I recognise the significance of the measures proposed by the Liberal Democrats in the other place to press some extra powers on a reluctant Secretary of State. That can be valuable in certain circumstances. I notice that Lord Smith of Clifton, who was my former politics tutor at the university of Hull, introduced the debate there. If I do not look young enough, it is because I was an adult student at the time.
I want to refer to the speech made by Mr. Mallon, certain sections of which were very powerful, especially on the misuse of views about the assassination of Sergeant McCabe and the position on Jean McConville. The rhetoric was particularly important.
It also seems to me that important rhetoric is contained in the agreement between the two Governments. Paragraph 12 states:
"Five years after the Agreement, the transition to exclusively democratic means must now be completed. Ongoing paramilitary activity, sectarian violence, and criminality masquerading as a political cause, are all corrosive of the trust and confidence that are necessary to sustain a durable political process."
Paragraph 13 continues:
"Paramilitarism and sectarian violence, therefore, must be brought to an end".
It later refers to the need for paramilitary groups to
"make it clear that they have made such an historic act of completion, and that this is reflected in reality on the ground."
The measures in the Bill are attempts to move in that direction. It is important for Governments and politicians to say what it is all about and to be involved in the high hopes of the people. Powerful rhetoric can, if people actively pursue it, change attitudes, so the words used by politicians are important.
I think that it is bad enough that new Labour has got rid of its socialist policies, but it is far worse that it has got rid of the rhetoric of socialism, because rhetoric offers hopes for the future, for changes and developments. Even if a battle is not won now, people still have some hope around the corner that changes will take place. I might fall into those positions in condemning much of the violence and paramilitary activity that takes place in Northern Ireland, but I realise that words alone will not help to resolve positions. There is a danger, and it applies even to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and myself on occasions, that words become a substitute for the hard positions that are necessary for action to take place.
I read out a few moments ago the principles contained in the agreement. Even if we have agreed to push the barriers further back in the hope that bodies such as the Provisional IRA will fall into line and go ahead with acts of completion, there must be a point at which the barrier remains firmly in place, whatever the consequences might be. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was worried about triggering a situation in which the entire agreement came tumbling down when, at last, action was taken, presumably against Sinn Fein, which made it face up to its responsibilities. There is a stage at which, when we have tried almost everything under the sun, another measure becomes the next stage of development and we will reach the end-point of the game if no action is taken fully to live up to the measures.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the agreement the commission was set certain guidelines, targets and dates, to do with government and normalisation, but that the provisions on paramilitaries were open-ended?
I do not think that the agreement is open-ended on terrorism, because it states in the provisions for the commission that it can report on such matters and seek to initiate legal action. It will have to face up to those issues as they arise. The commission will be tested by those issues. Paramilitaries may back off, because of the action that would be taken against them, or the arrangements might crumble, because the paramilitaries do not like what the commission does.
The rhetoric of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh did not carry the day in terms of the legal technicalities of what was said in the House of Lords and whether we could take or leave the Bill according to the occasion. The situation is analogous to an international treaty, in which the Government can engage under royal prerogative powers. On occasions, a treaty might have national implications and would then be discussed by the whole House—as in the case of the Maastricht treaty. What happens then can knock the measure into touch or require the treaty to be tweaked or altered if it is to be adopted. Therefore it is relevant for us to discuss amendments to the Bill later today.
The Secretary of State has been questioned about whether past issues, such as the problems in Colombia and Castlereagh involving the Provisional IRA, can be investigated. We were promised the answer when the Minister winds up. In my opinion, the answer will be that such issues cannot be investigated, because the agreement talks of
"any continuing activity by paramilitary groups."
Some attempt to claim that anything that happens now is in some way linked to events in the past, in order to try to fulfil the criteria of continuing activity. That might be a shortcoming for some people, and they may wish to amend the Bill accordingly.
It appears that the legal action on Sinn Fein-IRA activity in support of FARC, the terrorist movement in Colombia, will not be concluded before this legislation passes through the House, which will be quite soon. In that case, does the hon. Gentleman think that Colombia should be on or off the agenda?
I think that Colombia is liable to be off the agenda as far as the commission is concerned. It does not mean that it has to be off the agenda as far as the Northern Ireland Office or the general political process is concerned. An interesting report on the financing of terrorism was produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and it raised questions about American involvement and FARC activity. The investigations by the police and other forces, and the NIO, will be able to continue, so that action can take place.
I asked the Secretary of State earlier about the relationship between clauses 2 and 3. It is possible that my point in that short intervention was not as clear as it should have been. Paragraph 3 of the agreement between the British and Irish Governments states:
"Any incidents of non-compliance by any party will . . . be subject to either political exposure or, where appropriate, the process of law."
I presume that political exposure will happen through reports made to the House. It struck me that a problem with clause 2 could inhibit the nature of a report under clause 3. Obviously, I do not want the contents of a report to put people's lives at risk, or prejudice future legal proceedings, but there is some restraint on what the commission can tell us.
If the commission believes that it knows who is involved in a certain activity, and that that person should be exposed, that could be achieved by means of a statement to the House, which would be privileged. However, that could still affect future legal proceedings. Alternatively, the life of a person implicated in the serious paramilitary activity proscribed by the agreement could be put at risk, as a result of the activity of opposing paramilitary forces. Does that mean that we will not find out who is involved in paramilitary activity? If so, the Bill will be less effective than intended.
My final point has to do with on-the-runs. The material on the Bill placed in the Library by the Northern Ireland Office for this debate contains a document—"Proposals in Relation to On the Runs"—that was agreed in April 2003. It makes it clear that, in future, certain rules will apply to people who are on the run, and it seems that some sort of offer is being made to the paramilitary organisations. The offer is that, if on-the-runs play ball with the work of the commission and act according to the principles that it supports, they will get the clearance outlined in the document.
The document is the carrot and we are now discussing the stick. The problem is that people, when offered a carrot, will sometimes go after that incentive, in the hope that they can get round other limitations placed on them. Before any provisions are implemented in respect of on-the-runs and the conditions that they would have to observe, I want to ensure that people who are on the run from the on-the-runs, and their organisations, are free to return to Northern Ireland, if that is what they wish. The agreement between the two Governments refers to such exiles, if only by inference, and they must be provided for. That matter must be sorted out.
I generally favour the Bill. I recognise that we are moving the goalposts back in the hope that the game can be completed. However, there must come a point at which we say, "That's it." This is that point, and it must be reached without there being some way of wheedling matters so that those on the run can be got off the hook.
Let me comment on the closing words of Mr. Barnes, without endorsing any form of amnesty, because we have always opposed any provision with regard to on-the-runs. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's work over the years in highlighting the plight of those who have been forced to leave as a result of paramilitary intimidation. They have become exiles from Northern Ireland and can return only at risk to themselves. His significant contribution in bringing the focus to bear on that form of paramilitary abuse should be recognised. We would all agree entirely with what he said about exiles.
Mr. Mallon made a compelling contribution, particularly when he talked about the activities of paramilitarism and about how he understood the feelings that exist. I endorse a lot of what he said about that. He referred to the way in which some sectors of society almost glorify those who have been involved in violence, and he criticised in particular the broadcast media and the press. That brought into my mind a newspaper article published today, as did his mention of the planned celebration for those who escaped from the Maze prison many years ago. The Independent today carries a huge spread on that subject. I have not read the article by Mr. David McKittrick, and I do not prejudge it. I did not get as far as reading the article because the graphic at the top of the page was enough for me to throw the paper away. It superimposed on a photograph of the Maze prison small photographs of some escapers along with little notes about who they were and what their contributions had been.
The note on one escaper referred to his having been
"at the forefront of the peace process".
Who was that? Mr. Bobby Storey. Since the agreement, Mr. Bobby Storey may have been at the forefront of some things, but they certainly were not the peace process. [Interruption.] I can hear some comments being made about some of the achievements to Mr. Storey's credit over the past few years.
The glorification of that gentleman in that newspaper illustrates precisely what the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was saying. The attitude among some politicians and members of the media has made achieving completion of the peace process more difficult. The whole process is predicated on giving to those involved in violence in the past the opportunity to move towards peaceful democratic politics. That process is impeded or delayed while some people tolerate, or even encourage, the glorification of paramilitary activities and paramilitarism. Any commentator, politician, newspaper or television programme that engages in that behaviour is helping to undermine the process in which we have all been engaged.
We will broadly endorse the Bill, but it should not, in many respects, be before us at all. If successive Secretaries of State had done their job properly over the past four or five years and if the Government had done their job and kept their pledges, it would not be necessary for us examine such legislation. In that respect, there is much merit in what Mr. Davies said.
My colleagues and I started to argue in the spring and summer last year for the creation of some sort of arrangement to monitor ceasefires, simply because successive Secretaries of State had failed to do so. After the agreement, we had the unedifying spectacle of continuing paramilitary activity and of Secretaries of State failing to identify it as such and brushing it under the carpet—one Secretary of State used the phrase "internal housekeeping" about murder. If it had not been for that approach, we would not have had some of the difficulties that have arisen in the past four or five years and it would not have been necessary for us to consider this measure.
One of the objects of this exercise—it is sad that this has to be the case—is to make it difficult for Ministers to turn a blind eye. Those people who have taken on responsibility in the independent monitoring commission should clearly understand that. Their job is not to support the Government; by scrutinising paramilitary activity and reporting on it clearly and accurately, their job is to ensure that the Government do not fail to carry out their functions in these matters.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh regretted the fact that instead of doing the job ourselves we are once again turning to someone outside, and I sympathise entirely with him. When the suggestion was made last summer, ensuring that this scrutiny was done properly was in the forefront of my mind—getting the right people to ensure that the Secretary of State did not dodge the column. Indeed, hon. Members may be interested to know that one of the first suggestions that I made—if not the very first—when we were thinking of a single ceasefire monitor was the distinguished Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, whose achievements in a wide range of fields are extremely well known. Indeed, his achievements with regard to ETA are significant, as are those in outing the dirty war committed by the socialist Government of Spain.
One of the great contributions of that Spanish gentleman resulted in the proscription of Batasuna—the front organisation of ETA, which I do not believe will be debated later this evening.
If my hon. Friend looks at the dates, he will notice that that happened after I had identified Baltasar Garzon as a first-class person for this job, so I am not surprised at what he describes.
In an intervention, I referred to the fact that as a result of the representations of my party and others, we made some progress in persuading the Government of the desirability of moving down this road—establishing some oversight of ceasefires. A statement was made to the House on
The day after the statement, a colleague contacted the Government to say that as a result of the way the issue had been fumbled in the House, we could expect a violent summer and a political crisis in the autumn, which is precisely what happened. As hon. Members will remember, last summer was certainly the worst for violence and public disorder that we have had in the Belfast region since long before the ceasefires. That was no accident, and it could largely be attributed to the Government sending the wrong signals last summer.
The crisis came in the autumn, with what we call Stormontgate, although it was slightly different from what I had anticipated. Stormontgate was in fact part of the same operation that led to the Castlereagh raid. There were two manifestations, but both arose from a widespread intelligence gathering operation conducted by the mainstream IRA. To ensure that I do not prejudice future legal proceedings, I shall not mention the person in the IRA who was responsible for directing both Castlereagh and Stormontgate—[Interruption.] We should not have sedentary interruptions on that point.
As a result of the crisis, we had suspension. If, in June or July last year, the Government had taken up the suggestions that I and other parties made in the spring and early summer and put in place some form of ceasefire monitor or sanctions, we might not have had suspension in 2002. These provisions come a long time after the event, to try to repair the damage done by the Government due to their mistakes in managing the process.
Since suspension, questions obviously arise about the circumstances in which there could be a return to devolution and to the Assembly and the Executive. The criteria have been spelt out by our party, embodied in a resolution of the Ulster Unionist council of September 2002. They were reflected in language used by the Prime Minister in his speech at the Belfast harbour office in October last year and, as was pointed out earlier, elements of them were reflected in comments about the ending of paramilitary activity made by the Minister of State to a Standing Committee last Tuesday.
The ending of paramilitary activity has repeatedly been defined. Hon. Members should bear it in mind that the time scale, too, has been defined. The relevant paragraph—paragraph 13—of the joint declaration refers to the "immediate" ending of paramilitary activity. The time scale embodied in the word "immediate" is fairly clear.
Decommissioning is also required; it has not been forgotten. Again, careful perusal of the documentation makes that clear. Actions are needed that effectively carry us towards completion. It must be clear that the process is moving to a conclusion, according to the definitions that have been offered.
It is necessary not only for paramilitary activity to end but for a clear indication as to the future status, role and structure of the organisation currently referred to as the Irish Republican Army. We need to know that the cessation of paramilitary activity and decommissioning are more than here-and-now events. We need to know what is intended and what is likely to happen in the future.
Those things have not yet happened, although we know that considerable efforts were made in March and April to obtain adequate responses on those matters and that the republican movement failed to make adequate responses. Hopes have been expressed by several hon. Members that we can make progress, that we can get the Assembly back, reform the Executive and hold the elections that would be necessary for that. However, to do so, the underlying problems of paramilitary activity must be resolved.
A mere glance at the calendar shows us that, if we are to move to elections in the autumn, it will be necessary for the republican movement to take those steps during the next few weeks. I am not in a position to define how much time there is, but it is important to note that time is limited and that action must occur quickly. We cannot have the sort of spun-out, long-delayed process that we have had in the past. Things need to move very quickly indeed. I hope that they do, because to go through another winter with the political process in uncertainty and with the institutions continuing to be suspended would be deeply damaging.
Indeed, I am aware of those steps, and the right hon. Lady gave a full and detailed description of what is involved in relation to the ending of paramilitary activity in her contribution in Committee last week. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, in addition, I referred to the need for decisive action to be taken in relation to decommissioning and for clear indications about future conduct because action in the here and now is, of course, extremely valuable, but we also need to find out where things will rest in the future.
I was referring to the damaging effect if the uncertainty is prolonged into the winter and the spring. A simple point underlies all this, and it was also touched on by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. Suspension punishes everyone for the misdeeds of a few. Suspension took the Northern Ireland Assembly and all its Members out of operation because paramilitaries linked to a few had been engaged in unacceptable activity. It is in itself unacceptable that all the institutions should be suspended, consequently depriving Northern Ireland's electorate of the opportunity of democratic representation in the Assembly, because a handful of people have behaved badly.
It may be that the Government, for whatever reason, were not prepared to take the necessary action in October. It may be that the Bill will give them the power to take that action in the future, but the legislation will bite only after the resumption of the Assembly. At present, the Assembly is suspended and the offices are vacated, and the penalties in the Bill will have no effect this side of resumption. Of course, without progress from paramilitaries, do we get resumption? So the legislation will have no impact until we are the other side of the resumption of the Assembly, the re-formation of the Executive and, of course, the elections, which should have taken place. There is a significant question that the Government need to address: what happens if we do not see sufficient acts of completion from republicans? We cannot be expected to remain excluded indefinitely from the Assembly and the Executive because of the fault of others? If the Government find that they have been unable to make progress come
This legislation is essentially intended for a post-devolution situation, and it is needed because of the lack of confidence that exists. Let us assume that we had a statement from P. O'Neill announcing the disbandment of the IRA, for which many Unionists have called. If such a statement were made, how would we know whether it had happened? The IRA is a secret army—an underground organisation. There are some indications in terms of activities, but how can we tell whether an underground army has disbanded? A huge element of trust is involved in that, and in view of what has happened over the last several years, that trust is in short supply. The need is for the monitoring commission not just to monitor activity but to attribute responsibility, for it to give the people of Northern Ireland a guarantee that, if an organisation says that it has disbanded, that it has ceased activity and that there will not be any activity in the future, someone independent of the Northern Ireland Office or the Secretary of State will blow the whistle if it turns out that that claimed disbandment did not occur and that a secret element within the private army continues to exist and be active. That is why it is important.
The reserve power for the Secretary of State to act is also important not just because in the practical circumstances of the last five years an exclusion motion was never carried in the Assembly, but to provide a reassurance to the people of Northern Ireland if, as a consequence of an election, it appears that an exclusion motion might never be carried in the future in the Assembly under the existing rules. The reserve power is therefore important for the future, and I will return in a moment to the question of the reserve power for the Secretary of State as currently defined.
Nothing in this world is without difficulty or free from problems. It has been suggested that there are some fundamental problems with this legislation, particularly with regard to preserving sovereignty. At the strict legal level, there is no problem with sovereignty, because the agreement to create the monitoring arrangement is very clear. In its last couple of sentences, it talks about what might happen in the event of continuing paramilitary activity, and includes the phrases,
Of course, this legislation amends that Act and confers the power to act on the British Government and the British Government alone. In strict legal terms, therefore, there is no breach of sovereignty on this issue at all.
There are two areas, however, about which people might have concerns. One is with regard to the ground rules that we developed for the inter-party talks. In developing those ground rules, there was one important issue on which I and my colleagues were careful to insist: that while the inter-party talks included the British Government and the Irish Government, as well as the political parties in Northern Ireland, strand 1 of those talks should be between the political parties in Northern Ireland and the British Government alone, and that the Irish Government should have no participation in strand 1. As originally drafted, the paper that appeared at the beginning of May appeared to breach that. I am glad that the international agreement, the draft of which has been published, makes it clear that the strand 1 issue has been resolved. Some people have queried whether that is so, and I have referred to article 6 of that draft agreement, which refers in (a) to whether people are committed to
"non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means"
and in (b) to whether they have
"failed to observe any other terms of the pledge of office",
which relates to the internal affairs of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The provision that has been made in the draft agreement to preserve the strand 1 issue relates to (b) but not to (a). It has therefore been suggested that the sovereignty issue has not been resolved with regard to (a). To those who make that point, I say that what we have in this agreement is precisely what we had during the inter-party talks. The details of the operation of the Assembly are a strand 1 issue, but the question of someone's fundamental commitment to the process and to peace and exclusively peaceful and democratic means has regard to the talks as a whole.
The distinction can be illustrated by remembering what happened during the talks. During the talks, a number of violent incidents took place that were attributed to paramilitaries who were related to parties that were engaged in the process. Most of the talks took place in Belfast, but it will be recalled that there were two weeks out—one in London and one in Dublin. By coincidence, when we got to London, the entire week was taken up with the question of whether the Ulster Democratic party—which had links with the Ulster Defence Association, a paramilitary organisation—should be excluded from the talks because of violence committed by the UDA. When we got to Dublin, the whole time was taken up with the question of whether Sinn Fein should be excluded from the talks because of violent acts committed by the IRA.
How were those issues conducted and resolved? In both cases, exclusion occurred but the decision was taken jointly by the British and Irish Governments in exactly the manner to which article 6(1)(a) relates. The position in the agreement is precisely what happened during the talks. When we were in Lancaster house or Dublin castle and we were urging the Governments to exclude both the Ulster Democratic party and Sinn Fein, it was never suggested that there was any great breach of sovereignty there or that any fundamental principle was being violated. Those who are concerned about the matter should consider it in that context and see that it is entirely in accordance with the precedents established in the talks.
I have dealt with what is called the strand 1 issue, but there is another aspect of sovereignty that we must consider. I have referred to the reserve power for the Secretary of State; it is crucial that there is that reserve power. However, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford was right to say that the Bill, as published, fettered that power unduly because the power would arise only when there was first a determination or report by the monitoring commission with a recommendation. If there were no report or recommendation, there would be no power for the Secretary of State. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that that was too great a fetter on the Secretary of State's power and that a power conditioned in that way would not reassure the public.
I hope that the independent monitoring commission will work. We do not know what the future holds and we do not know exactly how the IMC will operate. Andrew Mackinlay asked about the IMC's rules of procedure, its quorum and whether its decisions would be based on unanimity or a majority. We do not know the answers to those questions, and we do not know the pressures that may be brought to bear on the individuals concerned. I am generally content with the individuals concerned but we are moving into uncharted territory. It would be wrong to assume that everything will be all right and that we do not need to make sensible provision for unforeseen circumstances.
Because it is wise to make provision for unforeseen circumstances and for emergencies that might not occur, it is right for the Secretary of State to have a reserve power that he can actually use. Not making provision for such a power is not something that Governments usually do when they draft legislation. When drafting legislation, efforts are usually made to try to provide for contingencies. Friedman has referred to the law of unintended consequences and unanticipated events, and it is better to have a reserve provision that might at least cope with them than to proceed on the assumption that everything will be all right and that there will be no problems. Given the history of Northern Ireland over the past few years, it is wrong to proceed as though there will never be problems.
As originally drafted, the Bill was seriously defective. That was why my colleagues in another place tabled amendments, which have been tabled again for consideration today. If the amendments had been passed, they would have resolved the problem entirely. At one stage, we thought that they recommended themselves to the Liberal Democrats but when it came to the bit, they unfortunately went off on a venture of their own and drafted an amendment without thinking the matter through carefully. Their amendment was an endeavour to provide a reserve power but it was seriously defective. I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford about Lord Glentoran's work in the other place because he improved the Liberal Democrat amendment significantly, although it remains defective.
Given that that is the right hon. Gentleman's view, it is a matter of regret that, despite my efforts to consult him, he did not try to respond in a like kind. It might have been possible for us to negotiate but his silence indicated that that would not happen.
I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman's comments because I had several meetings with Liberal Democrats last week and a conversation with him on these Benches. Subsequently, on Friday, I had a conversation with his party leader, so I am not sure to what he refers. I responded clearly about our position up until Friday night. I do not wish to inquire about the internal affairs of his party because I know that a party's internal activities are sometimes difficult to fathom. However, my limited acquaintance with the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords has told me that, whatever the difficulties in my party might be, there are huge difficulties elsewhere that are comparable, if not greater. Perhaps we should draw a discreet veil over such matters.
Although Lord Glentoran improved the Liberal Democrat amendment that appears as clause 6, it is still defective and in need of improvement. I have tabled a few amendments, several of which are technical. Indeed, one would insert a safeguard on the Secretary of State's power so that he could exercise it only if he were satisfied that people were not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means—I was rather surprised that the Liberal Democrats omitted such a measure. They also omitted another measure that is fairly obvious if one reads comparable provisions, so I have tabled amendments to make the clause more effective.
Of course, I would prefer it if the group of amendments that we have tabled that starts with amendment No. 2 were accepted. I refer to those amendments because I have looked at the clock and I am not confident that we shall have the opportunity to debate them. I put on record the fact that, although the Liberal Democrat amendment goes some way toward solving the problem, we would much prefer the group of amendments linked to amendment No. 2.
May I also draw attention to new clause 5? It is extremely important because it embodies a significant aspect of the agreement that is, regrettably, not replicated in the Bill. I quoted previously part of a sentence that appears toward the end of the agreement on the establishment of the monitoring body. It says:
"it would be a matter for the British Government . . . to resolve the matter in a manner consistent with the report of the Independent Monitoring Body."
Let me say to the House that the matter is generally one of proportionality. Obviously there can be reference to possible amendments, but I would not expect any hon. Member to go into too much detail. I was listening carefully to what Mr. Trimble was saying. I might also offer the view to the House that the progress that we make and whether we shall be able to have a certain number of hours in Committee is up to hon. Members. I appeal to hon. Members to determine for themselves how they wish the time to be shared.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My intention was simply to emphasise how important that part of the agreement was to us. I hope very much that we get the chance to have a detailed debate on that and that the Government get the opportunity to accept that new clause. That would go a long way to building confidence. As I said at the outset, part of the reason for this is because of the way in which the Government as a whole have handled these issues and their failure to act at particular times. It is necessary for that reason.
I am sure that Rev. Ian Paisley will forgive me if I comment just for a few minutes on an issue that has been raised by amendments that his party has tabled. There is some merit in the points that he has raised. Hon. Members have referred to the disjunction—the inequality—between failure to be committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, which is fundamental to the process, and alleged breaches of other aspects of the pledge of office, which operates on an entirely different plane. It may be thought invidious that those two are linked together and that is a view with which I have much sympathy.
I will not go into detail or mention names, if only to protect the guilty, but when the issue was first raised at a discussion involving a number of parties, it was suggested that rather than have it look as though we were focusing all our attention in terms of sanctions purely on one particular party, we should have provisions that meant that other parties, not just Sinn Fein, might potentially be in breach. "Why just point the finger at that party? The finger could be pointed at any one of us," was the phrase that was used. I remember in that discussion saying that, when that particular person volunteered for punishment, he was certainly not speaking for me, but, unfortunately, the suggestion was made, the idea was out and other people ran with it. It is not an idea that I have thought appropriate in this context. Consequently, if we reach those DUP amendments, I will feel a lot of sympathy for them, but that depends on circumstances.
It is desirable that a variety of penalties are provided for. One reason why the Government were reluctant to act on continuing paramilitary activity was that the only sanction that existed was the nuclear option of exclusion—there was a reluctance, sometimes understandable, to use that nuclear option. With other penalties, if the infringements are not that serious or not thought to justify the nuclear option, at least there is a way in which the Assembly or the Government, if that is the case, can formally indicate their displeasure and dissatisfaction, and that is extremely useful.
I will not say much about the membership of the commission. Some of the gentlemen are not directly known to me but, from what I do know, the membership has a good balance. We have on the commission someone who, as part of the Metropolitan police, specifically dealt with anti-terrorist activity; someone who, as secretary general, the equivalent of permanent secretary, at the Irish Department of Justice has clear familiarity with criminal law and legal procedures; and someone who, as deputy director of the CIA, is accustomed to handling intelligence matters.
We have three specialists with practical information and that is balanced by someone from Northern Ireland, who will be able to inform the views of those specialists, to tell them how things are perceived in Northern Ireland and to reflect the views of people in Northern Ireland. He may, if it is necessary, be able to act as a whistleblower to the people of Northern Ireland if the specialists for some reason fail to deal with the issues seriously enough.
I make one small point with regard to the procedures. It is unfortunate that the procedures in the intergovernmental agreement make reference to the implementation group. There is no implementation group in the Belfast agreement. It is a novel concept that has come forward since. It has tended to undermine some basic concepts in the agreement. When the idea was first proposed, it seemed to have some utility, but the way in which it has developed lately is not advisable. It is unfortunate that it has been given a central role, when its structure is not properly representative. I urge the Secretary of State to reflect on it and things that have been spun off it that are even less representative and capable of developing things that should be done by political parties in Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that that novel concept, which was originally devised to give comfort to certain parties, is now taking on an unwanted life of its own. It may be dangerous, as it is undermining some of the basic concepts in the agreement.
That brings me to my final point which, I hope, will commend itself to other Members on these Benches. An important aspect of the agreement is the undertaking that the Prime Minister gave on
Now, however, the Government, five years late, are fulfilling their pledge—I hope that that is what is happening. But the way in which they originally drafted the legislation was halting and hesitant. If they want the process to prosper, they need to fulfil their pledge wholeheartedly in a way that builds confidence. I hope that they do so and that we get the chance to deal with the detailed amendments. I hope that the Government will respond to them positively, although that hope has not always been met in the past. I hope that they will deal with these matters on their merits, rather than simply arithmetically and that, as a result of all of this, we can make progress in Northern Ireland.
I should like to start my limited contribution by echoing the sentiments of many on the Opposition Benches about the programming of the Bill. It is extraordinary that the Government should introduce legislation with a guillotine timetable, which will necessarily result in our having no time for any scrutiny or considered reflection. The Government would perhaps be more credible if they were as swift and determined to condemn and penalise parties and individuals who repeatedly violate the terms and spirit of the Belfast agreement as they are in trying to get this Bill through the House in just one day.
I suspect that, in all fairness, the Secretary of State is under considerable pressure from the Irish Government as well as the Prime Minister. We are all aware of the logjam of Government Bills in the other place. The Secretary of State no doubt wishes to get the Bill through the House to concentrate on the November election for a restored Assembly. Crucially, the Government believe that the creation of the monitoring commission will go a long way towards allaying the fears of the Unionist community, which has become increasingly disillusioned with the Government's repeated concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA. To many, that is exactly how recent history post the Belfast agreement appears.
The Secretary of State referred this afternoon to an absence of satisfactory commitments to end paramilitary activity. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Jane Kennedy—I was in the Standing Committee last week—recently reiterated that acts of completion were needed before the Assembly elections are held. The great majority in all parts of the House agree with both statements. However, many feel that the carrot and stick have not been applied equally in enforcing the Belfast agreement. Many perceive the concessions made at Weston Park in 2001 and the concessions on the dismantling of watchtowers made at Hillsborough in March, with no movement by republicans in return, to be part of a continuing and depressing pattern.
Let us not forget that decommissioning was meant to have been completed by May 2000. Yet here we are three years later—three years during which we have witnessed Colombia, Florida, Castlereagh and Stormontgate. In a written answer to my hon. Friend Bob Spink on
I fully support the principle of excluding any party or parties in breach of their responsibilities. It is worth noting that, despite what the Liberal Democrat spokesman said, my hon. Friend Mr. Davies initiated the proposal last July. Had he been listened to at that time, we would probably never have had to dissolve the Assembly, and all that ensued thereafter could have been avoided. As a result of the Government's decision at that time, all parties suffered equally, as did the peace process itself.
I support the establishment of the monitoring commission. When it was first suggested, it met with strong resistance, not least from the Secretary of State's predecessor Dr. Reid, but Downing street waded in, and as we now know, the matter once again gained prominence at Hillsborough on 3 and
Other equally important points are less clear, as has been pointed out by Baroness Park in the other place. Where will the commission get its information from? What powers will it have to obtain information from the British and Irish security services? What will its relationship be with the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and with the Garda Siochana? How much will it all cost? Where will it be based and how will it be staffed? Will it have access to the ongoing work of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Organised Crime Task Force? As we discussed this afternoon, will it be able to investigate past and current alleged violations of the agreement?
The only body with which we can compare the new body is the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning under General de Chastelain, but what has that body achieved? That commission operates in such secrecy that it is difficult to know whether it has achieved anything of significance. We are asked to take too much on trust, and stonewalled when we ask what terms such as "significant" and "verifiable" mean. If the monitoring commission is to have any credibility, it must operate in a more open manner. We must be able to see that progress is being made, that intimidation is stopping, that exiles are being allowed to return and live in peace, and that paramilitaries have ceased both fundraising and stockpiling arms.
The Government themselves must now take more responsibility for their actions. They cannot continue to set up commissions and abrogate decision making to them. That is why the official Opposition believe that the Secretary of State himself must have the power and ability to exercise his judgment and prerogative to make an exclusion with or without a recommendation from the commission. Anything else would tie his hands and represent an abdication of his responsibility as Secretary of State.
I concede that Northern Ireland is mercifully a safer place today than before the Belfast agreement, but abuses continue daily, adversely affecting the lives of thousands of wholly innocent people. If we read the papers any day, we will see that that is the case. Only yesterday, The Irish Times contained reports about intimidation of members of the police commission and about a death threat to a Catholic priest made by a so-called loyalist paramilitary group. There was also a report about the dinner that is to be held in Donegal on Friday to commemorate Maze escapees, which Mr. Trimble mentioned. I earnestly hope that, as we speak, the Chief Constable is in talks with his opposite number in the Garda to ensure that any on-the-runs who turn up are arrested.
That is everyday news in a Northern Ireland that is still suffering abuse at the hands of a limited number of people with disruptive agendas of their own. Like my party, I shall always support any measure to combat that continuing menace. If a reformed Assembly is the goal of this Government, it must not be achieved at the cost of principle. The Belfast agreement committed all participants to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. Both the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the new monitoring commission have their part to play in enforcing the agreement. Ultimately, however, it is the Secretary of State who must take responsibility for ensuring that anyone violating the Belfast agreement will be excluded from the democratic process in Northern Ireland.
Perhaps you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will give me latitude by allowing me to put on record at the commencement of my speech my condolences and those of my colleagues to Mr. McGrady. I trust that his colleague can pass those condolences on. His wife died this week and I think that anybody who has been with him and his wife will know that theirs was a very warm and loving relationship. Indeed, it was a lifelong relationship, which makes the cloud all the darker for him.
Many in Northern Ireland, or at least those who have studied the Bill, will consider it an odious, unnecessary and loathsome measure that demonstrates two key Government failures. It also attempts to achieve the impossible and prop up the failed agreement. The first Government failure is their admission that, until this moment, they have been unwilling to act on their own behalf or take the necessary powers enabling them to act in order to do their duty by expelling those who have corrupted the political process in Northern Ireland through their involvement in ongoing terrorism. In introducing the Bill, the Government want to share their inertia with others.
The second Government failure that the Bill demonstrates is that, instead of dealing with those who wish to be at the same time Ministers and members of the army council of the IRA by isolating them and excluding them from the Executive, they seek to link and equate those terrorists with democrats who refuse to partner them in government. I suspect that, in another more enlightened age in society, those who refused to get into bed with the representatives of unrepentant and active terrorism would be applauded and supported by their Government—but not here, and certainly not by this Government. Indeed, the Bill even offers the same range and level of penalties against democrats as against terrorists.
Let me deal first with the origins of the Bill. Reference has been made to the Belfast agreement, which referred to how the Assembly might deal with those who were in breach of the requirement for using exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The paragraph in question appears under that dealing with executive authority and says:
"An individual may be removed from office following a decision of the Assembly taken on a cross-community basis, if he or she loses the confidence of the Assembly, voting on a cross-community basis, for failure to meet his or her responsibilities including, inter alia, those set out in the Pledge of Office."
On a first reading of that section of the Belfast agreement, it was clear that it would never work. From the moment we read the agreement, we warned the people of Northern Ireland not only that it would not work, but that it was intended not to do so. It was a device to create a pretence that tough action would be taken against terrorism, yet the ability to take such action was not allowed for in the agreement or subsequent provisions contained in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Indeed, the 1998 Act contained an additional provision ensuring that, if the Secretary of State was of the opinion that people had been in breach of their anti-violence pledge, he could submit a resolution to that effect and require it to be debated in the Assembly. Interestingly, in the five years when IRA activity was ongoing and we saw the catalogue of incidents that has been mentioned, not once did the Secretary of State, past or present, make any move to ensure that Assembly met to consider breaches of that pledge.
When we made it clear to the people of Northern Ireland that the exclusion provision would not be workable, we did so on the basis of never contemplating the possibility that the SDLP would be prepared to stand up and exclude its colleagues in Sinn Fein. It was clear to all but the most politically pubescent that a veto would be used by nationalists to ensure that IRA-Sinn Fein were not expelled, no matter what they did, and that no act, no matter how vile or wicked, would irritate the SDLP sufficiently to lead it to exclude IRA-Sinn Fein.
The evidence is there for all to see. Gun running from Florida did not make the SDLP take action, and nor was the murder of more than 20 people by the Provisional IRA enough to do it. The Provisional IRA shot more than 200 people, but that still was not enough to prompt the SDLP to act. More than 350 paramilitary beatings took place, but even that did not cause it to take action. The exiling of the IRA's opponents took place, but no action was taken. Even training in Colombia, the raiding of Castlereagh and spying at Stormont did not provoke the SDLP sufficiently.
I cannot imagine that even the most depraved, murderous act that it would have been possible for the Provisional IRA to commit would have provoked the SDLP to vote Sinn Fein-IRA out of office. What I consider even worse is the fact that nothing they did was enough to force the Government to take action against them. The Government knew that the IRA was in breach of the agreement, but could not bring themselves to say as much. So what did they do? They punished everyone. Rather than putting the provos out, they suspended the whole Assembly. Now what do they do? They produce this Bill, in which once again they attempt to pull others into the provos' net. They equate the behaviour of terrorists with the function of Government to decide the appropriate level of security for Northern Ireland. The Provisional IRA's security level is to be equated with what is described as normalisation—or, in provospeak, British demilitarisation.
In addition, those who will consider whether the IRA is fit for government will seek to punish the unblinkered democrats who have concluded that Sinn Fein-IRA are not fit to be a partner in government, and who therefore refuse to sit with them in the Executive. The Government have sunk to the level of accepting terrorists as bona fide politicians, so they intend to force others to stoop to their position or else be punished for having the principle and courage to resist.
As for the scaled-down punishments in the Bill, does any Member actually believe that Sinn Fein will alter its position by one iota because it has been threatened with a fine? My colleagues and I passed on our ministerial salaries so that no hardship would fall to us. At no stage while I was a Minister would the threat of fines have influenced any action I took. These lesser punishments are being placed in the Bill to serve as a pretence that action is being taken while terrorists remain in government.
Let me say this to the Government. If I refuse to sit on an Executive with Sinn Fein and the House considers that to be an offence that should be punished, my colleagues and I will happily bear that punishment; but to suggest that if I refuse to sit on an Executive with Sinn Fein-IRA all the members of my Assembly party should have their salaries stopped for two years is absurd, and probably does not comply with the European convention on human rights.
Why are these things in the Bill? Why do the Government now want to punish those of us who acted as Ministers but refused to partner Sinn Fein-IRA? Not once did a motion to exclude us come before the Assembly. Our modus operandi never caused a crisis in the Assembly. No Secretary of State ever suspended the Assembly because we had taken a particular position. No one claimed that we did not fulfil our responsibilities to the whole community effectively and fairly. Indeed, it was quite the opposite: three Secretaries of State, in the House and outside, have praised the work that we did. Let me set modesty aside, and remind the House that frequently—and almost universally—the press described my colleagues and me as the best Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. But now the Government want to punish us. Why?
The answer is simple. Indeed, it was given by Mr. Trimble. The Government cannot bring themselves to tackle Sinn Fein-IRA in isolation; they require balance. There is no Unionist terrorist capable of getting into Government who can be excluded from the Executive or fined, so a democrat who refuses to bow the knee will do just fine. As the right hon. Gentleman says, we are the next best thing. The Government have to find someone whom they can balance with Sinn Fein-IRA.
Breaches in the pledge of office will be easy to identify, and it will be easy for any monitoring body to consider them and reach a conclusion. That does not apply to those who breach the non-violence pledge. They work in the dark, and make their decisions behind closed doors. Under the Bill, they will even be able to argue that the decision in question was made not by the leadership of the Provisional IRA, but by some maverick group. They will be able to jump through a plethora of loopholes—and I shall be interested to discover just how clear the monitoring body will be in tying down the Provisional IRA in relation to any particular incident.
Why, after all, should the monitoring body differ from former Secretaries of State? As Mr. Donaldson will recall, one of them even went to court over a case. She then had to justify the decision she had made in relation to Sinn Fein. Her defence was that, in the round, she considered that it was adhering to its ceasefire. If, despite the list of offences committed by the Provisional IRA over the past five years, the Secretary of State is not prepared to take action—if he cannot pin down the IRA—what hope have any of us that the monitoring body will do so?
The Bill is entirely unnecessary. We do not need a monitoring body to tell us when the IRA misbehaves. The Chief Constable is quite capable of informing the Secretary of State of that, and indeed has a duty to do so. He even tells the world publicly when the IRA misbehaves, and I am sure that the General Officer Commanding and the intelligence services will give the Secretary of State whatever advice is needed in respect of Provisional IRA members who have stepped out of line.
There is indeed a distinction to be drawn between what might be of evidential quality and information that the intelligence services might have. There is another distinction, however: fulfilling the requirement in the legislation for the Government to present the Assembly with a resolution stating that the IRA has breached its ceasefire arrangements does not demand evidence of the kind required for a conviction in the court. A political rather than a legal decision is being required of the Secretary of State, and therefore an entirely different level of evidence can suffice.
The Secretary of State, of course, was never prepared to make that decision. The monitoring body is unnecessary, because the advice has always been there. At all stages, it has been possible to advise the Secretary of State to act. What we need is not more advice, but action by the Government.
The monitoring body is, in fact, a vehicle for delay and camouflage. Whenever an incident occurs, there is likely to be a cry for the monitoring body, and all the other cogs in the wheel, to take action against the IRA representatives in the Assembly and on the Executive. The process, however, could be dragged out for months, and indeed that is precisely what the Government want. They realise that, given enough time, they will be able to cobble together something that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann will swallow again, and back into Government those IRA representatives will go. All that is needed is delay.
I should be delighted.
I shall not refer to the pejorative language used by the hon. Gentleman, which I consider entirely inappropriate. Let me simply ask this question: if, in whatever circumstances, my party and I return to government, will he follow me?
Things will have changed so much that—as the right hon. Gentleman will see if he looks at his end of the Bench—the following will be done by him and not by us. As members of the largest political party in Northern Ireland, we will take steps to ensure that very different structures exist in Northern Ireland from the ones that the right hon. Gentleman yielded to. We have seen the mess that his party, which has held the reins of Unionism for so many years, has made of it. The electorate are looking for the opportunity to make changes, but I have no doubt that behind the scenes, the right hon. Gentleman will urge some caution before the Secretary of State moves towards elections.
On the composition of the IMC, to listen to the Secretary of State and some others, one would think that we had produced four Solomons whom the community will immediately recognise as people who inspire confidence, and whose judgment can be respected. As with so much that the Government do, they have discriminated in terms of this body's membership, just as they discriminated in terms of the membership of the other place, and even of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which includes not one anti-agreement Unionist, even though such Unionists represent a third of the community.
Someone asked earlier what urged the Government to start the legislation in the House of Lords. The answer is that they do not have to deal with the depth of argument from anti-agreement Unionists in the House of Lords because they have excluded them. Yet the patronage to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann ensures that a disproportionate share of the Lords has gone to his wing of the Ulster Unionist party.
So we have a four-man commission, none of whom is an Ulster Unionist. Indeed, there is a fervent Irish nationalist on the panel. One can be absolutely certain that the permanent secretary from the Irish Republic will speak the language of his Government and, through them, of the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein. I liked the language that Mr. Mallon used earlier. He said that he was a sturdy, independent Ulsterman standing on his own two feet. Well, that is not the way I see it. We are talking about a party that has been propped up by the Dublin Government for more than a quarter of a century. Whenever its members did not get their own way, they dug in their heels until Dublin got them out of the mess that they were in. They have refused to stand on their own two feet and deal with Unionism; indeed, doing so on an eye-to-eye basis might have been much better for Northern Ireland than their always getting their parent in Dublin to argue their case for them.
Two people from outside the United Kingdom have been inserted into this commission, and they will be part of the political decision-making process. Of course, the Government have gifted the Irish Republic's Government with a central role in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. My colleagues and I are not fooled by the sleight of hand that places only two commissioners on the panel that considers Assembly matters. In addition to the rather evasive language used by the Secretary of State today when questioned on that issue, we have read what the Government spokesman in the other place had to say. As the Secretary of State is doubtless keen to have the reference, I can tell him that the following quote is to be found at column 584 of the Official Report of the Lords. The Government spokesman said:
"I should underline"—
so this is an important point that he wants to emphasise—
"that, as the Hillsborough text makes clear, we would of course consult the Irish Government, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, in considering the exercise of that power."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 584.]
So the Government spokesman emphasises that the Irish Government are going to be given a direct consultative role before any decision is announced.
As reference was made to the text, I decided to consult it to see what it said. There are two relevant references, the first of which states:
"Any motion put before the Assembly following the tabling of a report would be subject to decision on a cross-community basis. Where such a motion failed to attract cross-community support, or where the Implementation Group had failed to agree a course of action, it would be a matter for the British Government, in consultation with the Irish Government".
So it is very clear: reference to consultation is in the text, just as the Lords spokesman indicated. However, the annexe to it goes even further. Paragraph 3 of the annexe states:
"At the request of the Governments"—
"the Independent Monitoring Body may be asked to consider claims by any party in the Assembly that another party is in breach of requirements in the Declaration of Support or elsewhere in the Agreement."
So according to the text, the matter is one for the two Governments.
We were told in the other place that although we in this House may want to tinker as much as we like through amendments, we cannot make amendments because this is an international, binding agreement, entered into between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the Irish Republic. If the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh were here at the moment, he would doubtless applaud the fact that the Government spokesman in the Lords said that.
So it is clear that a direct role is given through the text of the joint declaration, and through the text dealing with the monitoring body at Hillsborough—a role confirmed by the Government spokesman in the Lords. The Secretary of State may attempt to side-step the issue by referring to formal consultation, but as everybody knows, the text of an international agreement is pretty formal. I suspect that the Secretary of State recognises that the Government of the Irish Republic have, as many others have been saying for several months, been given a right to interfere in Northern Ireland's internal affairs.
Of course, if, after consideration, there are those who believe that Sinn Fein-IRA is continuing to promote and support terrorism, no monitoring body and no Secretary of State who offers a contrary opinion will be heeded. What kind of politician would defer their judgment on such matters to any commission, or to any other Government or party? Let me offer an example from the real world of politics, and it is probably not an absurd one. Let us say that the Provisional IRA kills half a dozen people, and that the Unionists in the new Assembly say, "This is absolutely disgraceful! We cannot be expected to sit in government with people who, by night, are plotting to murder and carrying out these activities." It would not be unnatural for Unionists to take that position. So off they go to the IMC—or to whatever Government structure may exist after the legislation completes its passage—which says, "Well, yes, but that was a bit of a maverick act—it wasn't really sanctioned by the leadership. Therefore, we are not going to take any action against them." Does anybody really believe that in those circumstances, the trust that is essential to the Belfast agreement's structure would exist, and that Unionists would be able to continue in government? They would not. Certainly as far as the decision that I have to take is concerned, nobody else's judgment will be able to supersede mine. It would be a very foolish politician who simply accepted another person's judgment on this issue.
For years, the Government have stretched themselves to prop up this failed agreement. It cannot be propped up by this commission: what is needed is a completely new structure.
The Government can try to put Humpty Dumpty together again, but they will fail. Better by far that the Government exert themselves in holding an election, letting politicians get a new mandate and make a new start. They should start negotiations for a new agreement, seeking structures that can survive any election result and that IRA activity cannot collapse. They should get an agreement that Unionists as well as nationalists can endorse.
Hon. Members will have detected that my colleagues and I intend to oppose the Bill. The previous exclusion mechanism has for years been the subject of public ridicule, and this one is no less likely to become the subject of public contempt.
I follow Mr. Robinson and in common with Lembit Ípik I recognise the lack of trust in the current position—and that is putting it mildly. In fact, there is a degree of mounting cynicism in Northern Ireland, particularly among Unionists, about the way in which issues that are seen as a threat to the Belfast agreement—or, above all, to republican support—are dealt with. The cynicism has reached a point where people believe that it is highly unlikely that Sinn Fein would ever be excluded on its own, no matter what it did. There have been successive suspensions, putting everyone out of office, when only Sinn Fein has been shown not to be committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The will has never been there to take the terrorists on and force them to leave a democratic Government.
We should recall some of the issues of the past. I have to say that although the amendments to the Bill state that the Secretary of State "shall" rather than "may", I still have some misgivings, because that will not necessarily restore confidence. Many people will remember that previous Secretaries of State have been involved in the political machinations. No one living in the United Kingdom today should be unaware of the lack of trust in the political system, as revealed by the disclosures over Iraq. We need to go back to recognition of thought processes. Reference has been made to those allegedly in the forefront of the peace agreement. No names were mentioned because other issues may be coming up.
We must bear it in mind that, in the understanding of Her Majesty's Government, the IRA entered into a military ceasefire. In other words, as long as it was not shooting soldiers or police officers, it could do whatever it liked with civilians. When Mo Mowlam was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, she ruled that the IRA had probably been behind murders, but that that did not constitute a breach of the ceasefire. Word games do not inspire confidence.
Paragraph 4(b)(i) of the agreement between the UK and the Irish Governments states that the Commission shall assess
"whether the leaderships of the such organisations are directing such incidents or seeking to prevent them".
It has already been mentioned, and I underline it, that these are word games similar to those of the past. The get-out clauses and excuses are already being established.
Terrorist organisations are made up of individuals who carry out acts. Dare I suggest that the Bill comes on the stage now as a further sop to the IRA demand to have the date for an election before it can take any forward steps on decommissioning? In other words, the British Government must take the initiative while the IRA holds on to its arms and continues to pose threats.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the legislation will not have any impact or effect until after we get the date for the election? The second measure that will come before the House, perhaps in only a few weeks' time, will be the promises—they are outside the agreement between the Government and Provisional IRA—on on-the-runs.
That would be what one might call an informed guess. I would not dispute at all that the nods and winks have already been given. Others as well as me believe that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked, yet we still play the game that they are not. Is the Bill strong enough in specifying that acts of the IRA be linked to the removal of Sinn Fein from office?
At least two hon. Members have referred to the celebratory events in Letterkenny. It was fascinating the other evening to hear one of the spin doctors for IRA-Sinn Fein justifying it. He said that it came at a time of high emotions when 10 hunger strikers were killed. As I understand it, the hunger strikers took their own lives; they were not killed. He was turning that into an emotional issue. He said that it was an emotional time for them when the then Prime Minister said that the prison was the best protected in the world and it was marvellous to be part of those who escaped from it. They were able to justify it, even though a prison officer died as a result of the breakout. According to British justice, a person is innocent until there is no reasonable doubt, but the judge in that case ruled that the prison officer died of a heart attack rather than from the stabbing of escaping prisoners. We have to reflect on that.
Can the Minister help us to understand the current state of readiness in the IRA? If the Chief Constable can confirm that certain people have been involved in acts and Monsignor Dennis Faul can claim that they were involved in the abduction and possible murder of a young man in South Armagh, can the Secretary of State or any other Minister tell us that that is false? Above all, are our own intelligence people not telling the Government that, despite the rumours that Gerry Adams is not in control of the situation and that the dissidents are acting separately, the fact is that he is very much in control and very much part of the command structure. They have reorganised dramatically and are better equipped than they were at the cessation of the spell of violence. It is important that the House has a proper assessment of what is going on.
Reference has been made to democratic parties and I underline once again that I know only one member of the four-person commission personally. I accept that the others have had experience in different places. One member has had much experience with missing marks on extradition papers in the past, which meant that people were not extradited to face charges in British courts. The Justice Department in the south was certainly adept at turning down claims for extradition. I recognise that one member has been involved in anti-terrorism in this country, and I hope that he will use that expertise to penetrate the terrorists' webs. One member comes from the CIA, but at times its intelligence has not always been accurate and many of our American friends have not always been happy with its actions.
I ask bluntly how we can expect the IMC to improve a situation that has not been dealt with in the past. It is time that the excuses for inaction were removed, and time for the Government to act. An old friend, Michael Armstrong, who was tragically killed in a car accident, used to speak about those within Northern Ireland who worked with an outside Government to undermine Northern Ireland's place as part of the United Kingdom. He used to compare them to the Sudeten Deutsch, and their existence has been confirmed in this House.
It appears that this House has surrendered a degree of sovereignty in Northern Ireland, over and above the sovereignty that we have all surrendered within the European Union. Anyone who says that they do not have a say in strand 1 is perhaps protesting too much. Some say, in Shakespeare's term, that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
We have had an interesting development in our prison services, although some of us feel that we have seen it all before. The phrase is now "separation, not segregation", but I have yet to discover the difference between the two. I understand the problem, but I also understand the problems that prison officers will face in seeking to implement that decision, which was recommended by an independent body.
I ask the Government, in these serious times, to recognise the greater understanding of those of us who work on the ground. In the Roman Catholic community and in the Protestant community, many fear that we have created mafiosi who work together when that is convenient and seek to dominate communities by force of terror. They do not deserve to be recognised as bona fide politicians. I have no difficulty in accepting that some members of Sinn Fein have not been involved in terrorism, but the organisation is led by people who are still leaders in the army council. As someone once said, between the Dail Eireann, Stormont and Westminster, at least half of the army council are elected Members. It is in that context that we have no good reason to adopt this course. We should ask the Prime Minister to implement fully the commitments given at Balmoral and other places and deal with the terrorism in our community.
I agree with Rev. Martin Smyth that the Bill is unnecessary and avoids the main issue. It does not deal with the fundamental problem that currently exists in Northern Ireland in terms of the political process and the Belfast agreement. It was the avoidance of the fundamental problem that led to the cancellation of the elections.
The fundamental problem with the Belfast agreement is that while its premise is that it has the support of both communities, Unionist and nationalist, and that that was the basis on which the Assembly was set up and operated, it is now clear—except to those who refuse to admit it or who base their views on opinion polls that they distort to try to get a different result—that the clear majority of Unionists no longer, if they ever did, support the Belfast agreement. A clear majority of nationalists may support it—and why not, because it delivers the nationalist agenda—but the vast majority of Unionists want a new agreement. They are against the Belfast agreement, but they are for an agreement to which they can sign up. As long as the Government and parties from Northern Ireland in this House ignore that reality, we will not deal with the fundamental issue or be able to move on to create political stability. It is to that end that my parliamentary colleagues and I are committed.
It is vital that we have an election that will show once and for all exactly who represents whom in Northern Ireland. The Bill is supposed to pave the way for the elections, but it is clear from recent remarks by the Secretary of State, and from the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, that they want an election only if it will produce a certain result. They want an election only if it will mean that an Executive can be formed that will include IRA-Sinn Fein. Interestingly, the Irish Prime Minister repudiated that position in the Irish general election. He made it clear that under no circumstances would his party, or other parties in the Irish Republic, contemplate IRA-Sinn Fein taking part in their Government. Yet the Irish Prime Minister demands that that should happen in Northern Ireland and that the election should not take place until such an outcome is guaranteed.
The people of Northern Ireland should be given a free choice in free elections, but the Government want to deny people a voice. They deny the people a voice in a European referendum and in Northern Ireland. What are the Government afraid of? They should let the people speak on this and other issues.
The Bill shows that it is not difficult to change the Belfast agreement, when that is desired. Those of us who share the majority view of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland are frequently lectured that the Belfast agreement cannot be altered. We are told that it is the only show in town and there is no alternative. It must be preserved and upheld in all circumstances. However, the Bill makes it clear that the Belfast agreement is being changed—and it will happen again in a few weeks' time, with legislation on the on-the-run issue. No one should therefore argue that our position has no credibility. In fact, when the circumstances require it, the Government and the pro-agreement parties have no difficulty changing the agreement if they think that it will help their political positions or for the sake of expediency.
Other hon. Members have mentioned the background to the Bill. The passage of time means that it is difficult to recall the events of October last year, and of the weeks and months leading up to them. People felt strongly about the activities of the IRA and what they had been exposed—
It being Seven o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to
That, at this day's sitting, proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Bill [Lords] (Allocation of Time) Motion and consideration of any Lords Messages that may be received may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Gillian Merron.]
Question agreed to.
Before resuming the Second Reading debate, I must advise the House that an amendment in lieu of the Lords amendment to the Local Government Bill, to which this House disagreed, has been received from the Lords. It will be considered at the conclusion of all proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Bill. Copies of the Lords amendment are available in the Vote Office.
Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It looks as though it will be a very long night indeed.
I was casting my mind back to the events of last October. The Castlereagh break-in happened on St. Patrick's day 2002. The facts about Colombia were emerging, as were revelations about high-level IRA involvement in the Florida gun-running plan, which involved the importation of arms. The Stormontgate affair was also taking place. All those contributed to a strong feeling that the IRA could not be part of the Northern Ireland Government as long as it retained its capacity and eagerness to carry out such activities. The IRA caused riots and mayhem on the streets of Northern Ireland over that summer, and engaged in all sorts of other nefarious activities.
The Prime Minister came to Northern Ireland and told us in a famous speech that a fork in the road had been reached. He said that the pressure was on the IRA to make up its mind. People waited to see what would happen.
It was not long before a process of negotiation and discussion began with IRA-Sinn Fein and other political parties. We had been told that there would be no more inch-by-inch discussions, but just such discussions began in an attempt to resolve the problems. The talks at Hillsborough and elsewhere resulted in the publication of the joint declaration and the attached documents dealing with on-the-runs and with the monitoring of paramilitary activity—the matter that is now before the House.
The crisis that brought about the fall of the Assembly was clearly the responsibility of the IRA but has led to a package of measures that is a litany of concessions to IRA-Sinn Fein. It covers some of the IRA's most cherished demands—that on-the-runs should not be pursued, and that border security installations be dismantled, even though mainstream and dissident activity is continuing.
Another demand concerned the future devolution of policing and justice powers. Such powers could have meant that Mr. Kelly—the Assembly Member representing the constituency that I have the honour to represent in this House—could become the Minister with responsibility for justice and policing. He said on television the other night that he was going to Letterkenny to participate in the jamboree celebrating the breakout by Maze escapees that resulted in the death of a prison officer. Mr. Kelly said that he was proud to have been part of that.
The feeling in the Unionist community can be imagined. I know that some hon. Members in other parties take time to visit Northern Ireland and talk to people. They know what is going on, but many others will troop through the Lobby tonight to vote for this Bill who do not understand the situation at all. They do not take the time to listen to people, especially in my community, to find out the strength of feeling on these matters. If they did, they would understand the community's anger and frustration at a joint declaration that is no more than a list of concessions to IRA-Sinn Fein.
IRA-Sinn Fein representatives have boasted about their participation in the Maze breakout. They have been involved in the intimidation of independent members of district policing partnerships. They voice mealy-mouthed apologies and explanations in respect of the disappeared, and—as the Chief Constable and others have noted—they are still involved in murder. How can we even contemplate a scenario that is intended to allow IRA-Sinn Fein back into government?
Mr. Mallon described how some republican movement representatives had been glorified. Mr. Trimble rightly chastised sections of the media for that. However, what could confer more glory on such people than to bring them into the Government of Northern Ireland, or to try to bring about conditions under which they would once again be inserted into the Government of part of the UK? People in Northern Ireland cannot understand how hon. Members can say in this House that they are sickened at the glorification of Sinn Fein-IRA when those same hon. Members have pandered to the IRA agenda, released all IRA prisoners and destroyed the RUC at the IRA's behest. Those people have worked with IRA-Sinn Fein in government. They have put their representatives into the Government of Northern Ireland, and now they want to put them back there yet again. The hypocrisy is simply breathtaking.
We are told that there is a need for action to be taken. I shall not rehearse the arguments about why the Government do not need this Bill if they want to act. The Government could have acted on many occasions in the past, but they refused to do so. The Social Democratic and Labour party could have taken action on many occasions in the past, but its members sat on their hands.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann is not in his place. He berated the Government for their failings, but how many times have Ulster Unionist Members tabled motions to exclude Sinn Fein-IRA for ceasefire breaches and for not being committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means? The right hon. Gentleman has highlighted some of what has gone on, but he and his colleagues ran away from Stormont rather than vote against IRA-Sinn Fein.
There is no need for the Bill. Action could have been taken, but was not. The Government still could act, but instead they have introduced this Bill. It will not work, and it is designed not to do so. Its procedures will be so cumbersome and lengthy that the Secretary of State's final decision on a complaint will take a very long time to produce. In that period, newspaper editorials and various pundits will urge people not to rock the boat. They will say that people are working together, and they will ask whether the price of excluding Sinn Fein is worth tearing down the edifice of the agreement.
We need a means for the Government to act swiftly and efficiently as soon as a complaint is brought to light, but I fear that the IMC is being established for the purpose of delaying action and distracting attention whenever the republican movement is in clear breach of its obligations.
I hope that the Minister of State, when she sums up, will deal with the past acts that have been mentioned—Colombia, Castlereagh, Stormontgate and so on. It would be useful to know whether the IMC will consider the outcome of those events, some of which have yet to be divulged by the relevant courts.
Article 4(b)(i) of the agreement between the Governments deals with the functions of the IMC and is very significant. It says that, in dealing with breaches by paramilitaries of their obligations in relation to criminal activities and all sorts of terrorism, the IMC is to assess whether the leaderships of organisations are directing incidents or seeking to prevent them. That is a significant get-out clause for Sinn Fein-IRA. They will argue, as they have in the past, that they are not the IRA and cannot be held responsible for the actions of the IRA.
When pressed, the IRA will make it clear that the actions in which it is alleged to have been involved and which may constitute a breach of its obligations were not authorised and were carried out by mavericks and local brigades. It will say that the actions were not authorised at high level and that it is working to try to stop those actions. It is written into the text of the agreement between the two Governments that the IMC has to have regard to that. That is a serious loophole and a get-out clause for Sinn Fein-IRA.
Over the past few days, the Chief Constable has made it clear that not just dissidents but mainstream Provisional IRA members were involved in intimidation and threats against independent members of district policing partnerships, and that is deplorable. Martin McGuinness came straight out to say, "That was not authorised and we are opposed to it." That is a classic example of what the IMC will face—an allegation made by the Chief Constable that clearly sets out the position versus a denial by Sinn Fein that it was involved in any way and a claim that it was trying to prevent it. We know what the outcome will be.
I fear that article 13(2)(iii) of the draft agreement between the two Governments could also open a major loophole in the provisions designed to deal with IRA-Sinn Fein. The article states:
"The Commission shall not do anything in carrying out its functions which might . . . have a prejudicial effect on any proceedings which have, or are likely to be, commenced in a court of law."
One can well imagine that if, for example, a Castlereagh, Colombia, Florida or Stormontgate were to happen in future, any such incident would be likely to result, as those did, in legal proceedings. Are we to say that in such cases the commission "shall not do anything" that might have a "prejudicial effect"? That will seriously restrict the IMC in dealing with Sinn Fein-IRA, and that point must be clarified.
Other Members have dealt with the equation of political breaches with breaches by paramilitaries, so I shall not dwell on that, except to note that a number of speakers have made it clear that it is neither desirable nor acceptable. I hope that the Government will consider our amendments and reflect on the fact that attempting equality, for the sake of balance, between those of us who take a principled political stance and those who carry out terrorism and murder and undertake criminal activity, by meting out the same sort of discipline, is neither fair nor democratic.
When I intervened on the Secretary of State on clause 8, his answer was not clear. He did not seem to understand that clause 8 places restrictions that will make it harder for the Assembly to debate and vote on a motion of censure. Surely anything that restricts the right of the Assembly to deal with a vote of no confidence or of censure against a Minister or party in government is to be deplored. There is no logical reason for the clause being in the Bill, except to try to restrict opportunities for those of us who have tabled such motions in the past to highlight the glaring hypocrisy of Sinn Fein-IRA. The clause was not foreshadowed in the Belfast agreement or the joint declaration. I should be grateful for an explanation of where it has come from.
Clause 1(1)(b) deals with the IMC's role in monitoring so-called normalisation, which means the dismantling of security in Northern Ireland in order to address Sinn Fein-IRA's political agenda. A detailed timetable is set out on three pages of the joint declaration, giving a detailed list of exactly how much the Government have to do in tearing down security along the border and at other installations throughout the Province, leaving many people defenceless on both sides of the community at a time when dissident and mainstream republicans are very active, and when loyalist groups are active too.
It will be easy for the IMC to monitor that against the timetable, yet there is nothing on the paramilitary side but vagueness and aspirational talk. There is no detail and no timetable for the dismantling of the IRA. It will all be done in a cloak and dagger way. There is no provision to force the international decommissioning body to be upfront and public about acts of decommissioning. We shall have a charade in which so-called acts of decommissioning happen but no one knows what they are because the IRA has asked General de Chastelain not to reveal the detail. How very considerate of the general to accept what the IRA says. Whereas the dismantling of security will be all too visible and people will see security towers torn down and demolished and their security taken from them, anything that the IRA does is to be done in secret. That is totally unacceptable.
Other hon. Members have dealt with Dublin's involvement and the breach of sovereignty that the Bill constitutes, so I shall not go into detail on that.
The right hon. Member for Upper Bann promised us that monitoring and sanctions would provide a guarantee and build confidence among the Unionist community. He said that they would provide an opportunity to call to account those who breached their obligations on the paramilitary side of things. It is clear that they will do none of those things. They will provide no confidence for the Unionist community and will simply be a mechanism allowing the re-forming of an Executive of which IRA-Sinn Fein will be part and parcel. We are told that there will be the means to get them out, but the many people for whom I and other Members speak believe that Sinn Fein-IRA should not be admitted to the Government of Northern Ireland in the first place. It is time to stop allowing those people in and then saying that we are putting them to the test or trying to get them out. Every time we do that, it gets harder and harder.
Government should be for democrats. It is clear that the IRA still exists and is still wedded to the use of violence. Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked and there should be no question of allowing them back into the Government of Northern Ireland.
Right hon. and hon. Members have touched on the background to the legislation and the reason why the Government have brought this Bill before the House. In numerous debates in the five years since the Belfast agreement, I have warned that the provisions that were being enacted by this House would be futile, would not work and would not succeed in moving the republican movement towards a commitment to exclusively peaceful means—that they would not be successful in dealing with the problems in what has become known as the peace process.
I must issue the same warning this evening. I do not believe that this legislation will deal with or resolve the problems that face the political process in Northern Ireland. It is merely a cover for trying to cobble together another deal that will be flawed and inadequate and that will fail. The legislation will fail because it does not go to the heart of the problem that has confronted the process since 1994 and the first IRA ceasefire. That is how long we have been engaged in this process—almost 10 years.
Some people argue that we are further forward. I have heard it said tonight that Northern Ireland is a safer place today than it was before the agreement. That is true if one is a police officer. The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland is the first in recent memory to have completed his first year in office without having had to bury a member of that service—formerly, the Royal Ulster Constabulary—as a result of terrorist activity. As someone whose family has seen two members serving with the RUC murdered in what became known as the troubles, I welcome that. However, Northern Ireland today is not an entirely safe or peaceful society. For many people living in Northern Ireland, the peace process has not brought the peace and stability that we all want.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that figures released by the Northern Ireland Office in the past few months show that, in the past five years, the number of shootings and the number of bombs and bombs defused have increased compared with the number in the five years before the agreement? While he rightly says that the number of deaths has decreased, other violence has increased.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, which was the next part of my speech so I will not repeat it, save to say that he illustrates well that we can play around with statistics but, for people in Northern Ireland, the violence, threats, intimidation and paramilitary terrorist activity continue to be a reality of life. I will not rest until every citizen in Northern Ireland is liberated from that fear and from the consequences of paramilitary activity and violence. Right hon. and hon. Members will join me in seeking to achieve those objectives. I fear that where we differ is on how we are to achieve that.
We are here tonight because of a number of events, which other hon. Members have mentioned, including IRA gun running from Florida—importing new weapons when they were supposed to be getting rid of all of their weapons—and the involvement of three republican IRA members in training the FARC guerrilla organisation in Colombia in the use of technology that it has since used to devastating effect there. My hon. Friend Rev. Martin Smyth has just returned from Colombia. FARC guerrillas have been using mortar devices similar to those utilised, and indeed developed, by the Provisional IRA, that have resulted in the deaths of many innocent people in that country.
Castlereagh was another such incident—perhaps the most serious breach of security in the past 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. We are still dealing with the consequences. Police officers have had to move home with their families because of it. Moving those families and the additional security measures required have cost the taxpayer millions of pounds. Then there was Stormontgate. Every week in my office, I deal with prison officers and their families who are struggling to get security measures implemented at their homes because their personal details were compromised when the IRA procured personnel information illegally from the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Hundreds of prison officers have been affected, again at a cost of millions of pounds to the taxpayer.
That money could have been much better spent in Northern Ireland on our hospitals and schools. Sinn Fein-IRA spokespersons lecture us on the need to invest more money on this, that and everything—new schools, hospitals, roads and housing—and yet the money that could have been spent on those projects is being spent to protect prison officers, police officers, soldiers, politicians and civil servants because of IRA activities. So, we are here tonight to deal with the consequences of those problems—dealing with the failures of the Belfast agreement.
Mr. Mallon made a significant contribution to the debate. There was much in what he said, but I shall focus on one aspect of his speech because it has serious consequences for the operation of the independent monitoring commission and the implementation of the legislation that we may agree tonight in this House. He said that if a motion were tabled in the Assembly to exclude from ministerial office representatives of Sinn Fein-IRA, cross-community support was not forthcoming for the motion and the Secretary of State acted to exclude those Ministers, it would precipitate the collapse of the political institution. That is what he clearly implied tonight—that his party would withdraw its support in those circumstances.
We heard much from the hon. Gentleman about the activities of the republican movement. He spoke about that in laudable terms. Yet the reality is that we need this legislation because of the failure of the Social Democratic and Labour party to support any motion in the Assembly to exclude Sinn Fein, even though he accepts that its activities meant that it could no longer remain in office. Many on the Opposition Benches are astounded that he can make those comments and yet his party failed to support the exclusion of representatives of the republican movement in those circumstances.
The legislation flows from the joint declaration. It contains many proposals, but it is the basis for a possible deal to enable elections to proceed and for the Assembly and Executive to be restored. Indeed, some hon. Members have mentioned this evening that a process is in train that will result in that deal coming to fruition in the next few weeks, provided that Sinn Fein-IRA delivers another gesture on decommissioning and perhaps a statement from the IRA army council. That will result in elections—perhaps, in November—and the possible restoration of the devolved institution.
The proposals contained in the joint declaration and the legislation before the House are not adequate to deal with the problems in the peace process and the political process in Northern Ireland. The legislation deals with the role and remit of the monitoring commission and the sanctions that will be applied against parties and individual Members of the Assembly. Mr. Dodds was right to highlight the distinction in the ways that normalisation issues are to be tackled, with timetables and clear benchmarks for the British Government—our Government—to implement their commitment to reduce the security presence in Northern Ireland, but a complete lack of any timetable for decommissioning or disbandment of paramilitary terrorist organisations. There are no benchmarks whereby the commission can judge whether those organisations are making progress. We can only conclude that there is little prospect of the commission working effectively to monitor the activities of the paramilitary organisations.
We object to the Irish Government being involved in security normalisation in Northern Ireland—a matter that should be exclusively for Her Majesty's Government. It is solely the responsibility of the Government to protect their citizens and I can see no role for the Irish Government in deciding what security I, my constituents and the constituents of my colleagues from Northern Ireland require against the continuing terrorist threat. Nor should the Irish Government have any involvement in monitoring the activities of parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I disagree entirely with Mr. Trimble in his assessment of the Irish Government's role in this legislation. He referred to the talks process, saying that it offered precedents for the Irish Government's role in such matters. I disagree. No independent commission was required during the talks process to decide whether the IRA, the Ulster Defence Association or the Ulster Volunteer Force were in breach of their ceasefires or that parties linked to those organisations were failing to make a commitment to peaceful means. That decision was made by the political parties and by the Government.
It is true that, because the Irish Government participated in the talks process, they were consulted about that decision, but that is entirely different from dealing with the strand 1 institutional arrangements that flow from the agreement. We were told that the Irish Government would have no role in strand 1 of the Belfast agreement. Indeed, it was a requirement that strand 1 be hermetically sealed so that the Irish Government could have no say, yet it is crystal clear from the draft agreement between the Governments of the UK and the Irish Republic that establishes the independent monitoring commission that the Irish Government will have a role in strand 1.
Article 6 of the agreement between the two Governments states that the commission—the whole commission, all four members, including the Irish Government's representative—
"may consider a claim by any party represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly".
That could not be clearer. The commission may consider a claim by a party represented in the Assembly; that is covered by strand 1 of the agreement.
There are two further aspects. One deals with whether a Minister or a party
"is not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means".
That is still a strand 1 issue, because the question of whether a Minister is thus committed is dealt with in the pledge of office in annexe A of strand 1. That pledge requires a Minister to be committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The Irish Government are, therefore, involved in judging whether a Minister or party in the Northern Ireland Assembly is committed to exclusively peaceful means. In anyone's terms, that is a breach of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement. For the first time, it gives the Irish Government a say in the internal affairs of the Assembly. That cannot be denied, so there is no point in trying to paper over the cracks or pretend that it is something else.
I echo the comments of Lord Kilclooney, who said:
"So there still remains this proviso that Her Majesty's Government are not sovereign on this issue. But the legislation will proceed through this Parliament, on the recommendation of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, only after consultation with the Irish Government. To that extent the Irish Government remain involved in strand 1 of the Belfast agreement of 1998. Therefore, this is a clear breach of the agreement."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 593.]
He is right. Unionists will have to consider that point carefully. It has been a key Unionist principle that the Irish Government should not be involved in strand 1, in internal matters relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is why my hon. Friends and I tabled an amendment to remove both the Irish Government representative and the American Government representative from the commission and to provide that the commission shall comprise only representatives from the United Kingdom appointed by the UK Government. Any ambiguity would thus be removed; there would be no question of the Irish Government interfering in matters that are internal to the United Kingdom and to Northern Ireland as part of it.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North also referred to the clause that deals with the commission's duty to avoid prejudicial effects. That is crucial. It goes to the heart of the commission's effectiveness in dealing with possible breaches of the agreement and of the pledge of office.
Based on the Government's past performance, I have great difficulty in understanding how they will be able to decide whether a Minister is in breach of the pledge of office. Will the Minister have to be personally involved in terrorist activity to be deemed to have broken the pledge of office? The Secretary of State must address that question, because Sinn Fein will merely repeat what it has often said—"We are not the IRA". Martin McGuinness, or whoever may be in ministerial office, will simply say that it was, or was not, the IRA but, "You can't blame me, I am not the IRA".
To this day, Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, denies that he has ever been a member of the IRA. If he were holding ministerial office, how would the Secretary of State prove that he had broken the pledge of office because the IRA had been engaged in terrorist activity? The issue is important, because I have no doubt that republicans will go to the High Court—as they have done in the past—and challenge decisions or recommendations of the commission or the Secretary of State related to their holding ministerial office. They will mount legal challenges, so the Government must be sure of the grounds on which they are proceeding.
The Government may argue, rightly, that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked, but I am not sure that the legislation will be tight enough to ensure that an individual Minister could be firmly pinned down on whether they have broken their pledge of office because of their IRA activity. One could also apply the argument to Sinn Fein-IRA as a political party acting in the Assembly, especially if the commission's activities and investigatory powers were circumscribed by its inability to investigate a matter that could result in legal proceedings.
As the hon. Member for Belfast, North rightly pointed out, there are legal proceedings in respect of each of the four breaches that I mentioned earlier—Florida, Colombia, Castlereagh and Stormontgate. So will the commission be unable to investigate such matters? If so, what is the point of the Bill? What is the point of the commission in the first place? In those circumstances, we would be back to where we are today, with a Government who are either unwilling or unable to take action to deal with a political party that is inextricably linked to a terrorist organisation that continues to engage in terrorist activities while being in the Government of Northern Ireland.
I am afraid that the sanctions themselves are weak. As Mr. Robinson said earlier, the Government are trying to apply a lesser form of sanction initially in the hope that that will buy some time if there is a problem, and they will then gradually ratchet up the pressure until we may eventually get a motion to exclude a Minister or a junior Minister from the Executive.
Sinn Fein-IRA will not be at all impressed by the prospect of a censure motion in the Assembly, a reduction in their pay or the removal of financial support in the Assembly. The republican movement does not rely on the financial support that it receives in the Assembly to finance its operations. We have ample evidence that it is making a lot of money in all kinds of other activities—some lawful, some not so lawful—so it will not be too bothered by the prospect of financial sanctions being applied.
What really matters is the principle of whether it is right for someone who is linked to a paramilitary terrorist organisation to be in the Government—none of the other sanctions matters; the issue is one of principle. Is it right for someone who is linked to a party that is part of a terrorist organisation that engages in terrorist activities to be in the Government—yes or no? If it is wrong, that party should be excluded from the Government. Indeed, is that not what the Prime Minister promised the people of Northern Ireland when he wrote those handwritten pledges on the wall in Coleraine during the referendum campaign? He pledged:
"Those who use or threaten violence excluded from the Government of Northern Ireland."
There was no mention of censure motions or reductions in pay. The pledge was very clear, but it remains to be delivered to the people of Northern Ireland.
There are very real problems with the legislation. It is flawed. It is inadequate to deal with the current problems that we face in the political process in Northern Ireland. Moreover, although the proposed sanctions relate to political parties, no sanction is proposed in the legislation against a terrorist organisation. Hon. Members may say that the rule of law deals with terrorist organisations. If they breach their ceasefires or engage in illegal activity, it is a matter for the process of law and for police investigation, and so on. That may be so, but what about proscription, which is still on the statute book? Why is that not being considered as a possible sanction? If the Government believe that a political party linked to a terrorist organisation is not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, does that not raise a question in relation to whether that political party is a bona fide democratic party?
How will the Secretary of State form his opinion? What evidence will he require to judge whether a person who is a Minister or a junior Minister is in breach of the commitment to democratic and peaceful means? I should like to know the answer to those questions. Will the Secretary of State simply rely on the investigations of an independent commission? Will he still take the advice of the Chief Constable, the General Officer Commanding and the intelligence agencies? That is important.
The Government do not tell us what the security forces' role will be in influencing the process and the judgments made by the Secretary of State about whether a party or a Minister is committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. I certainly hope that the commission will not replace the Chief Constable and the security services in providing intelligence and that its investigatory role will not replace the intelligence gathering capacity of the police and the security services in informing the Government in making their judgments on those crucial political issues.
We have heard about consultation with the Irish Government. I shall not dwell on that issue—other hon. Members have dealt with it adequately—but it is a concern for us because we have little doubt, given the Irish Government's past performance, that they will be continue to be the dead hand when it comes to taking action against the republican movement. Their past resolve to deal with republican breaches has been less than satisfactory.
The reality is that the legislation is so ambiguous on crucial matters that are important to political progress in Northern Ireland and—as the hon. Member for Belfast, North said—that the process of monitoring is so convoluted, cumbersome, imprecise and ineffective that there is little prospect of real and meaningful sanctions ever being applied against the political parties that are linked to the paramilitary terrorist organisations.
The commission's objective may be to rebuild confidence in Northern Ireland. The real polls—the elections—and the opinion polls show that, where confidence has dropped, it has happened almost exclusively in the Unionist community. The most recent opinion poll indicated that, if a referendum on the agreement were held tomorrow, 70 per cent. of Unionists would vote no. If the Government's objective is to address the loss of confidence in the process that has occurred in Unionism, I have to say, as a representative of Unionism, that the legislation will not achieve that objective.
Indeed, my two colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for Belfast, South and for South Antrim (David Burnside)—and I felt so strongly about those issues that we resigned the Whip of the Ulster Unionist parliamentary party, so that we could vote against the Bill tonight. It is flawed, and I believe that, in time, it will prove inadequate and ineffective in dealing with the problems that we face and that we will have to return to the House to find another more effective way to deal with those issues.
It is with great regret that I rise, as an Ulster Unionist from the Unionist Bench, at a time when the Unionist cause is once again dogged and damaged, as it has been for so long, with divisions in my own party—the Ulster Unionist party—and without a co-ordinated policy and strategy. Different views have been expressed tonight from right across the Unionist family, and the Ulster Unionist cause continues to be damaged in the House and the nation. That damages us in establishing accountable, democratic government in Northern Ireland.
We are still dealing with the problem which historically united Unionism back in 1985: opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement, which was supported by Margaret Thatcher, to her shame, even though she was a very great lady in her time. We are still suffering from that joint authority, even though the 1998 Belfast agreement promised to replace the Anglo-Irish secretariat. Well, the secretariat moved from Maryfield to another headquarters, but the continuing involvement and role of the Irish Republic in our affairs does not help accountable government in Northern Ireland.
I wish to refer to the amendment, which is in the first group for consideration in Committee, and to the new clause on proscription tabled in my name, which will not be debated this evening. Perhaps you will correct me if I cannot refer to them, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The amendment and the new clause are fundamentally important to expressing the Unionists' concerns about the proposed legislation.
The hangover of the Irish Republic's involvement is not all malign, against the interests of democracy or against the desire of the majority of people in the Republic of Ireland to have a better, stable relationship with their neighbours in Northern Ireland. But the Republic's involvement—as Her Majesty's Government allow its Government a constant say, consultation and involvement in our internal affairs—has created in the past, creates in the present and will create in the future opposition from the Unionist community. The amendment refers to the make-up of the commission, and was tabled deliberately on the basis that the commission should include only representatives from the United Kingdom, including one from Northern Ireland. Let us have help and co-operation, but there is no need to have a representative from the Irish Republic or a representative from our ally and neighbour in the United States. Let us co-operate with them in the normal diplomatic manner.
The new clause that I tabled with the support of both Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist Members lays out the final penalty for a so-called democratic party with a mandate, Sinn Fein. Yes, it has a mandate, but I disagree with my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble who recently referred to expulsion from the Executive as the nuclear option. The nuclear deterrent should be proscription of that political party on the ground that it is not operating as a normal democratic party. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany established after the second world war would not have allowed the activities of Sinn Fein. In my opinion, the activities of Sinn Fein would not be tolerated within our European neighbour Spain at present.
It is intolerable that this so-called political party with a mandate continues to operate the dirty double game that the republican movement has pursued since 1998. We know what the problem is: we were told and we hoped that it was on the road from terrorism to democracy, which is possible, admirable and should be encouraged. But we have suffered by not having sanction against it, and it is continuing to play the dirty double game. It has not changed, and I believe that we have problems in the Government of Northern Ireland at present. I do not believe that we have a crisis—although I would be worried about ever saying in the House that there was no crisis, as I will always remember Jim Callaghan's dreadful remark when he came back with a suntan from the Caribbean in 1979, which resulted in the defeat of Labour and the Tories' coming to power after the winter of discontent. We have a number of problems that can be dealt with in Northern Ireland, but they are not dealt with by the legislation proposed tonight. I will not go over again the issues of Colombia, Florida, Castlereagh and Stormontgate, to which many right hon. and hon. Members have already referred. I referred earlier in an intervention to the murder, which the police believe was carried out by the Provisional IRA, of Gareth O'Connor, and the Secretary of State and the Police Service of Northern Ireland are well aware of the circumstances of that. With Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams sitting on the army council of the IRA, should that offence of murder lead to Martin McGuinness being expelled from the Executive? In my opinion, it should lead to the proscription of Sinn Fein as a political party until it starts to behave decently and democratically and to co-operate with its neighbours in Northern Ireland, the Unionist majority.
I am very aware of the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, which is within my constituency. It would be helpful to the House, and certainly to me, if he could show where the Police Service of Northern Ireland made that statement or indicated in any way that that was the case. It would be very helpful for many people such as myself who have been trying to resolve that matter. It is incumbent on the hon. Gentleman to put it on the record now.
Informed sources within Northern Ireland—[Interruption] I will answer the intervention. Those sources have said that the Provisional IRA—no dissident group—have been involved. I quote from Kevin Myers, a respected journalist, who was published at the weekend and who had the courage to stand up and look at the reality of Sinn Fein. He referred to the murder of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, saying:
"No one in the three governments participating in the peace process ever announces the Shinners must stay within the law".
That is the view from a southern journalist, writing in what is admittedly a mainland Sunday newspaper. He has been highly critical of the outpouring of the peace process in Northern Ireland that has allowed criminality, including murder, to take place.
I have here the article to which the hon. Gentleman refers, by the journalist to whom he refers. But that was not the question I asked. My question was whether, to be helpful to everybody, not least the family of the young man who was killed, he could put that information from the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the record now. I am not asking for him to name Kevin Myers, any journalist or any informed source, but the PSNI source. That is crucial.
It is my information within the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and I would be pleased to ask the Minister—or if she cannot respond, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland—to make a statement on the subject. It is my information that the murder has been carried out by the Provisional IRA and that no other form of investigation is being carried out within the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman refers to confusion, which is buck passing, and it is exactly the same as the false information that came out when we were told that Castlereagh was an inside job by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the special branch in Northern Ireland. We all now know that there is only one line of investigation into that break-in—into mainstream republican Provisional IRA within Northern Ireland.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I have given way twice.
I will vote against Second Reading this evening because the legislation is part of the overall declaration, which does not have the consent or the support of the Unionist population. It is not a basis for the way ahead. We are dealing with the problem that we have been dealing with since 1998, which is that, time and again, republicans are let off and not punished for continuing to play the double game of terrorism and masquerading as a democratic political party.
There has been much talk this evening about whether we are going to have an election in Northern Ireland. I am a selected candidate in South Antrim for the Ulster Unionist party and I look forward to an election whenever it is called. I think that it is a major mistake to postpone it. But many questions have to be answered if and when there is an election. How will the Executive be formed, and can the Unionist population have the confidence that this Bill has any chance of expelling Sinn Fein from the Executive for the type of activities in which it has been involved in Colombia, Florida, Castlereagh and Stormontgate—there are enough instances of which the Northern Ireland Office is aware. If my party, the Ulster Unionist party, goes into an election on a manifesto to rejoin this inclusive Executive, including Sinn Fein, I have no confidence that the legislation before the House tonight will exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive. So we will come back to the House again. If that is the sequence of events that unfolds in the next few weeks and months, the Unionist population and electorate will give one clear message: the fudge and double standards are continuing because Her Majesty's Government have refused to stand up to Sinn Fein-IRA. That is why the Unionist population have lost confidence in the agreement and its implementation. I would love to be able to support this measure as a new way forward in dealing with the problems that were ambiguous in 1998 and to which solutions were not delivered by the Prime Minister's promises at that time. I do not believe that they will be delivered here tonight.
If Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are backing, under this institutional arrangement of the agreement, an Executive who have bureaucratic, slow, complicated and ambiguous legislation, does anyone think that they fear being thrown out of the Northern Ireland Executive? I do not question the credentials of the four gentlemen proposed for the commission, but does anyone think that it will recommend the expulsion of Sinn Fein from the Executive, or that the Secretary of State will expel it? No way. To think that is to live in a dream world. This is another fudge, and I will vote against it on principle on Second Reading, just as I will vote against any other legislation linked to the joint declaration, such as that dealing with the on-the-runs, which I believe has already been promised to Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein and which may be brought before the House in November in an attempt to get the election on its way.
This is another bad night for Unionism. We have another fudge from the Government. Yet again, they are refusing to stand up to Sinn Fein-IRA.
I empathise considerably with the hon. Members for South Antrim (David Burnside), for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) in their present political predicament. I found myself somewhat distant from the Conservative party over the Belfast agreement and matters flowing from it. I substantially agree with what those three hon. Members have said.
Because of the pressure of time—we have spent a long time on Second Reading—and the fact that the salient features have been well and truly covered, not least by my hon. Friends the Members for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), I shall keep my comments to the barest minimum.
According to some media reports that I have heard and read, the provisional republican movement is unhappy about the proposed monitoring commission, fearing that it may lead to the exclusion of its leadership from political office. At first sight, that might therefore suggest that the proposed commission has some merit. The prospect of at last being able to exclude from political office those who have continually demonstrated that they are not exclusively committed to non-violence and democracy is an appealing prospect. However, as we have heard from many hon. Members, on closer observation, the proposed commission fails to inspire confidence. It will be ineffective for a variety of reasons; cumulatively, because it does not in itself contain the authority to exercise its own judgments and conclusions.
The Government make much of the swift establishment of the monitoring commission as a key element in what their press release of
"trust and confidence necessary for the restoration of stable and inclusive devolved government in Northern Ireland."
However laudable that objective may be, the Bill as it stands will not help to achieve it.
We can be forgiven for having lost count of how many commissions have been created in recent years. There has been the Patten commission, the Parades Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and perhaps others. One can cynically wonder what rational grounds there are for thinking that this commission will fare any better than the others.
The proposed IMC is fundamentally flawed for all the reasons that we have heard. I do not propose to enumerate them at any great length. The Irish dimension has been mentioned a great deal. There is no justification whatever for allowing this intrusion into what should be reserved as strand 1 matters.
It is the Government's adherence to what they call "demilitarisation", to be monitored alongside terrorist decommissioning, that disturbs me most. Let us be clear. This is not a confidence-building development; it is a confidence-destroying development. The draft agreement asserts parity between the legally constituted security forces of the state and weapons illegally held by illegal terrorist organisations. Such parity is totally unacceptable, politically irresponsible and, arguably, morally wrong because no such parity can or should exist. No wonder that some conclude that the commission appears designed to ensure the speedy reduction in security as promised to the IRA by the Government and apparently endorsed by the pro-agreement parties.
Secondly, and significantly, the origins of the new body lie in the discovery of the IRA's spy operation at the heart of Stormont. Rather than dealing solely with Sinn Fein-IRA, as they should have done, the Government decided to suspend Stormont and punish every party for the wrongdoing of one. To compound matters, in the face of overwhelming evidence of continuing terrorist activity, the IRA was then rewarded with the joint declaration. This Bill compounds that injustice. Why should the Northern Ireland political parties that have no connection whatever with terrorist organisations but which, on the basis of their democratic mandate, declined to participate in a Government surrender to terrorism be subject to the same punitive regime as Sinn Fein-IRA? No comparison can or should be made between parties exclusively committed to the principles and practice of democracy and those that are a political front for unreconstructed terrorist organisations.
Thirdly, there is nothing whatever in the draft agreement—or, equally significantly, outside it—to give any confidence at all that the Government might use the power to exclude parties in the event of a negative finding by the commission. Despite having had the power throughout the period of devolution to refer to the Assembly a motion for the expulsion of republicans, the Government never did so, regardless of the ongoing violence sanctioned and authorised by the Sinn Fein-IRA leadership. In the light of those developments, does anyone seriously believe that the Government, having started more than 10 years ago a process that sought to bring the republicans to the centre stage of Northern Ireland politics, will now in any circumstances take action to remove them from the Executive? I very much doubt it.
The Government's actions over the past few years have themselves destroyed confidence in the process. Nor can Unionists take seriously the claim that this proposed commission will remove Sinn Fein from government when, before any action can be taken, the commission will have to report to a Northern Ireland Assembly in which there is an inherent nationalist right to veto.
The creation of this commission can and will be no more successful in removing terrorists from government than the current so-called exclusion mechanisms. Quite frankly, it is now too late for the Government to restore confidence in a discredited process. The Bill will certainly not achieve that objective. Confidence can be restored only by elections followed by a fundamental renegotiation of the basis for agreement.
I think that it might be in the interest of the House, given the limited time that we have—
Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to wind up the debate, he will need the leave of the House.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I think that it will be in the interest of the House if I forgo the right to wind up the debate. We have had a good, if predictable, debate. As the Secretary of State said, the Bill is complex and important. We unfortunately have limited time in which to do it justice, so I think that we should make progress without further ado.
A number of points and questions have been put during the debate, so I cannot reciprocate the speed of Mr. Davies.
I associate myself with the remarks made by Mr. Robinson when he referred to my hon. Friend Mr. McGrady. I hope that my hon. Friend Mr. Mallon will convey to his colleague the profound sympathy and condolences that I am sure that not only my hon. Friends and I, but hon. Members of all parties would wish to express. That is likely to be the only occasion this evening on which I shall achieve unanimity in the Chamber.
I hope that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford will accept that my comments will be made affectionately, if not entirely respectfully. He entertained us by storming and raging at the inadequacies of Her Majesty's Government. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he evoked a college of cardinals, so great was the number of cardinal sins committed by Her Majesty's Government. However, his wisdom and perspicacity know no bounds. I ask him to consider the fact that I frequently think about his colleagues, Mr. Mates and Sir Brian Mawhinney, and their time as security Ministers when thinking about some of the difficult issues that my colleagues and I have to consider, sometimes on a daily basis. It is not difficult to talk the talk of peacemaking—we often do that in the House. However, it is much more difficult to walk the walk, and I have learned the truth of that. It is difficult to engage with those for whom it is anathema to engage but we do so for the sake of those whose lives we are responsible for and to secure a peaceful and safe society. Sometimes our efforts are successful and sometimes they are less successful than we would want, but they are nonetheless sincere.
I shall try to respond to several questions that were asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh and other hon. Members. My hon. Friend asked whether the monitoring commission may receive functions from the Bill, and a great amount of debate was caused by what I am sure he meant to be a helpful suggestion. The model that we have chosen will set up the commission by international agreement. Indeed, in the other place, my noble and learned Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn referred specifically to clause 1, which defines the agreement referred to. Amending that clause would not confer functions on the commission because of the way in which it is drafted. Of course, Parliament could confer functions on a commission in the UK if it wished but that is not the model that we are following. As I said, we have chosen to set up an international commission that will receive its functions through the agreement.
The Minister is effectively answering a question that I did not ask. I gave the column number and date of the debate in which the Government Minister in the other place was talking not about article 1 but about article 4. That was specific in terms of the wording of his reply. The Minister should again clarify the situation accurately.
That is precisely my point. Clearly, we shall not get to the bottom of this confusion and I shall need to re-read the Hansard report that we have received and examine the response that I have given to determine whether I can provide greater clarity. If necessary, I shall write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of the letter in the Library for the benefit of all hon. Members who have an interest in the issue.
My hon. Friend asked about article 4 of the international agreement to establish the monitoring commission by querying whether the commission would be fettered in presenting reports to which organised crime was relevant. However, article 4 includes other criminal offences and the list of activities that it defines is not exhaustive. Organised crime is caught by article 4 of the agreement if it is carried out by paramilitaries. We know that there is significant involvement of paramilitary organisations in organised crime in Northern Ireland.
I shall give way to my hon. Friend for a final time.
The Minister is very kind. Will she confirm that in terms of investigations into organised crime, 14 files exist now, but not one refers to the provisional IRA or those associated with it? Will she put on record her confirmation that that information is correct?
I am afraid that I cannot confirm that at the moment. I am not aware of the detail to which my hon. Friend referred, so I shall have to examine the matter again. Given that we are under time constraints, I shall try not to be provocative and I hope that there will be few occasions when hon. Members will feel goaded to ask for further clarification of my points.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, who is not in the Chamber, asked about the duty of office. I am not sure whether I understood fully the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh, but I confirm that the pledge of office in the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 contains a requirement to discharge in good faith all duties of office. I hope that that addresses his point but I am happy to respond to his worries further, perhaps after considering them more carefully.
I hesitate to be provocative but every time I hear the hon. Member for Belfast, East speak, it occurs to me that he would do well to listen to a song called "Paint It Black", which was written by some of my favourite musicians. He does not want colours anywhere and where there are colours, he wants them painted black. He describes a world that I simply do not see. The song is by the Rolling Stones and I invite him to listen to it if he would like to hear not only a good song, but something that describes the way in which we in the Chamber hear his outlook.
The hon. Gentleman and Mr. Hunter suggested that the Government equate normalisation and paramilitary activities but that is not the case. The timetable for security normalisation set out in the joint declaration was illustrative, and it was set out on the basis that appropriate acts of completion occurred at the time of its publication. Article 15 of the agreement makes it clear that the programme of security normalisation and the timetable associated with it will be determined once the British Government are satisfied that appropriate commitments have been given on an end to paramilitary activity.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East talked about withholding the salaries of all members of a party and suggested that that might be likely to breach the European convention on human rights. I do not believe that that is the case. We do not believe that withholding, or reducing future income would be a breach of the European convention. However, European case law draws a distinction between rights to future salary that is not protected under the law and pension rights, which are protected under the law. That brings me to one of the points raised by Lembit Ípik in a characteristically good-humoured contribution.
On the human rights point, I am intrigued by the fact that this Bill does not carry a statement of compatibility with the European convention on human rights. [Hon. Members: "It does."] I stand to be corrected. Perhaps the Minister can explain why it does not appear on the front page. If the Minister could deal with that, I would be grateful.
It may not be on the front page but it is definitely in the Bill; perhaps it is on the back page.
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, if I may call him that, raised the question of pensions. This is a complicated area. Whenever I engage in debate about the European convention on human rights, I do so hesitantly and I accept the charge of hesitancy that Mr. Trimble laid against us in this context. It may assist if I explain why the Government consider that new section 48(2A) is necessary.
Pension contributions are assessed as a fixed percentage of a Member's salary and pension entitlement is calculated on the basis of a Member's final salary. That provision ensures that any reduction in salary will be disregarded for the purposes of the pension scheme—that is, it will not affect a Member's rights or his obligations. For example, if salary is reduced by half, a member will remain liable for pension contributions calculated as a percentage of his full salary. Similarly, a 50 per cent. reduction in salary will not affect pension entitlement, which will still be based on full salary should a Member decide to stand down while the reduction is in place. [Interruption.] I sense that that has provoked a series of questions. I ask hon. Members to resist the urge to intervene.
I am sorry but I cannot resist it. Just for clarification, is the Minister saying that the pension contribution is calculated on the basis of the full salary even when that salary has been reduced—in other words, that the reason that the final pension is consummate with the full salary is that the actual payments into the scheme do not alter with variation in the amount that the individual pays?
The pensions of Members of the Legislative Assembly are contributory, so a Member's share in the pension fund is likely to be protected from interference under article 1 of the first protocol of the ECHR, the protection of property protocol. If a Member's salary was reduced and he retired while a reduction was in place, the value of his pension could be substantially reduced. Therefore, there is, we fear, a serious risk that that would breach the ECHR.
Lady Hermon is right: the statement is not in the Bill. However, it is separately stated that the Bill is compliant.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock asked whether the commissioners can deliberate by correspondence. The commissioners' working methods will be a matter for them to determine. For myself, I can see no reason why they should not maintain contact by a range of methods. That may be particularly appropriate if a commissioner were sick but I imagine that they would also regularly deliberate in person. If a commissioner is incapacitated, it is open to the two Governments to replace him, although obviously I hope that that would not be the case.
It seems to me that if the commissioners are to have any function at all, they have to be inquisitorial. While they may not hold full hearings, dare I say it, like a Select Committee, presumably, they would have to take evidence and to hear from people at some stage. Is the Minister saying that the rubrics of how they work have not yet been thought through? I find that surprising because it seems vital that that should be defined and understood.
It is not that it has not been thought through. It is something that we are saying to the commissioners. We expect that they will wish to meet as a group not only to discuss and to deliberate on information that they have received but to meet those from whom they wish to receive information, so there is no impediment to that, but I expect that their working practices will evolve.
Rev. Ian Paisley asked what the cross-community voting requirements are. Although it is not in the Bill, it is in the explanatory notes on page 4. That may be of benefit to the whole House.
A number of hon. Members raised the question of retrospectivity, particularly David Burnside, who raised it initially in an intervention and was supported by other hon. Members. The commission will be established by the agreement and we intend that its first report on paramilitary activity will for the most part cover matters since its establishment. The commission may wish to include in its first report some recent contextual material but I do not expect that it will spend its time looking backwards. That will not be the answer that he wanted but it is the only answer that he will get today.
It is not very satisfactory. I specifically asked about retrospectivity regarding four investigations, of which she will be aware with her ministerial responsibility, including Colombia, Castlereagh, Stormontgate. Those are investigations presently taking place. Will the commission have a remit with a view to making recommendations that could lead to the expulsion of Sinn Fein from the Executive? That is why the people of Northern Ireland are still confused over this debate tonight.
I do not think that there is the degree of confusion that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I have made it clear that we would expect the commission to begin its work from the point at which it comes into existence. There will be when it comes into existence, I suspect, occasions when it may want to look at the context within which it has come into existence but I am not giving him any assurance that the four cases to which he has referred will be part of its considerations.
The hon. Members for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) referred to—
I wonder whether the right hon. Lady would be kind enough to make an important point absolutely clear: she is not saying that the commission will indeed look at those four egregious breaches, but she equally, as I understand it, is not saying that it will not. She is going to leave it to the commission to decide—is that right?—the extent to which it looks retrospectively, the extent to which it looks forward and generally how it responds to any complaints or any incidents.
I make it clear that my thoughts this weekend will be with the family of Prison Officer Ferris, who was stabbed at the time of the Maze escape, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for Belfast, South and for Belfast, North for raising his case. The hon. Member for Belfast, North also raised the question of elections. We are all working to create the conditions for an election to the Assembly from which a viable Executive can be formed. There has been no secret about that. We have never disguised that that is our objective. We want to put the government of Northern Ireland in the hands of locally accountable representatives and the IMC is a key element but just one part of that drive. Others have commitments to make, too: to rebuild the trust and confidence necessary to move forward to stable and inclusive institutions, and we all know what those commitments are.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North suggested that censure motions would be weaker as a result of the Bill. The Bill provides that the Assembly may resolve by cross-community vote to censure a Minister or a party on the basis that it does not believe that they are committed to non-violent, peaceful and democratic means or any of the other terms of the pledge of office. It remains open to the Assembly to pass motions censuring Ministers or parties on other grounds according to its own procedures. I do not see how in substance the Bill weakens the Assembly. In fact, it widens the range of measures available to it.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am seeking to make a little progress as I am conscious of the pressure of time.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman a number of times so, if he will forgive me, on this occasion I will press on.
My hon. Friend Mr. Barnes tempted me to respond to his comment about new Labour, but I will resist, as that is not within the confines of our debate, but perhaps I will discuss it with him later. However, he spoke about people who have been forced into exile and the need for acts of completion to include scope for them to return. He is quite right to raise that. The practice of exiling must come to an end, and the exiled must feel free to return in safety. That is a point that not only he but my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have made on many occasions both in the House and Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend also questioned an issue raised by clause 2, and the need to avoid making reports that are prejudicial to criminal proceedings. Commissioners will obviously exercise discretion about the information that they wish to include in their reports, subject to the provisions of clause 2. While putting an independent spotlight on ongoing paramilitary activity, we must also ensure that any legal proceedings and, in particular, criminal proceedings are not jeopardised. We must not allow the commission to be seen to influence the outcome of criminal proceedings because that could cause the collapse of a case. That does not, however, prevent the IMC from giving an independent and accurate picture of the scale of ongoing paramilitary activity.
Mr. Swire, in a well-argued and thoughtful speech, referred to a statement by the leader of Sinn Fein last April that represented progress on the part of the IRA, which we have acknowledged. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have said on a previous occasion, that that does not answer the Prime Minister's final, simple question—will the IRA call a halt to all paramilitary activity? The hon. Gentleman also asked about the relationship between the commission, Garda Siochana, the General Officer Commanding the Army in Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable. The IMC will be open and accessible to all interested parties and will consult on issues relevant to its functions, as he would expect. However, the two Governments have made it clear that it should be provided with the information that it needs to do its job. It will have access to the Chief Constable, the General Officer Commanding and other agencies with law enforcement and security roles in Northern Ireland. It would be wrong to go into specifics, but I can confirm that the IMC will receive material drawn from intelligence. It will then be for the IMC to decide what to include in its reports, provided that it does not breach the duties under clause 2. As for costs, we estimate that those will be ú2 million a year, and a contribution will be received from the Irish Government on a 50:50 basis—I am happy to use that phrase in a context different from that which I normally use.
The hon. Member for Belfast, South referred to recent decisions regarding prisons. He will forgive me for not being drawn down that path in this debate, but I appreciate his comments and anxieties about prison officers. I share his concerns, but they are not often raised in our discussions of security matters in Northern Ireland. Mr. Donaldson and other hon. Members asked about the IMC's determination of cases referring to strand 1 questions. In view of the convention regarding the operation of the internal political institutions of Northern Ireland, it would be inappropriate for non-UK nationals to have a role in investigating and reporting on allegations concerning such matters. That is why, for complaints concerning the operation of internal political institutions—strand 1 institutions— the Irish and American members of the commission will stand aside.
The key point is surely that, on matters relating to the operation of those institutions, the British members alone will examine the issues and report their conclusions. The whole commission will have a role in reporting its view, when asked to do so, on whether particular politicians are genuinely committed to peaceful and democratic means. That is a basic requirement of trust and confidence—it has nothing to do with the workings of the internal institutions.
The hon. Lady is mistaken in her interpretation. It is clear in clause 6 of the agreement between the British and Irish Governments that the full commission, including the Irish Government's representative, will be involved in considering complaints from parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly—a strand 1 institution—in relation to the pledge of office, specifically the provision relating to the commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. That is specified in annexe A of the Belfast agreement—the hon. Lady is wrong.
We will have to agree to disagree on that point. I do not accept the premise from which the hon. Gentleman is arguing.
The hon. Member for Lagan Valley asked whether members of Sinn Fein will escape charges that they have broken the pledge of office by saying that their party is not the same as the Provisional IRA. It is already the case under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that Assembly parties or Ministers may be excluded from office, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, if the Assembly concludes by cross-community vote that they are not considered to be committed to peaceful and democratic means. However, the international agreement establishing the IMC makes it clear that the commission may make recommendations about the steps that the Assembly could consider taking against Ministers or parties if it concludes that they are not committed to peaceful and democratic means. The nature and consequences of the links between a party and a paramilitary organisation will be for the IMC to establish and respond to. Members of the commission will have significant and relevant experience and are not likely to duck the issue.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way to him at this moment in time.
Finally, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, in a typically forceful speech, said that the IMC is being created so that Her Majesty's Government cannot turn a blind eye—I understand why he made that comment. He went on to talk about the huge element of trust that will be required. Confidence in the IMC will have to be established, and it will have to win the confidence and respect of the people of Northern Ireland if it is to assist with the process of restoring trust and confidence—that great project to which we are all committed. I very much agree with some of his comments about the nature of that trust and confidence which, indeed, are essential if we are to re-establish the consent for partnership government to work.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the passage in the Hillsborough text whereby if steps are not taken in the Assembly to give effect to an IMC report it will be for the British Government, in consultation with the Irish Government and the political parties, to resolve the matter in a manner consistent with the IMC's recommendations. I stress again very firmly that we should act in those circumstances. Where an IMC report includes recommendations for action and where the process outlined in the Hillsborough text does not lead to resolution of the issue, we envisage no circumstances in which we would not exercise the power in a manner consistent with the IMC recommendations. That is the spirit of the Hillsborough text—the Government would seek to give it effect, and do so faithfully with the approval of the House and another place.
Finally, I shall deal with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh. I have tried to answer some of his questions. In a fine speech, in keeping with the highest traditions of the House, he spoke solidly and seriously in favour of the sanctions that the IMC will be able to impose. He recognised the involvement of the Irish Government in the new commission as a strength, not as a weakness. Paramilitaries know no boundaries, and the independent monitoring commission will be able to work closely with and gain the confidence of the security forces, both in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland, as a result of the bilateral agreement underpinning the IMC.
The power of my hon. Friend's oratory was evident when he condemned paramilitaries and underscored the fact that those participating in democratic politics in a power-sharing Executive must not be associated with paramilitary organisations that threaten, attack, intimidate, shoot young men in the legs and drive whole families into exile. His comments are not lost on the Government. We have worked tirelessly to bring peace and normality to Northern Ireland. We inherited the foundations laid by the outgoing Conservative Government.
I met and talked to a former Royal Ulster Constabulary officer at the dedication of the RUC George Cross garden of remembrance, which is a place of great tranquillity, full of powerful images movingly recalling the sacrifice of all too many police families. The former officer said that he was struck by the fact that so many police lives had been lost, as one sees laid out year by year as one walks through that garden, as well as the many hundreds of others—soldiers, Catholics, Protestants and others. But he commented on how many lives had been saved since the ceasefires. We should not forget that that move, and the work that we are undertaking to continue it, is saving lives. It is imperative that we continue to maintain the momentum for peace.
As I said at the outset, it is not difficult to talk the talk of peacemaking. It is much more difficult to walk the walk. Introducing the commission is an important step along the way towards achieving the peaceful outcome that I hope we all seek.