Access To Facilities Of The House
Mr Lembit Ípik (Montgomeryshire, Liberal Democrat)
The great thing about being a Liberal Democrat is that we tell the truth, so we do not have to remember what we said. I think that I have made it pretty clear today, and in other debates that the hon. Gentleman may or may not have attended, that I do indeed congratulate John Major and Conservative Secretaries of State on having initiated the very process that the current Government are seeking to proceed with. I would like to think that there is not a soul in the House who would detract from that achievement. Indeed, I have said that it was the one enduring contribution that John Major made to British politics. I hope that I do not have to spell it out any more clearly than that. It is disappointing that that achievement is apparently being fogged by the party's current move away from his strategy.
A cool analysis of the motion reveals an inference that the ceasefire has been breached. Individuals may believe that, but as the Secretary of State clearly stated, there has been no determination that the IRA has breached the ceasefire and it is not helpful to suggest otherwise. [Interruption.] No, there is a clear process to determine whether the ceasefire has been breached, and we could have a separate debate on that.
Let me emphasise again that the trigger for the suspension was quite evidently a judgment call that this was the best way to continue the peace process. Allowing the institutions to collapse by the walk-out of loyalist politicians would have been much more destabilising than the current situation. The motion does not appropriately reflect what is going on in the real world of Northern Ireland politics. That may be a drafting issue, but the record does not make allowance for that, so we should not approve it simply on the grounds that it makes the erroneous inference that the ceasefire has been breached, quite apart from the question of facilities.
The subject of facilities is one on which I would be less inclined to take strong issue with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and his party. Different views are taken on it, even within my party. My hon. Friend Mrs. Calton and I take the view that it would be inappropriate to take away the facilities, as Sinn Fein moderates have done a lot to try to convince their hardliners that political dialogue is the most effective way of achieving their objectives. To his credit, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford often visits the Province, as I do. I have been left in absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of Sinn Fein activists and officers now recognise that peaceful dialogue is the best way forward. Let us not pretend or suggest that Sinn Fein or the IRA now actively desire violence as an outcome. However despicable or unforgivable it may be, it was always regarded as a process.
There are divisions between hardliners and moderates on both the loyalist and the republican side. In my judgment, allowing access to facilities in the House has considerably helped the republican moderates in trying to persuade their sceptics—those who would be more inclined to revert to violence—that peace can work and political dialogue can be effective, and that the republican cause is best served by moving away from the damaging approaches of the past.
Those who take a different view should consider that not as a profound matter of principle—although some have expressed it in those terms—but as a judgment about the best way of strengthening the hand of the moderates in the republican community, whom we desperately need to support, allowing them to point to what is going on in Westminster and show what will be destroyed by reverting to violence. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, it depends whether we take a carrot or a stick approach. By and large, I believe that in this situation the carrot will work better than the stick.
If we take away the facilities, it will be a gift to the hardliners and those who would say that we were never sincere about giving them the chance to participate actively in Westminster. Still worse, there could be a change in the power arrangements on the republican side, simply because the promises that had to be made from the inside to maintain what has been largely an effective ceasefire would have been broken.
There is an even more fundamental reason why I believe that the access to facilities should continue. In truth, all the major parties have taken advantage of the fact that they can now have direct dialogue with individuals from Sinn Fein. Only a few days ago, I witnessed a heated discussion between Mitchel McLaughlin and a Conservative spokesperson. There was no love lost in that discussion, but I was pleased to see the dialogue, because dialogue has probably been the single most important key to unlock progress on peace.
Continuing to allow access is a relatively modest measure. Access has afforded us much better opportunities to talk to Sinn Fein and understand its perspective, and it further ties the party into the democratic process. I have been grateful for the opportunity to speak informally to Sinn Fein Members in the Corridors, just as I talk to colleagues from other political parties. That is where much of the work gets done in Northern Ireland politics.
This is a free vote for the Liberal Democrats, but I advise my colleagues not to support the motion. Those who seek to deny Sinn Fein access to facilities should tell us the answer to this question: why would the removal of the opportunity to be at the heart of the democratic process in the United Kingdom make republicans more likely to want to participate?