Obviously, we cannot accept any degree of violence. There is no tolerable side to violence wherever it is—Sinn Fein, the UDA or anyone else.

We must also take steps to understand sectarianism better. One sad thing is that the police in Northern Ireland keep no record of sectarian attacks, whether those are balloon water bombs or pipe bombs. Sectarianism is not noted.

Macpherson's definition of a racist incident ought to be adapted for sectarian incidents in Northern Ireland. A sectarian incident should be any incident that is perceived by the victim or any other person to be sectarian. We should set about establishing the criteria laid down in the Macpherson report, adapting his definition of racist crime to sectarian crime. Such crime should be catalogued and followed through using the procedures suggested by Macpherson to try to root out sectarianism and hatred, in what will be difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland.

David Burnside


Mr. McNamara

I will not give way as I only have a minute and I do not wish to take colleagues' time.

By adopting that sort of policy, we can achieve much. The process will be long and difficult, but we should accept it as a positive challenge.

10.3 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I shall dwell on matters that are relevant to my constituency, which I have represented in this House for more than 30 years.

At the heart of that constituency lies a middle town, Ballymena, where there is a mixed housing estate. A young man there—a Roman Catholic—desired to join the new police organisation. He applied and was accepted and appointed. IRA-Sinn Fein commenced a campaign in that estate with posters and leaflets to every house, depicting the new police service as another Royal Ulster Constabulary and branding it for murders, discrimination and other activities. The result was that the IRA came to destroy that young man. Its leaflets called on the people to treat new recruits of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the same way that the police had treated the IRA. It was a miracle—an act of God—that the bomb did not go off and that that young life was not destroyed, and his father and mother as well.

How can any organisation say that it is for peace when its chairman was asked, "Do you condemn what happened in Ballymena", and he refused to condemn it? I have before me a statement from the IRA and I shall read from it in the light of that. Why should I not? It is an up-to-date reference to what has taken place. Indeed, in Rosslea, there was a vicious attack on the police station and Gildernew, a leading member of Sinn Fein-IRA, defended and justified it. She was elected to this place and has an office here, but does not take her seat. She refused to condemn that attack.

The statement includes condolences but they are limited only to the families of non-combatants. It states: We offer our sincere apologies and condolences to their families…we address all of the deaths and injuries of non-combatants caused by us…There have been fatalities amongst combatants on all sides. We also"— What? "Express our sincere apologies"? No. "Tender our condolences"? No. The sentence continues— acknowledge the grief and pain of their relatives. If ever there was a whitewash, that is it.

Do we really expect the people of Northern Ireland to believe as they listen to this debate that we are bearing some wonderful fruit? The statement concludes: The IRA is unequivocally committed to the search for freedom, justice and peace in Northern Ireland. We remain totally committed to the peace process. They tell us that they are committed to the peace process, but since they commenced their ceasefire they have murdered 14 people, shot 160 people and carried out paramilitary beatings on 250 people. They have run guns from Florida, carried out exercises in training narco-terrorists in Colombia and raided the special branch offices at Castlereagh to gather information better to target people. They have even targeted members of the Conservative party as well as all the Unionist Members of this place.

So this is peace. What do people in Northern Ireland with anguish in their hearts think of this House when it expresses defence of that statement? I leave it at that.

The Mitchell principles stated that there must be a total and absolute commitment to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues. The IRA signed up to that but they do not keep it—they break it. There must be total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. I was amazed to hear people in this House say how terrible it was that we should think—how could we possibly?—that all decommissioning could take place and all beatings could finish overnight.

On 22 May 1998, the Prime Minister said: Representatives of parties intimately linked to paramilitary groups can only be in a future Northern Ireland government if it is clear that there will be no more violence and the threat of violence has gone. That doesn't just mean decommissioning, but all bombings, killings, beatings and an end to targeting, recruiting, and all the structures of terrorism. There are people in the House trying to pillory the people whom I represent and the view of those people because we have asked for what the Prime Minister promised. The time has come for the Prime Minister to deliver his promise. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want, and they have a right to do so. There is not an hon. Member from the rest of the United Kingdom who would have such things going on in their constituency and lie down about it—they would be up in arms about it, and they would protest in the House—yet the Northern Ireland people have endured great hardship.

The Mitchell recommendations call on the parties

To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations". Is the IRA living up to that? The recommendations go on: To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached at all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree". Does the IRA do that? The recommendations continue: To urge that 'punishment' killings and beating stops, and to take effective steps to prevent such actions. That is what the IRA said that it would do. All of us signed up to that, but only some have lived up to it.

We expect the Government to do what a Government are supposed to do: to make people subject to the law. All men equal under the law. All men equally subject to the law. That is what we are asking for tonight.

I must say that I take it rather hard from the Secretary of State because he read a statement by Ambassador Haass, who changes his attitude to terrorism when he leaves America. I am glad that I am telling the House tonight what I told him face to face. When he leaves America, he does not suggest war to the death against terrorism. America is not going to declare war against other countries because of terrorism—Oh, no!—and he told me and my party that he believes that IRA-Sinn Fein must be in the Government.

The idea that the Americans broadcast for the good of their people is that they cannot have terrorists about the place at all, but when they come to Northern Ireland they suddenly say that IRA-Sinn Fein must be in the Government. Why do they say that? They do so because they want to keep the Prime Minister of this country on their side.

What is the end of all this going to be? On 24 July, we will hear from the Prime Minister. I understand that there will be a question high up on the Order Paper in the name of an official Unionist, and the Prime Minister will reply to that question. That is all we will have—a question and an answer—and then the House will adjourn.

I say in closing that no one was more relieved than the people of Northern Ireland about the comparative quiet that we had on 12 July. I was certainly very pleased when an SDLP Member of the Assembly congratulated the independent Orangemen in Ballycastle on the way they ordered their march. Although there was great antagonism at the beginning by people in the street, nothing happened to cause a breach of the peace. I am glad that even our opponents acknowledge that. Long may that continue in Northern Ireland.

10.14 pm
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I am aware that some of my colleagues wish to speak, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I speak a little faster than I would normally speak.

I want to give the House some background to my interest in Northern Ireland. It started in 1985 when I made a visit as a student journalist to Northern Ireland, along with half a dozen or so of my colleagues. We visited Connolly house in Belfast and spoke to Sinn Fein members who had served time for arms offences in the Maze prison. We visited Knock barracks and spoke to officers of the RUC. We spoke to members of the UUP and the DUP at their headquarters, to the SDLP and to trade unions.

Three things occurred to me at the time and shortly afterwards. First, everyone in Northern Ireland at the time had their own idea of how the troubles could be resolved if only everybody else would listen to them and be persuaded of their point of view. Secondly, everyone to whom we spoke was very keen to listen to our perspective on the troubles in Northern Ireland, coming from mainland Britain. They were just as keen to listen to us as we were to listen to them until we said something with which they did not agree, in which case they would say, "What do you know? You don't live here!" Thirdly, the metaphor of an immoveable object being acted on by an irresistible force was never more accurately used than when describing Northern Ireland politics.

One of the most moving tributes that I have ever seen to victims of violence in Northern Ireland was at Knock barracks. I do not know whether it is still there—Unionist Members may be able to tell me. There was a book encased in glass, and on each page of that book was the name of an officer of the RUC who had been killed by terrorism during the troubles. Every day, the glass is lifted, and one page is moved on. I found that a very simple but incredibly moving tribute, and the image has stayed with me. Whenever I show friends, relatives or constituents around the House of Commons, I am always careful to point out the shield above the main door as we enter the Chamber bearing the name of Airey Neave, a genuine world war two hero who was murdered by terrorists in 1979.

I have no intention of going through a long list of the many victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland over the past 35 years. What I believe is that the peace process is not simply about addressing long-held political grievances; it is primarily about ending the dreadful waste of life and restoring a degree of normality to Northern Ireland. No greater monument to the victims of violence could be imagined than long-term, secure peace for the people of Northern Ireland.

I understand completely why Members representing both Unionist parties have reservations about the way in which the peace process has developed. When I voted for Sinn Fein Members to have offices in this place, I did not do so with a spring in my step. I did not enjoy seeing convicted murderers being released from the Maze and being welcomed home as if they were conquering heroes. I am extremely worried by the fact that many terrorist organisations are still sitting on a stockpile of lethal weapons. Any assessment of the Good Friday agreement must go beyond a simplistic score chart, however, on which so-called concessions are listed in one column or another as a plus or a minus.

The question that we must answer tonight is this: is Northern Ireland today a better place to live? What are the poverty and unemployment levels? Do young people in Northern Ireland now have an opportunity to pursue a career, to thrive, to marry and to have a secure life in Northern Ireland instead of moving out? For the first time in 35 years, I think that we can answer yes to that.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, in the three and a half years up to the IRA's first ceasefire in 1994, there were 343 killings. In the past three and a half years, there have been only 50. I will not adopt the position of Reginald Maudling, a former Home Secretary, who said that there was such a thing as an "acceptable level of violence", as, clearly, there is not. I will mention, however, this one factor: the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has seen a 22.8 per cent. drop in unemployment between May 1997 and May 2002; every one of the 11 constituencies represented by official Unionist and Democratic Unionist MPs in the House has seen a far greater reduction in unemployment. Surely that is something that we should value in this debate.

Time is pressing on me and I do not want to detain the House any longer, as colleagues want to speak. I want to make one comment, however, on something that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) mentioned. He spoke of deadlines. I am not aware of a single occasion—I certainly know of no recent occasion—on which imposing a deadline helped. I do not believe that deadlines are helpful at all. Surely it is better to drive slowly and reach a destination than to drive fast and be unable to manoeuvre at the next bend.

10.20 pm
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

One thing achieved by the vote by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) to give Sinn Fein MPs their peculiar and unique status here was our ability to receive an e-mail from Fisherj@parliament.uk containing an IRA statement 50 minutes before the embargo. That is at least one bonus.

I believe that the tone of the debate has entirely vindicated the Opposition's decision to devote our last Supply day before the recess to this important issue, and to a process that has now reached a serious stage. Let me briefly dispose of the least serious contribution, that of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). He failed to deal with any of the hard questions, and continued his efforts to be misleading about the Conservative position. He really must become serious, and his party must address the hard questions without seeking to avoid them as its members did in voting for Sinn Fein membership of the House, when there were 14 votes in favour, 14 against and 24 abstentions. I will remind the hon. Gentleman of that for as long as he continues to misrepresent the Conservative position.

The Secretary of State was right to draw attention to the contradictory signals that are emerging in regard to events in Northern Ireland—some good, some bad. He also told us, however, that the real test lay in the fact that the transition must continue. He mentioned the four elements identified by Richard Haass. I particularly endorse what he said about the requirement for leadership, strength and courage on the part of all involved in the process, to condition their own communities and help take them towards peace.

The Secretary of State spoke of risk aversion. All too often, the tactics of Her Majesty's Government have seemed to be risk aversion—doing whatever is necessary to keep the process going. Now, however, we are hearing much more robust language from both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, which I welcome. There should be no halfway house. The difficult questions must be faced now, and rights and responsibilities must be exercised in full.

Notwithstanding that language from the Secretary of State, there was equivocation when he hid behind the issue of devolved power. Ultimately, he cannot expect the SDLP to do the Government's work for them in delivering a cross-community vote—as the Assembly is currently made up—to take Sinn Fein out of the Executive, if that is what is required if Sinn Fein does not deliver on its obligations.

Both the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) quoted the Prime Minister. I think that we can be pleased with the words the Prime Minister used today when facing questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), a Select Committee Chairman. He said "I do accept that we've reached a point where we say these things are unacceptable—that it is the right moment to reflect on this—and I hope we can do this." I have relied on my own notes rather than producing a transcript of what the Prime Minister said, but I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that his language today seemed to be entirely in line with the language that he used in 1998 at the Balmoral showground and in the House—language that has been quoted extensively by Unionist Members. The tone of the Government's approach to the debate is now correct. The seriousness with which all Members have contributed to it reflects that.

I have to say to the Secretary of State that there is now a requirement to take risks. That does not mean taking risks to court unpopularity in making further concessions. The Government may have to take a risk with the process itself, and test what Richard Haass has identified. He said that the process must be robust and resilient enough to withstand setbacks, violence and its opponents. The Government may now have to take those risks and test the words of the IRA. To use the language of the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), the IRA statement is welcome as far as it goes. However, Sinn Fein and the IRA are two sides of precisely the same coin, and we must take them at their word to see what their commitment to wholly peaceful means really is.

10.26 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

In the best traditions of the House, we have had a useful, lively and good-humoured debate. Several points have emerged that would command the agreement of all, or almost all, Members on both sides of the House. Given the time that I have, I hope that hon. Members will accept that I will not take interventions in my short contribution.

The first point of agreement is that the carrying forward of the peace process under the Belfast agreement must be about exclusively peaceful means. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said—hon. Members have referred to this—there is no acceptable level of violence. Indeed, the street violence of recent days is not acceptable. It is wrong, futile and must not go on if those concerned have any interest in the development of a happy and prosperous future for Northern Ireland. We will not see the development of a normal society while people resort to violence. All those involved—the rioter, the paramilitary delivering beatings and shootings to teenagers, the racketeer feathering his nest while claiming to "protect" his community—ruin lives and destroy hope.

Paramilitary violence, anything that appears to constitute preparation for such violence or the keeping of a war machine in existence are also unacceptable. There must be clear signs that the process of transition to exclusively peaceful means is advancing and is, indeed, irreversible. Anything else would be inimical to confidence. That brings me to the second point of agreement. The process must command the confidence of both communities. It was the essence of the underlying bargain embodied in the Belfast agreement that all sides would put down arms, work exclusively peacefully and work together in co-operation. All those elements must be present.

The third point that would command general agreement is that the leaderships of both communities must work for confidence and to address the concerns of the other community. The Government, and I believe the Irish Government, will do what we can, but delivering confidence is essentially within the control of the parties and their associates. I believe that the leaderships are working in that direction, but that work must go on. Recent events have caused serious questioning of the basis of trust on which the agreement depends, but the great majority of hon. Members would agree that there is no way forward other than the agreement. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) acknowledged that.

The benefits that the agreement has brought to the people of Northern Ireland have been rehearsed here and in a debate in Westminster Hall last week. I will not reiterate them, but they are fundamental. The difficulties that we face, serious as they are, must not be allowed to mask the enormous advances that have been made. We were in a much more serious position a few years ago. All those advances are at risk if the present process is not carried forward. It must therefore be for all us of to work to ensure that that happens.

There has been talk of sanctions. That is understandable. The Government realise that there must be consequences if those involved in the process are not all clearly set on the democratic and exclusively peaceful path. I take issue with the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson). The debate should not be about exclusion. We will have failed if anyone is excluded. We are about ensuring that the agreement works properly and that people complete the necessary transition from violence to exclusively peaceful means.

However, that is not to say that there will be no sanctions. Our approach is not passive. If violence continues, there are bound to be consequences. That is what we will consider in the coming days, but there is no point in being punitive for the sake of it. Our purpose has to be to change behaviour, building on the great advances that have been made.

I am aware of the sense of hopelessness in some areas. I see it regularly when I receive deputations not just from the Unionist community, but from people on all sides, especially those who live with and experience the difficulties in Northern Ireland. I acknowledge that in some instances there are poor material prospects, and that some people feel that their identity and place in the UK are under threat, but those fears are unfounded. However, it behoves us—the Government, the devolved authorities, the police, local politicians and community leaders—to redouble our efforts to reduce tensions, to improve conditions and to invest in peace. When we do so, the dividend will be a more harmonious and prosperous society for all in Northern Ireland.

I wish to take issue with something that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) said. The Assets Recovery Agency will have the resources that it needs at the outset. His representation of my comments was inaccurate. Does he think that the amendments that his party supported in the House of Lords, which hamstring the Assets Recovery Agency—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings, the debate stood adjourned.

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