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Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Bill

– in the House of Commons at 3:57 pm on 8th February 2000.

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Order for Second Reading read.

4 pm

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

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

I have to acquaint the House that I have it in command from the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

This is a Bill that I had hoped very much not to have to introduce. I still hope that it will prove unnecessary to implement it, but that depends on changes and developments which have not yet taken place but which would need to take place speedily, and certainly over the next two or three days, to prove it unnecessary.

Last Thursday I made a statement to the House in response to the latest report of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. I think that I said enough about that report last Thursday for the entire House to understand that what was significant about de Chastelain's report was more what it did not say had happened than what it was able to describe had happened since the previous occasion in December when General de Chastelain had reported.

In summary, General de Chastelain and his colleagues reported that, as far as the IRA is concerned, to date they had received no information from the IRA as to when decommissioning will start.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I should like to make some progress. I said then that if further information came to light which rendered my statement out of date, I would of course inform the House. Intensive discussions continue, and there remains the possibility of a further report by General de Chastelain and his colleagues on the international body.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

In a moment. At present, I have no further substantive progress to report. It is therefore necessary to put this legislation in place, so that if it remains necessary because cross-community confidence has been undermined, we can create a pause in the operation of Northern Ireland's devolved political institutions from the end of this week.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. In dealing with the report, will he address a point that has been put from the Opposition Benches? Have the Irish Government expressed the opinion that the report should not be made public or available to the House?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Both Governments have agreed that for the time being, no further useful purpose is served by publishing the report because it does not contain additional information, other than that which I have already given the House, that would inform the House. We have, however, said that in the event of a further report being delivered to the two Governments by General de Chastelain, we shall publish both so that they can be seen alongside each other.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

No, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. There is no doubt in my mind that the necessary cross-community consensus which has existed, which supported the establishment of the Executive and of the institutions in Northern Ireland and north and south across the island of Ireland, and which is essential in creating those institutions and sustaining their existence, has been severely dented by the absence of credible progress on decommissioning—indeed, the absence of an unequivocal commitment to decommission, or a specific time frame in which decommissioning will occur.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Has my right hon. Friend seen the remarkable article in today's edition of The Irish Times by my hon, Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), in which he pleads with the IRA to start decommissioning and explains why that is so essential? Can my right hon. Friend give the House a guarantee that, whatever the circumstances, he will continue to do his utmost to work closely with the Irish Government on decommissioning and other aspects of the Good Friday agreement?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I have read the article by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) in The Irish Times today, and I heard his statements at the end of last week. I shall refer to what he has said later in my speech, but, for now, suffice it to say that I have absolutely no doubt that his remarks speak for the overwhelming mass of nationalist opinion in both Northern Ireland and southern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

If right hon. and hon. Members do not mind, I should like to make a little progress.

One reason why the hon. Member for Foyle has expressed his views and his impatience on decommissioning is that, like the rest of us, he has derived enormous satisfaction from the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. On every other front, the agreement has brought a better way of life for the population as a whole than Northern Ireland has ever known before. It has brought an inclusive Executive, responsible to a locally elected Assembly. There are no longer any outsiders—no more second-class citizens—in the administration of Northern Ireland.

The agreement places the principle of consent at the heart of the Northern Ireland constitution, and the Irish constitution has been amended to reflect that fact. The agreement has enabled serious, practical north-south co-operation, which has benefited all parts of the island. It has strengthened ties within the United Kingdom and has built a new and vigorous relationship with the rest of the island of Ireland.

The devolved institutions are functioning effectively, proving that it is best to apply local minds to local problems. The agreement has brought Ministers together from different parties of hitherto highly conflicting views. Indeed, those views still conflict strongly in many respects, yet the new Ministers are working together, irrespective of the traditions from which they come, in good faith and in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.

The new Ministers are working co-operatively with their counterparts in Dublin, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The vigour that they have applied to their new responsibilities proves conclusively that self-rule is far and away the best form of government for Northern Ireland. In addition, there are all the new institutions, and we must spare no effort to ensure their long-term survival.

However, the Good Friday agreement was a finely judged deal. Every detail and every word was included in it for a reason and contributes to its overall balance. That is why every other part of the agreement has been implemented, is in the process of being implemented or has a plan in existence for its implementation in the near future. We must acknowledge the importance of having all parts of the agreement go forward together. Each part is interdependent. To maintain confidence in the agreement as a whole, it is necessary that each part moves forward.

Alongside the new Executive, north-south ministerial and implementation bodies have been set up. Human rights and equality commissions have been established. Reform of policing and of criminal justice are moving forward. Prisoner releases continue—causing, I must say, understandable anguish among many victims' families, but going ahead none the less. Normalisation of security arrangements grows as the security threat subsides.

All those things are happening, and much else besides. All of it is necessary if we are to build confidence in the peace process. However, confidence building is not a one-way street.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Good Friday agreement commits all parties to work in good faith for the fulfilment of all parts of the agreement, including decommissioning?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I can confirm that. As recently as the Mitchell review and its outcome, Sinn Fein again recorded its view that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process. That is most important, because members of both traditions need to feel that their commitment is reciprocated, but, at present, that confidence has slumped.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I will in a moment.

Actual, verifiable decommissioning is vital if we are to retain the faith of all parties in the Good Friday agreement—not just decommissioning by the IRA, but by all the paramilitary organisations. Each of them has an obligation; we must see decommissioning being undertaken by all of them, if the agreement as a whole is to be properly and effectively implemented.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Was it not implicit throughout all the negotiations for the Good Friday agreement that Adams and McGuinness spoke for the IRA? Indeed, it was reported in The Sunday Times that McGuinness made explicit the fact that he spoke for the IRA. That is why we are in our present pass. Will the Secretary of State confirm that? Will he tell us whether the Irish Government support the legal process that we are about to put in train?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not get drawn into the intricacies of the relationships between different parts of the republican movement—I am not an expert on that subject. I only note that it was significant that, at the conclusion of the Mitchell review, the IRA issued a statement in which it pointed out, among other things, that it acknowledged the leadership of Sinn Fein in those matters. Implicit in that was an acceptance of the strategy, the policies and, indeed, the expressed positions that had been taken by Sinn Fein. I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's question about the Irish Government in a moment.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am going to save up the hon. Gentleman's interventions. It would be an enormous shame if I were to take them all in a rush at the outset of my remarks, because I should have nothing to look forward to later.

It is important to note what George Mitchell

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I know that.

In December last year, when George Mitchell celebrated the success of his review of the agreement, he said: I believe that the basis now exists for devolution to occur, for the institutions to be established, and for decommissioning to take place as soon as possible. He concluded that there is no other way forward". He was absolutely right.

Against that background, Ulster Unionists always made it clear that, if there was no progress on decommissioning by the end of January, it would be very difficult for them to remain in the Executive. No commitments or guarantees were made on the other side. I have always made that clear; I have never claimed that anyone guaranteed that anything would happen by any particular date. Indeed, Sinn Fein made it clear that premature public deadlines made its task—of persuading the IRA to move—all the more difficult. Nor do I think, in that connection, that it helps matters for anyone to accuse anyone else of acting in bad faith. Nobody has a monopoly of good intentions in this situation.

None the less, it was made clear to all those involved in the Mitchell review that substantive, tangible progress in decommissioning would be needed to sustain Unionist commitment to the Executive beyond the end of January.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

I recognise that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning has ruled out the possibility of the purchase of decommissioned equipment. Will that proposal still be on the agenda in the difficult months that now face us?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am not conscious of that proposal ever having been placed prominently on the agenda. However, in so far as it was being considered, it may still be considered in its proper place and by the appropriate people—the international decommissioning body and its three commissioners headed by General John de Chastelain.

Whatever the virtue of that proposal, it is not simply the continued absence of actual decommissioning that is causing the current difficulty. It is the uncertainty about whether decommissioning will ever happen and, if so, when and on what terms it will take place. When I say, "on what terms," I do not mean British terms and I do not mean Unionist terms, either. It is not for the British Government, the Ulster Unionist party or any other group to impose on any other organisation the terms on which it voluntarily carries out actions of arms' decommissioning. It is, however, a matter for those organisations to engage properly with the de Chastelain commission and to agree with it—within the terms of the Northern Ireland Decommissioning Act 1997—how decommissioning will take place and within what acceptable time frame. All that remains, I am afraid, unclear, despite the availability of the de Chastelain commission to take matters forward.

Of course, I applaud the fact that the Provisional IRA's guns are silent. Everyone in Northern Ireland is enormously relieved that those guns are silent. Its ceasefire during the past two and a half years has been an indispensable condition for politics to work in Northern Ireland. I welcome its expressed desire for a permanent peace. The absence of the word "permanent", as some hon. Members and certain right hon. Members are aware, was once an insuperable obstacle to progress. Now it has been said and the obstacle has been surmounted.

If the war is over, we have to ask the Provisional IRA why arms still need to be retained. If violence is a thing of the past, why cannot weapons of violence be put permanently beyond use, as they should be, and as the Good Friday agreement lays down that they should be? I know of absolutely no section of nationalist opinion anywhere that disagrees with that sentiment. Of course—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows of a section of nationalist opinion that disagrees with that sentiment.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way at last. He has said some extraordinary things. Does he not think that, possibly, Sinn Fein might be a section of that opinion that does not wish to give up weapons because Sinn Fein and the IRA, as his own Prime Minister has said, are inextricably linked? Surely, the right hon. Gentleman therefore realises that, if the IRA does not want to give up weapons, Sinn Fein does not want to give up weapons, either.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

As the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, I was referring not to republican opinion but to nationalist opinion, and the key point stands. Anything that smacks of surrender is unjustified; nobody is seeking to humiliate anyone in these circumstances. I cannot think of anything that would be more destructive.

Any cause or sentiment that unites the Irish Government, the American Government, editorial writers in Dublin, Cork, Boston, Washington and New York, the leadership and rank and file of the SDLP and public opinion in the north and south of Ireland surely cannot be wrong. All that coalition—that breadth and wealth of opinion—has stated unambiguously that the time for decommissioning is now, and that a start must be made by the Provisional IRA. Yet, as matters stand, a way forward continues to elude us.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP, North Down

Is the Secretary of State aware that after the atrocities at Enniskillen, Omagh and Canary Wharf, world opinion expressed much the same sentiment as is now being expressed, but inevitably gravitated back towards support for Sinn Fein and their aims?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Public opinion was right then and it remains right—decommissioning needs to start. I was disappointed and slightly taken aback that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle the other day supported an early token act of decommissioning, his intervention was dismissed as inappropriate by the chairman of Sinn Fein. That is a lordly and arrogant rebuff to someone who has committed much to the peace process and who has been rewarded with a Nobel peace prize for his efforts.

As I said in my statement last week, the circumstances mean that the cross-community support necessary for the institutions to operate successfully is, I am afraid, fast ebbing away. I hope that the circumstances will yet change, but that requires clarity about whether decommissioning will happen, how it will happen and when it will begin. Without such clarity, the current loss of cross-community confidence is so serious that the Executive would simply fall apart. Where that is clearly foreseeable, we must ensure that good government for all the people of Northern Ireland continues.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

Given what my right hon. Friend has said, and the broad measure of world support for decommissioning and the process, why is he terminating the north-south links and the intergovernmental links, when nobody could possibly blame the Irish Government for having played any part whatever in delaying decommissioning and when, indeed, they have been entirely positive in their contribution to the agreement?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I shall come to that in a moment. It is enormously regrettable that we have to suspend the north-south institutions and the implementation bodies, not least because already in their short time they are making a valuable contribution to life in the island of Ireland. However, all those institutions are interdependent; they are all interlocked in terms of the Good Friday agreement, to which we have all been signatories.

I give way to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) before resuming my speech.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Minister (Education)

My patience is rewarded, and I am immensely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. There is much good will towards him in the Chamber today, but I hope that he will not risk sapping that good will by continuing to try to imitate Kafka in the opaqueness of his statements. Will he state categorically to the House how he believes that confidence, about which he rightly talked, is increased by non-publication of the de Chastelain report?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

If the hon. Gentleman lived in Northern Ireland and had lived through the enormous encouragement and excitement that people in Northern Ireland have experienced with the establishment of those institutions, as well as through the disappointment and demoralisation that they feel now that those institutions are threatened, he would be focusing on something else, and something frankly more significant than a single report by General de Chastelain. The hon. Gentleman says that his patience has paid dividends. I must express my disappointment in him. Unless he comes up with rather more substantive interventions, I may not be tempted to give way again.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

The Secretary of State should give way. It was emphasised in the House last week that we were discussing the Belfast agreement. In the light of the Secretary of State's answer to his right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), may I point out that the only link with Good Friday is that the innocent are suffering with the guilty, whereas it should be the guilty who suffer?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The House has heard the hon. Gentleman's point and will evaluate it.

Some people have said to me—indeed, some of my hon. Friends have remarked—that we should not be taking an axe to the institutions, that we should sustain them and keep them going, and that the last thing that anyone in Northern Ireland needs is for the very successful Executive and institutions to be suspended, as may well be the case at the end of the week, unless circumstances change.

However, those people are posing a false choice. The choice before us is not between institutions being suspended and institutions which, if they were left alone, would continue to perform successfully in the future, as they have done to date. We are not faced with the choice between suspension and imperfect continuation of the Executive.

We are faced with a very different choice. It is a choice between suspending the institutions, or seeing them progressively and quite rapidly collapse because confidence in them has plummeted. In other words, it is not a choice between suspension and carrying on as we are. It is a choice between pause or bust in the institutions.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I have already given way to him.

It is in no one's interest for those fragile institutions to be allowed to shatter irreversibly, simply because it is too hard or too painful to take the necessary action to forestall that now.

Delay in acting will not buy us time in the present circumstances. If we delay, it will only make the landing harder, unless between now and the end of the week a substantial turnround of events occurs and we have answers to the essential decommissioning questions—whether it will take place and when.

A pause in the operation of the institutions, far from allowing them to collapse, will preserve them, save them for the future and enable them to be revived at a future date. It will allow all our efforts to focus on finding a way forward, through a review that would ensue following a suspension—a way, I hope quickly, to restore the institutions and make progress on decommissioning and all the other aspects of the agreement.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Last Thursday I urged him to ensure that if suspension must take place, the period of suspension will be as short as possible. Will he confirm that the review will be treated as a matter of urgency? Who is to conduct the review? Is it likely to be jointly chaired by my right hon. Friend and Mr. Cowen of the Irish Government?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Those are important details, which I need to consider with the Irish Government under the terms of paragraph 7 of the Good Friday agreement. We will do that speedily. It is important that every hon. Member understands the imperative for and urgency of our actions. If we do not put the operation of the institutions on hold, subsequent events would so severely compromise and shatter their operation, that they would rapidly and irreversibly unravel. No hon. Member should doubt—I do not believe that any hon. Member will doubt—that the First Minister and his colleagues would resign their positions in view of the loss of confidence in the Executive and the institutions.

We must be clear about what would ensue if we lost the First Minister from his position. First, the Deputy First Minister would automatically cease to hold office at the same time. I cannot choose, or wave a magic wand, to change that. As sure as night follows day, consequences would follow. No other credible candidates would secure a majority of Unionists and a majority of nationalists in the Assembly. An alternative First Minister and Deputy First Minister would have to do that if they were to stand any chance of election. The cross-community majority would not exist for another ticket.

In such circumstances, I would be obliged within six weeks to call fresh Assembly elections. At best, those elections would cement the existing stalemate. At worst, they would further polarise the divisions that have emerged, and make conducting a successful review almost impossible—let alone reverting to the existing Executive and institutions. The last thing to emerge from those circumstances would be another consensual, cross-party Government in Northern Ireland. The Government of Northern Ireland would simply cease to operate. I will not let that Government simply collapse into a black hole. That would happen if we allowed events to unfold—as they certainly would—without taking the necessary action before reaching that point at the end of week.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

If the Secretary of State intends to comment on the point that I am about to make later in his speech, I am happy to wait until then. What is the ingredient that is required for reinstating devolution? For the Secretary of State, is it simply a statement from the Provisional IRA that it intends to decommission and that it has a timetable, or will he ask for product up front?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It is not me who has to be satisfied. First, General de Chastelain and his commission have to be satisfied that all the paramilitary organisations are properly and effectively engaging not only with the principle of decommissioning, but with the modalities of how it will be achieved. More important than satisfying General de Chastelain and his colleagues, the community and public opinion in Northern Ireland must be satisfied. That means that both traditions in Northern Ireland must be satisfied that decommissioning is taking place on an acceptable, effective basis. Unless both traditions are equally satisfied, and confidence in the implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday agreement is properly rebuilt, the Executive and institutions will not be able to resume their current operation. That is the bottom line.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Is it not the case that not only the IRA, but the loyalists are not decommissioning? How does my right hon. Friend address Sinn Fein's point that the British Government are responding to an artificial deadline imposed by the Ulster Unionists? The real deadline is a couple of months down the road, in May.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am sure that my hon. Friend was present at the beginning of my speech when I addressed that point by saying that the problem we face is indecision or reluctance to decommission not only on the part of the Provisional IRA but on the part of all the paramilitary organisations. De Chastelain has obtained from certain of the loyalist paramilitaries an undertaking that they would follow if the Provisional IRA were to decommission. That is progress—something we can tuck under our belt—but we have to be absolutely realistic, as I am sure my hon. Friend will be. The biggest such stumbling block is the Provisional IRA's inability even to address the need to give a clear and unequivocal indication of its intention to decommission, let alone when and how it will do so. Without any sense of recrimination, threat, anger or anything else, I say that that is what we need to make progress, and for confidence in the institutions to be rebuilt.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe Labour, Glasgow Maryhill

As that is such a massive problem, what does my right hon. Friend think of a national day of reconciliation on which all relevant bodies might act together to provide reassurance to the others?

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

That is a creative and imaginative suggestion. I have always said—without in any way conceding an equivalence between legally and illegally held weapons—that normalisation of the security profile and elimination of the threat should go hand in hand. I am very willing to give further thought to those general ideas.

Let me quickly run through the contents of the Bill. It enables what I hope—if it proves necessary—will be the temporary return to Northern Ireland of direct rule. Under clause 1, while the institutions, including the Executive, are on hold, neither the Assembly nor its Committees will meet. All Northern Ireland Ministers and the Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of Statutory Committees will cease to hold office, although under clause 3 all Ministers and other office holders who lost office but are still eligible are automatically reappointed to their previous office when the institutions are restored.

Clause 2 allows the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a restoration order to end the suspension, taking into account the outcome of the review. The schedule sets out that executive responsibility will return to the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Departments acting under the direction of the Secretary of State. Legislation that would normally be made by the Assembly will be made by Order in Council approved by Parliament. A restoration order and its revocation must, under clause 7, be approved by both Houses of Parliament. Clause 5 requires the Secretary of State to return the functions of the implementation bodies to the relevant Northern Ireland Departments, in line with arrangements agreed with the Irish Government. That reflects the underlying principle of the agreement that all these institutions are interlocking and interdependent.

Those are serious steps, but in the absence of any progress they will, I believe, preserve the institutions from collapse and enable us to revive them at the earliest possible date. May I say this to the House in conclusion? The bomb attack in Fermanagh on Sunday reminds us that, tragically, there are still people in Northern Ireland who prefer violence and chaos to peace and stability. My sympathy goes out to all those in Irvinestown whose property has been destroyed and whose peace has been shattered.

These futile, cowardly assaults on the overwhelming will of the people are what the Good Friday Agreement sought to end. I believe it is the duty of the British Government, and, indeed, of the Irish Government, and of all the political parties, to deliver the people's will and put this process back on track.

There will never be a better agreement than this. The Good Friday Agreement is a replete and robust agreement. It is a near perfect settlement, and I believe that if we were to scrap it and start negotiating it from scratch what we then ended up with would be very, very similar indeed to what we have at present. I really do not think there will be a better agreement than this. With this Bill the Government are moving to guard its integrity and the confidence of all sides in it.

I hope that all hon. Members will feel able to give us and the Bill their support, so that we can preserve and save what we have, in order to revive it another day, if it should prove necessary, as I hope it will not, to put on pause the operation of the institutions at the end of this week.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell 4:41 pm, 8th February 2000

I should like immediately to associate the Opposition with the Secretary of State's remarks about the people of Irvinestown. It was a devastating blow to that small and peaceful community when, at 7.20 on Sunday evening, a bomb exploded in the town and caused such damage. Can we as a House send one absolutely clear message to the men of violence, wherever they happen to come from? They will never succeed in their objectives by such dastardly actions, which are always, without exception, completely counter-productive.

We strongly support the Bill and shall vote for it if need be. We support it for a very simple reason: ever since it became clear that it was most unlikely that any substantial decommissioning would take place, we have believed that the only way forward was for the Secretary of State to suspend the Executive, the Assembly and the other relevant institutions. Clearly, for that to be done we must put direct rule back in place. That, basically, is what this legislation is all about.

Before I go into detail on the Bill, I hope that I shall be forgiven if I return for a final time to what I think has been a dreadful mistake by the Secretary of State. I believe that the House was owed an explanation as to why the de Chastelain report has not been published. The House has been put in an unenviable position, having to take decisions tonight on direct rule without knowing what the general said in that report.

I repeat again to the Secretary of State that I fully accept that there might be sensitive, particularly security-sensitive, items in that report. By all means exclude those, but we need to see the conclusions. Even at this late hour, I hope he will reconsider and, before we vote on Second Reading or on any of the amendments, will place the report, or at least its conclusions, in the Library or the Vote Office.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

The right hon. Gentleman overstates his case. He has already told us twice today that he welcomes the Bill. He has been calling for this suspension for weeks. Whether he sees the report has no bearing on his judgment; he has made it absolutely clear where he stands. Surely there is no point in pursuing this.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

I think that the hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The House must have the maximum information available before reaching a decision: that is how it works. The Secretary of State rightly referred to the report both today and in his statement on Thursday, and, as right hon. and hon. Members have said—not just Conservatives, but Liberal Democrats and Unionists—if a report has been referred to, it is only proper for the information to be placed before the House so that all Members can reach a decision.

I willingly acknowledge that—as the Secretary of State has heard me say a number of times, from the Dispatch Box and elsewhere—I believe suspension to be right. I am not convinced that all Members share my views at this stage, but they might if they saw what was in the report. I believe that the report should be published, but I will not dwell on the issue. I leave the Secretary of State to reflect on it further as the debate proceeds.

This is an extremely sad day for the people of Northern Ireland. They, naturally, yearn for a lasting peace, and they have hoped and prayed for decommissioning. They have been dreadfully let down. Over the past few weeks, they have enjoyed having their own Executive and elected Assembly. The democratic deficit that I consider to have been so damaging to the body politic in Northern Ireland had been eradicated, and we saw Northern Ireland's elected politicians taking responsibility for much that happened in the Province. That was healthy, right and proper. As the Secretary of State willingly acknowledged, it is the first and best option for the present and future governance of Northern Ireland. It was working, and I believe that it would have continued to work.

A number of distinguished past office holders are present—Members who have served in the Northern Ireland Office as Secretaries of State, Ministers of State and Under-Secretaries of State. I know they would agree that the alternative, direct rule, is very much second best. Although it will now be necessary, it is a great pity that it had to happen at all.

It is worth reflecting on why the Secretary of State has introduced this Bill, and why it is gaining support on the Opposition Benches. I believe that, towards the end of last year, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was courageous in agreeing to serve on the Executive along with his Unionist colleagues, although there had been no decommissioning by the Provisional IRA, and to serve with Sinn Fein Ministers. It was a brave decision, but it was also the right decision—a decision that I have consistently and strongly supported. That decision was made, however, because there was an understanding that, once the Executive had been set up, decommissioning would commence in a matter of weeks. The Secretary of State confirmed that to me at the Dispatch Box on Thursday.

I do not wish to apportion blame unduly, but I think that we must be clear about this. The simple truth is that the First Minister, the Secretary of State and I, along with the whole House, have been let down by Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. They have failed to deliver the decommissioning that it was understood would happen once the Executive was in place. It must be said that with the paramilitaries, whether republican or so-called loyalist, it has been all take and, to date, absolutely no give.

As the Secretary of State rightly pointed out, every other aspect of the Belfast agreement has been implemented, or is being implemented. In other words, the two Governments, British and Irish, and the constitutional parties, Unionist and nationalist, have fulfilled all their obligations. The only people who have not fulfilled their obligations under the Belfast agreement are the paramilitaries, republican and loyalist: they have failed to decommission any of their illegally held arms and explosives.

I want to address the arguments presented by Mr. Adams, Mr. McGuinness and some of the so-called loyalist paramilitary leaders. They say, "All that the Belfast agreement stated was that over a two-year period, concluding on 22 May, all illegally held arms and explosives must be decommissioned; so why the rush? We do not have to do it yet." Looking at the situation and knowing that all illegally held arms and explosives have to be decommissioned over a two-year period by 22 May, any reasonable person would conclude that, 21 months on, the fact that not one gun or ounce of Semtex has been handed in by any of the parties that signed up to the agreement shows that they are not fulfilling their obligations. That is why it is absolutely essential that decommissioning commences before the Executive and the Assembly can be reinstated.

As the Secretary of State confirmed, prisoner releases are a sensitive issue. If we go back to the summer of 1998, when the House passed the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill, initially, we understood why the Government released terrorist prisoners early back on to the streets of Belfast. It was right—in fact, it was essential—that the Government showed their good will to the paramilitaries and moved first. However, by the autumn of 1998, it was clear that a large number of prisoners, republican and loyalist, had been released early, yet there had been no decommissioning whatever.

It was at that point that we said clearly that we believed that no further prisoners should be released until there had been genuine progress on decommissioning. We have repeated that again and again in the House. We have the reprehensible situation today that more than 300 terrorist prisoners have been released early, but still not one gun, or ounce of Semtex, has been decommissioned.

I want to say in the gentlest way possible to the relatively new Secretary of State that we sincerely and deeply believe that, had we been listened to in the autumn of 1998 and thereafter, when we said, "Stop prisoner releases until there is some decommissioning," we would not be in the position today of finding no decommissioning and of having to suspend both the Executive and the Assembly. That is regrettable. I will not dwell further on the matter, but it is important that the point be made.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

I give way to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a different view? The reason why the republicans, and certainly the IRA, are so isolated today is because we have honoured the Good Friday agreement. If we had not, if prisoner releases had been stopped and the rest of it, they would have had an excuse. They would have said, "Look. The British have not done what they claimed they would do." It is precisely because we have honoured the Good Friday agreement and the IRA has not even issued a statement on decommissioning that it is isolated, not us. That is recognised internationally.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

I beg to differ with the hon. Gentleman because I sincerely and deeply believe that, had we stopped prisoner releases earlier, decommissioning would have started. The reason why the paramilitaries are isolated today is because of the courage of the First Minister, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, and of his colleagues in going into that Executive and testing whether they were prepared to decommission and be of their word. Sadly, we have found that that is not the case. It is deeply regrettable.

As to the future, I have some observations and some questions for the Secretary of State, which I hope he will find helpful and to which I hope the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will respond at the end of the debate. If pressure is brought to bear on the paramilitaries, it will be essential—I agree with the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)—that both loyalist and republican paramilitaries decommission. The reason why we emphasise the role of the Provisional IRA is simply because, as the Prime Minister has rightly told us, it is inextricably linked to Sinn Fein and it is Sinn Fein that holds ministerial office in the Executive. However, to achieve lasting progress, we shall have to have decommissioning in full, quickly, by all the paramilitaries—from both the republican and the loyalist wings—who signed up to the agreement.

If we do get decommissioning moving to the satisfaction of General de Chastelain—I emphasise again to the Secretary of State our confidence in the general and his international commission—may we have an undertaking that the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly will be immediately lifted? I think that the Secretary of State shares my view that direct rule is very much second best, and that we shall be anxious to return to an Executive and an Assembly as soon as possible.

It seems to me essential that, if the legislation proceeds through both Houses—as I hope and believe that it will this week—it should receive Royal Assent on Friday. Subsequently, it will be within the Secretary of State's power to suspend as and when he sees fit. On the assumption—I hope that it is a false assumption, but fear that it is a realistic one—that there is no substantial decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by the Provisional IRA to the general's satisfaction, may I have an absolute undertaking that the Executive and Assembly will be suspended by the end of this week? For reasons that are self-evident and that I do not wish to dwell upon, it would be most unwise to delay any longer, as that could be extremely damaging to the process.

I hope that, when the Under-Secretary replies to the debate, he will be able to give me positive replies on those points.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I note the seriousness of the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. Perhaps that seriousness would be reinforced if he gave us the reasons why he feels that it is essential that that should be done by this Friday.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

It is essential—as I think the hon. Gentleman, the Deputy First Minister, will be aware—because, in a democratic, civilised society, it is not right, practical or possible for people to share ministerial office for any length of time with those who have not completely renounced violence for good. If anyone is inextricably linked to the Provisional IRA—as Sinn Fein is—and if the Provisional IRA has failed to decommission any of its illegally held arms or explosives, it would not be right or proper for him or her to be in ministerial office for any length of time with other Ministers.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

The hon. Gentleman did ask me a question. Although I should be very happy to allow him to intervene again, I should do him the justice of completing my answer. I shall then be only too pleased to give way to him again.

I believe that, in those circumstances, it is inevitable, right and proper that others who hold ministerial office would be forced to resign those offices, bringing down the Executive. I think that that would be the wrong way forward. The Secretary of State knows that I believe that, at the end of this week, if there has not been a proper start to decommissioning, the right way forward would be for him to suspend the Executive and Assembly. That would be in the Province's best interests and in everyone's best interests.

I hope that that satisfies the Deputy First Minister on my position. I should be very happy to give way, if he wishes to cross-examine me further.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. My questions are asked only in the interests of clarity, which is so important in these issues. If I were to suggest that it should happen on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday—in the hope that that would provide time to achieve the type of movement on decommissioning that could prevent a suspension—would the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be wrong to do it on Friday? Does he agree that we should provide that time, if there is a hope that it might work?

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

I would need a huge amount of convincing. Time and again the paramilitaries and their political friends have broken timetables and assurances, and failed to abide by understandings. The only way forward is either—as I hope—for decommissioning to have commenced to the satisfaction of the general by the end of the week or for the Secretary of State to suspend. I do not think that there is any other option.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

I have listened intently to the right hon. Gentleman. Why does he think that a Minister should take away the rights of the electors in Northern Ireland? Ministers come and go and can be sacked, moved or defeated even in this country, but the characteristic of the Belfast agreement was that it gave the people of Northern Ireland the right to decide. The right hon. Gentleman is now saying that he wants their electoral rights taken away by Friday. When Assemblies are dissolved there are further elections. What makes him so sure that the Government should abolish the democratic electoral rights of the people of Northern Ireland? What gain would that bring to anyone?

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

It will be up to the House to decide what happens in a vote or a series of votes later tonight. I have told the Secretary of State clearly that he has my full support in introducing the Bill. I have confidence in his making the right decision and suspending on Friday because, as I said in answer to the Deputy First Minister a few moments ago, I believe that in a free, democratic, civilised, liberal democracy, people who fail to decommission their illegally held arms and explosives cannot hold ministerial office. It may be acceptable for them to hold office for a short time to encourage them to decommission. That is why I supported the establishment of the Executive and backed the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and his colleagues when they entered into office with Sinn Fein. There was an understanding when they did so that there would be decommissioning within weeks. As we all know, after more than just a few weeks—we are now well into February—that has not happened. It is deeply regrettable, but that is the position that the Secretary of State and the House are in.

Photo of Mr Brian Cotter Mr Brian Cotter Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that, if General de Chastelain and the commission were to say that a few more days after Friday could produce a result, that would be enough for a possible route forward?

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

I would need to study carefully the text of what General de Chastelain said. As we do not have the current report and we are not getting very far with his text today, I am not confident. I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). The people of Northern Ireland, the House and world opinion have been let down time and again. We have been strung along with promises, understandings and timetables that have not been kept. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I am not confident of believing anything short of decommissioning. I would need an awful lot of convincing, even from a report from the general—even if the Secretary of State chose to publish it.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP, North Down

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, from its inception with the Downing street declaration, the understanding that only parties totally committed to peaceful and democratic methods could be included has been inherent in the process? From then on there has been a continuous resiling from that principle. It is perfectly in order for the democratic majority in Northern Ireland to say that we are not going to sit down in an institution of government that claims to be democratic with the political representatives of a paramilitary terrorist group.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

Over the past 18 months, the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) and I have clashed and disagreed over the Belfast agreement and its implementation, but on the point that he raises, we are probably as one. For no sustainable period can one have people who are inextricably linked to paramilitaries who are not decommissioning being Ministers in any part of a civilised democracy, such as the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. I like to think that I can carry the whole House with that view. That is precisely why we are supporting the Bill and why I have—for some weeks, after it became abundantly clear that decommissioning was unlikely—been urging the Secretary of State to suspend the Executive and the Assembly.

I hope that suspension will be for the shortest period possible and that pressure will be put on the paramilitaries—so-called loyalist and republican—to decommission. I hope also that the House will send a clear and unanimous message to the men of violence that there is no way they will ever achieve their objectives; the right way forward is through the democratic process; and that they have real opportunities, through the Assembly and the Executive, to be part of that process at last. They will not easily be forgiven by the people of Northern Ireland if they do not grasp that opportunity quickly. The eyes of the world will be on them. I hope and pray that they are listening.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Many right hon. and hon. Members requested at a late stage to speak in this debate. I therefore make the plea for contributions to be brief.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major Conservative, Huntingdon 5:06 pm, 8th February 2000

During the last 10 years or so, this House of democrats has taken a great deal on trust from the present Government and its predecessor Government over Northern Ireland. It is clear from the Secretary of State's speech that we must take a certain amount on trust again today. In the present circumstances, I hope that the House will be prepared to do so.

This is a Bill that no one wished to see. Over the years, great progress has been made—old hatreds disentangled and old opponents working together in a way quite unprecedented at any time during recent years in Ireland. Nationalism and Unionism have learned a great deal, one about the other, as they have worked together over the past months. As a result, for a period the guns have been silenced, peace has had a chance, and for many everyday people of Northern Ireland a hope was born that previously was not there. Almost at the final hurdle, there is a stumble and optimism turns to despair.

There are three possible outcomes to the present impasse. The happy outcome is that there will be a change of heart and decommissioning will begin. I hope for that outcome profoundly, but it is unlikely in the short term. I certainly do not expect it in the next few days.

The unhappy outcome is that the old antagonisms will return in full flood and the murder, mayhem, killing and bombing will recommence. I do not expect that outcome either, although fringe groups—as, tragically, we have seen over the past few days—may return to violence, as they may have done even if the process had continued and proved successful. There have always been those wishing the process to fail for political reasons. There have always been those wishing it to fail because they hide straightforward criminality under the guise of a political struggle.

The third possible outcome is the one that I expect. There will be an uneasy time ahead—while political effort continues in London, Belfast and Dublin—as a way out of the box in which we find ourselves is sought. Today's decision by the House will offer time for that work to go ahead.

The box is well understood by all right hon. and hon. Members. Arms are not being decommissioned. Why not? If it is because the paramilitaries—and on this occasion, I mean especially the IRA—have an undiminished appetite for a united Ireland at all costs and by any means, the future is a good deal more uncertain than anyone in the House would wish it to be. However, they must have realised—or this process would not have made the progress that it has—that 25 years of violence have not delivered to them the objectives that they sought. There have been enough signs that there are those in the IRA and Sinn Fein who seek a political path for the future, not a violent path.

The sensible democrat helps the embryonic democrat to find the way to democracy. That is what London, Dublin and Belfast have been doing for years, with the active involvement of the democratic political parties on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland. I hope, at this moment of difficulty, that we do not underestimate the progress that has been made, or what exists still to build upon, even if our present ambitions fall apart in our hands. It is at least possible—and there were times when I thought that it was not possible but probable—that the leaders of Sinn Fein and the IRA are prepared to begin decommissioning, but do not know how, or do not have the courage, the confidence or the support of their movements at this moment to do so.

Some time ago, when we heard from the Government talk of a seismic shift, I assumed that private commitments had been given. That was a reasonable assumption that I was not alone in making. Either that was careless talk, which I doubt, or the Government were misled. In either event, it is clear that, sadly, the seismic shift has not taken place. Let us consider why that might be. It is not an easy proposition, but I invite hon. Members to try to put themselves in the minds of the IRA to appreciate the dilemma as the IRA sees it. It may be instructive to do so. This House of democrats does not agree with the IRA, but it is instructive to try to understand its perspective, for it is always useful to see into the mind of the people with whom one is dealing. Understanding of that sort is never pointless.

Decommissioning is not just the decision of one or two leaders of Sinn Fein or the IRA; it is a much more difficult decision to obtain. It requires the consent of the army council of the IRA and a full meeting of so-called volunteers—including those whom I mentioned a moment ago for whom criminality has been a way of life for the best part of the last quarter of a century. That is a difficult proposition to deliver, although it is absolutely necessary and we must continue to demand it.

It is for that reason that, last week, I asked the Secretary of State if the leaders of Sinn Fein or the IRA had been invited by the Government or anyone else to place a proposal for decommissioning before the army council of the IRA, so that we could see the response. To be diplomatic, the Secretary of State was opaque in the answer that he declined to give me. That is a pity, although I do not press him again, as his silence was eloquent enough. It is a pity, because his answer would have been informative to those of us having to take a decision today in considering the correct policies to follow tomorrow.

The great need, after today, is to stick the glue around what has been achieved and to make sure that it does not slip away even though the final hurdle at the moment has not been jumped. It may be that the leaders of the IRA never intended to disarm at all. If that is the case, in my judgment they misled the nationalist community as well as everybody else. Decommissioning does matter, because both traditions in Northern Ireland need the assurance of peace in the long term that only decommissioning can bring. It is a tragedy that it is not at present being delivered.

Now, of course, the leaders of Sinn Fein say that decommissioning was never offered as part of the Belfast agreement, and even have the temerity to be offensive to the Secretary of State when he speaks critically of their position. The right hon. Gentleman will have to bear the occasional criticism, because, as I can tell him, it goes with the job. He had better learn to like it, because it will continue to do so. When the leaders of Sinn Fein or the IRA speak in that fashion, we should bear in mind that they are addressing their hardliners as much as they are addressing everybody else. We should not fall into the trap of giving those hardliners the opportunity of making life even more difficult for the leaders and hence for the process.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP, North Down

Does the right hon. Gentleman forget that the highest echelons of security information state that at least four high-ranking members of Sinn Fein are also members of the seven-man IRA military council?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major Conservative, Huntingdon

I am well aware of the inter-relationship. I neither confirm nor deny security information, and the hon. and learned Gentleman must stand on his own comments. Suffice it to say that the interrelationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA is long-standing. We cannot, even the hon. and learned Gentleman cannot—I wish we could—see into the minds of those people and know truly what their objectives are and whether they are seeking to bring a movement towards peace or seeking to pull the wool over our eyes. I do not know the answer to that and neither does the hon. and learned Gentleman. He may have his suspicions—we all do—but we do not know. If there is no intention of disarming, we will have to continue to look for other ways to deal with the problem, and that will become apparent in the weeks and months ahead.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider one other possibility? Whatever Semtex is handed in, those we are dealing with would want more. If they gave everything in, they could cancel the agreement and we would be back where we started. In looking into the minds of those we are dealing with, we have to consider the possibility of obstacle after obstacle being raised and none of them being satisfied. Therefore, there may be an element of suspicion apart from the desire to reunite Ireland, which nobody thinks is possible, because neither the north or south wants it.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major Conservative, Huntingdon

I am familiar with the argument that people could go out and buy more Semtex, but one of the aspects of a wholesale decommissioning is that the IRA disarmed is not a sustainable organisation. The disarmament of the IRA amounts to its disbandment. Other fringe groups, such as Continuity IRA—the present IRA is, after all, a fringe group of an earlier body—may return to violence, but once there is wholesale disarmament we will be in a different position, including politically. In that case, no one could doubt that there was no sympathy in any part of any community—as in the past there has been—for the activities of the men of violence. It would be straightforward criminality in everyone's mind, not just in the minds of democrats such as the right hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members, and it could be dealt with in that fashion. Once there is a general level of decommissioning, there would be a complete sea change, even if some people then moved to fringe groups and rearmed themselves.

The question we must face is where we go from the present situation. The Bill establishes the power to adopt direct rule which, sadly, is inevitable and will, barring some extraordinary turn of events, be adopted by the House today and brought into effect over the next few days. Many gloomy words have been said and written about the present impasse and I share the despair that the Bill is necessary and that the promises we thought were made have not been kept. However, even as we despair over that, I hope that we do not carry our despair too far. In our own interests and those of Northern Ireland, we should seek to preserve the gains of recent years, which are substantial.

London and Dublin working together is a sharp change from what happened in the past. The end of the sterile debate of the past is another welcome change. The much greater political engagement across the board that has been brought about is, again, of immeasurable proportions in our understanding, especially when one considers how much distrust and fear have fuelled Northern Irish politics for so long. We need to ensure that the political process continues in some state—albeit, perhaps, abbreviated. Talks should certainly continue, to cement the improved relationship and prevent a return to the political barricades.

Even if this process does, for the time being, falter, as it seems about to do, in parallel with moves to resurrect it the Government are not powerless in the measures that they can take to continue to give hope and optimism to Northern Ireland. Very serious pockets of economic difficulty exist on both sides of the divide, in Unionist and Catholic areas, and they should continue to be tackled vigorously. Often, the grievance that has sustained the paramilitaries has been an economic grievance of people who felt that they were outside the system and believed that they were being represented best by men who were actually representing only their own violent interests. Removing that grievance would deny them the oxygen of support.

In the absence of an Executive, if that is to be a continuing position—which I profoundly hope it is not—the Government might wish to look at the devolution of more powers directly to local government. The concrete achievements of the past decade can certainly be built on.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. Friend has talked about things that we can do to give a positive sense of movement. Would he also consider the alternative approach of imposing sanctions? I refer to the release of prisoners. It seems hard to continue with that policy while the IRA refuses to disarm in any sense.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major Conservative, Huntingdon

My right hon. and learned Friend approaches the point that I was about to make, albeit slightly differently. The Secretary of State spoke of confidence building and the role of prisoner release. He may also—I cannot remember—have mentioned the proposed reforms of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As the right hon. Gentleman said—and I agree with him on this point—confidence building is two-way; it is not one-way. Democracy cannot continue to offer incentives if there is no response to the incentives that are being offered. Without decommissioning, the concessions that have been made by democracy will have to be re-examined to see whether they are still appropriate in the changed circumstance of there being no decommissioning and no immediate sign that decommissioning will commence in the short term.

We should pass the Bill today, without enthusiasm, but we should pass it none the less. As we do so, it is important in the language used here, which finds its echoes outside, that we do not return, and do not encourage other people to return, to the trenches of the past. The message that I hope will go out from the House today is that, notwithstanding the difficulties and disappointments that we are facing, we are still looking for a durable peace that will offer Northern Ireland the ease of mind and security that we on the mainland so easily take for granted. As the Secretary of State searches for that, he deserves our tolerance and support, and I hope that he will receive it.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 5:24 pm, 8th February 2000

Like the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), I had hoped that it would not be necessary to bring a Bill such as this before the House. Obviously, when we took the risks that we took at the end of November, we hoped that they would wholly succeed. I am disappointed that we are facing the consequences of the failure of the hopes with which we embarked just over two months ago.

Since last March, there has been an effective stalemate in the development of the political process in Northern Ireland and the implementation of the Good Friday agreement on an issue that is not only about guns, but is, at heart, about whether people are genuinely committed to peaceful means and the democratic process. Last March, Mr. Adams, the person returned to serve as the Member for Belfast, West, but who has not done so, coined the phrase that we should "jump together". In subsequent months, we tried many times to explore with him precisely what he meant. In the event, we never achieved absolute clarity on that point.

None the less, towards the end of the Mitchell review, and in light of the discussions and the understandings arrived at during that process, we decided to jump first. That was not an easy decision to make. One of the great, and soundly based, fears of members of my party and of people in Northern Ireland who have seen what has happened over the years was that they would be sucked into a process and strung along again and again. It became clear to me as we approached the decision taken by the Ulster Unionist council on 27 November that we should not achieve a positive decision unless we addressed that fear of being strung along. We would not achieve a positive decision unless some clear floor were placed beneath the process. That we did, in the letters written by me and my ministerial colleagues and in the council's decision to reconvene to take a final decision.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

No.

That resolution to meet again in February did not set a precondition or a deadline. It was simply the decision of a democratic party to meet to consider the situation. We put no precise requirement in front of anyone, and we did not say, "You must do this or that." As a democratic party, we exercised our right to meet and consider the situation.

February was chosen for the simple reason that a clear understanding existed following the Mitchell review that the sequence being put in train would run until January. The existence of that clear understanding was brought into the public domain when, on 12 December, General de Chastelain issued his second report, which, I am happy to say, the Government published within a matter of minutes of receiving it. In that report, General de Chastelain said that he would make a further report in January.

That sequence could not have surprised anyone. It was basically the same as the sequence contained in the Prime Minister's proposals of last July—"The Way Forward". Those proposals were underpinned by exactly the same arrangements and expectations with regard to decommissioning as were contained in the Mitchell review.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The right hon. Gentleman is better able than most to answer the question that I wish to ask. The IRA has made it plain, in terms, that it has no present intent to decommission. Yet the right hon. Gentleman and many others believe that they were at some stage given undertakings to the contrary. What undertakings were given to him on decommissioning, and by whom?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I do not know that it would be helpful to explore that question in detail, but I shall do so in general terms. It was clearly said to us that, by jumping first, we would create the best possible circumstances in which to achieve decommissioning. That assurance was given in a statement issued by Sinn Fein, which said that it was committed to achieving it. The IRA issued a statement—in the public domain—accepting the leadership of Sinn Fein. No concrete guarantee was given. None the less, we were told that those were the best circumstances in which to achieve decommissioning.

In turn, we responded by saying that, if we moved first—to create the optimum conditions—we could sustain that for only a limited period. The capacity of the parties to move and to sustain what they were doing was discussed at great length. There was no misunderstanding about that whatever; if we took the initiative, we could sustain it only for a limited period. There was a clear understanding by all the parties that that time would run out by the end of January. On that, there was, and can be, no misunderstanding at all.

It was further expressly agreed—indeed, the proposition was first put by the republicans themselves—that, if we went forward in that way only to see things collapse a few months later, it would be a bad outcome. I took that to be a clear indication of their intent to proceed. In that situation, we knew that we were giving people an opportunity—in their own description, it was the best opportunity—but one that carried a challenge and a test.

I am amazed that, when we reached the end of January, not only had no actual decommissioning occurred, but no concrete gesture had been made at all by the republican movement. No one can be sure until we see the detail of the de Chastelain report, but, as far as I am aware, nothing of substance was put on the table; that continues to be the case. I was, and continue to be, amazed that, having encouraged us to create the situation, the republican movement made no positive response.

Given the situation that existed at the end of November and the beginning of December, the republicans can have been in no doubt—nor could any reasonable person—that reciprocation formed part of the understandings; that it was expected; and that the failure to reciprocate would carry consequences. We proceeded "to jump first", but we did so on the basis of certain understandings. The failure of events to develop as we had hoped has falsified the basis on which we proceeded, and clearly makes it impossible for us to continue in the false position in which we now find ourselves. It is, therefore, necessary to reconsider and unwind the matter.

The Secretary of State will remember the statements that he made in November, when he made it clear that, in the event of a failure by republicans to reciprocate, the Government would intervene. He knows the extent to which we relied on those assurances at that time. Similar assurances were forthcoming from the Irish Government; the right hon. Gentleman repeated them in his statement to the House last Thursday. The Irish Government know the extent to which we relied on their assurances when we took our decision.

We have reached the end of January and seen no reciprocation, so it is necessary that the assurances given by the British and Irish Governments are put in train. That would have to be done irrespective of the meetings that will take place on Saturday. Indeed, one might argue that the assurances should have been put in train sooner than this; the reason that nothing was done sooner is that the Irish Government are hoping against hope that something will emerge.

In case my comment sounds a little ungracious, I give the Irish Government credit for the massive efforts being made by Ministers and officials to persuade the republicans to do something—even at this last stage. However, I have to add some cautionary words. It is my understanding that the Irish Government are pressing the republican movement to give a commitment to decommission, and to say when it will do so. Those are the questions put by my colleague, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), in the House last Thursday. He asked the IRA to say whether it would decommission and when. The Irish Government are pressing for that commitment, but, as the Secretary of State said last Thursday, words are not enough; it is necessary to go beyond words.

Some people in the press are saying that, in the past, the method used by the IRA in similar situations was to dump their arms. It has been suggested that that might be sufficient in the present circumstances. However, may I say to the Secretary of State—in case he is not fully aware of it—that some very misleading impressions have been given about the dumping of arms? The instruction issued by the leadership of the IRA in, I think, 1925 to its members to dump arms was not an instruction to disarm, and no disarmament occurred. Arms were put in dumps, but they were put in them for future use.

I recommend that those who have any doubts about that read, or reread—I am sure that all hon. Members with an interest in such matters have already read it— Mr. Sean O'Callaghan's book on the subject. It is not necessary to read beyond the first chapter in which he describes how, in the late 1960s at the outset of civil disorder in Northern Ireland, he and a number of friends and relatives gathered together in a barn, got out their spades and shovels and proceeded to dig up the weapons that had been dumped a few decades ago. They discovered that they had not rusted—weapons do not rust if they are carefully stored—and they proceeded to clean them and dispatch them for murderous use in Northern Ireland. Dumping arms is a chimera.

Reality is the only thing that matters. We have legislation, we have schemes and we have a framework through the international commission. It was agreed in the Mitchell review that decommissioning should take place in and through the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and that that was the only way that it should be done.

There is excellent advice on the subject. Reference has been made to the fact that sources of the media, which in the past were favourable to republicanism, are now taking a different view. The Secretary of State referred to various editorials, and excellent advice appears in today's editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It asks why the IRA has not made a gesture and quotes one observer who said that, in the IRA's eyes, such a gesture would be symbolic of their being the bad guys". The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette adds that the right of the people of Northern Ireland to live in peace matters more than a fear by the IRA that disarmament might send the wrong signal. If these 'hard men' are worried about being perceived as the bad guys, they should live up to the spirit as well as the letter of the Good Friday Agreement and give up the guns. It is as simple as that.

On the other hand, I was glad to see that, in the IRA's statement issued on Saturday, it says that it poses no threat to the peace at present. I hope that that continues to be the case. We are, of course, disturbed by the explosion in Fermanagh and the fact that Continuity IRA, which had been thought to be quiescent, was responsible for that. I had the impression that the main threat from dissident republicans came from the Real IRA elements around Dundalk, but we now see that the elements around Fermanagh are also a threat. That underlines—as my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) would have reminded the Secretary of State had my hon. Friend been able to be here today—the need to maintain vigilance in Fermanagh. I am glad to see from the Secretary of State's reaction that he understands precisely the point that I make.

There is a serious threat not just from dissident republicans, but from other paramilitaries. May I commend to the Secretary of State the words on that point of the Irish Prime Minister, Mr. Ahern? In November last year in the Dail, he contemplated just this situation. If it became evident that people would not desist from their violence, he said that the only way to counteract such activity is to enforce the legislation in the toughest possible manner. The legislation to which the Taoiseach referred was emergency legislation in the Irish Republic that was duplicated by the United Kingdom. Since then, it has simply not been utilised at all. It is quite remarkable that we passed emergency legislation that has remained dormant even though there has been a clear need for it in some circumstances.

For a few minutes, I should like to look to the future. We are now faced with restoring direct rule. In doing that, we are doing two things. First, we are ending devolution. Secondly, we are introducing direct rule. That is not the second-best option, but the third because, between the first decision and the second, another option has been missed out, which is simply, after the end of devolution, to treat Northern Ireland as it ought to be treated in the procedures of the House, which is in the same way as anywhere else.

The status quo to which we should return is the status quo before devolution, which was one of normality. It is not desirable to reintroduce abnormal direct rule, which is not a healthy state of affairs for the operation of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

Is the right hon. Gentleman recommending to the House that the preferred option of his party is to go back to the old Stormont rule, before the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) suspended it and introduced direct rule?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

The right hon. Gentleman makes a mistake: Stormont was also devolution. If we are to go back to before devolution, we must go back to pre-1920, when Northern Ireland was treated in the House in exactly the same way as England, Wales and Scotland, as of course it ought to be. As a democrat, he would support a situation in which all citizens of the United Kingdom are treated equally. That is the only democratic course.

There are of course times when the exigencies of the situation mean that we have to agree on and operate procedures that are less than ideal, and we hope that this return to a less-than-ideal system will be limited. I referred to first-best, second-best and third-best options, and to avoid any doubt that the right hon. Gentleman might have, I make it clear that direct rule is the third-best option and treating Northern Ireland properly is the second best. The best of all is to see devolution succeed within the United Kingdom, and that is what we tried to do through the Belfast agreement and its implementation.

Photo of Mr William Thompson Mr William Thompson UUP, West Tyrone

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the process of returning to direct rule, as set out in the Bill, will again make citizens of Northern Ireland second-class citizens within the United Kingdom? In addition, it actively encourages those who wish to take Nor thern Ireland out of the United Kingdom to believe that Britain is not terribly committed to the Union and that they should keep going because eventually they will succeed.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I would prefer to describe the situation by saying that direct rule is inefficient and unresponsive to the interests and wishes of those who are being ruled. That has been clearly established by the way in which direct rule operated, and it is likely to be the case in future. We all hope that the interruption of devolution is temporary, but we must all be conscious of the fact that we are returning to the third-best option.

I remind the Secretary of State of the remarks that he made in Victoria college in November, when he said that, during any period of suspension, he would like to see what he could do to keep alive the spirit of devolution and to maintain some degree of political continuity between the devolution that we enjoy at present and that which we hope that we will enjoy again in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, while we are suspending the operation of devolution, it is right, as other hon. Members have said, to suspend other aspects of the agreement. As the Secretary of State knows, the suspension must apply not only to the Assembly, but to the associated North-South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council.

The suspension ought also, however, to relate to matters such as prisoner release and the Patten report. The Secretary of State knows that confidence in Northern Ireland was tremendously damaged by the Patten commission's ill-judged report on certain matters. People in Northern Ireland, particularly those whom I represent, will find it incomprehensible if the default by the republicans is glossed over and radical, deeply wounding changes to appease them continue to be introduced as if nothing has happened. I say to the Secretary of State that people will find inaction on that front and failure to suspend incomprehensible. He needs to think seriously about that in the coming weeks and months.

Hon. Members and others outside should make no mistake about our objective. While we consider it necessary to suspend the operation of the institutions and other aspects of the agreement, it is not our intention in any way to depart from the substance of that agreement. Indeed, we are acting in this way in order to preserve it, because failure so to act will lead to the entire agreement unravelling. The only way to ensure that the agreement is implemented in its entirety and its integrity is to take the present action.

If we proceed now to a review, my objective, and that of the Ulster Unionist party, will be to work for the restoration of devolution and the Executive on a sound basis, and that means resolving the present difficulty. That will be the objective towards which we shall work. In determining whether we can restore devolution on a sound basis, I and my colleagues will exercise our own judgment.

Just as we asked the Ulster Unionist council for approval before jumping first in November, we are asking the Ulster Unionist council to consider the situation and give its view on the matters on Saturday. Although I will not anticipate what the council may say and do on Saturday, it would be reasonable for it to say that, in the event of any move back to devolution, it will exercise its judgment on that as well.

People should not regard the present situation as a crisis. It is a difficulty. They should regard it not as the end of the hopes that the agreement engendered, but just as a problem that we will work through. It is important that we retain confidence in our ability to work through the problem. We should retain confidence that the hopes contained in the agreement will be fully realised.

I was heartened by words that I read in the Irish News this morning. I do not often refer to that paper with approval, but I do on this occasion. Beside the editorial, it had printed some words from Seamus Heaney, who wrote: There is a cynical definition of peace which says it is merely the suspension of war.One of the paradoxical blessings of the past two-and-a-half decades of Northern Ireland's history has been an emergent vision of peace as a creative condition in which cultural, political and doctrinal differences can be actively confessed and intelligently contested. It is the cynics who have used that distortion of peace and who are frustrating the development of the creative condition to which Mr. Heaney refers. It is our intention to try to develop that creative condition as well and as fast as we can.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh 5:48 pm, 8th February 2000

I want to begin where the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) left off. In its definition of peace, that quotation from Seamus Heaney owes something to Spinoza, but I would go a little further. Peace is not just the absence of war. It is an attitude of mind—a disposition towards benevolence, confidence and justice. Those three factors are worth remembering when we are seeking a definition of peace.

I am tempted to give my own definition of peace. It would be much less poetic and much less philosophical. It would be very basic: it would refer to the fact that we have been able to wake up each morning without having to listen to the bad news about who was killed the night before, how many were killed and where they were killed. That is my simple definition of peace.

I was impressed when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) asked us to do something that we seldom do: to try to get into the minds of other people. It is a worthwhile exercise, and I should like briefly to continue it. It is dangerous to ask rhetorical questions, but I want to pose one because I should like to gain an insight into people's minds. If there was not a Unionist party meeting scheduled for this weekend, and if resignation letters had not been written with that in mind, would the Bill be before the House now? I do not expect an answer, but I anticipate that most people who assess the question honestly will realise that, without those circumstances, we would not be considering the Bill, irrespective of the strong views in all parts of the House on decommissioning. That is the nub of the problem. I shall speak against suspension, despite the fact that I want decommissioning; indeed, I want it to happen as much as, and perhaps more than, other people.

I have been an elected politician in South Armagh for 30 years. I know at first hand the effects of guns and bombs, and the difficulties that such problems cause. I also have experience, going back 30 years, of suspensions. I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly that was "put on hold"—or, if one prefers not to use the euphemism, suspended. It was suspended on the understanding that it could be resumed. It was resumed; it took a quarter of a century to do it. We should all bear in mind the fact that suspension or putting on hold do not guarantee a speedy resolution of the problem.

I oppose suspension because things are different now. The institutions are beginning to work. Let me give an anecdote to illustrate that. I stood at a window in Stormont last week and watched droves of farmers driving up to the building for a mass meeting to lobby the Executive about agriculture and the problems of agriculture. Twenty-six years ago, a similar mass lobby took place—with some of the same people and even some of the same tractors and lorries: except that those people came then to topple the devolution that existed. The two lobbies encapsulate the change that has occurred.

For good or ill, we are dicing with those changes. I do not want to pre-empt anything, but the mental image of those fanners, many of them the same people who participated in the last lobby, and of the change that has taken place, makes me wonder whether the arguments for suspension are sustainable.

Photo of Mr William Thompson Mr William Thompson UUP, West Tyrone

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman remembers that there was a similar farmers' demonstration to Stormont 25 years ago. Different sections of the community spoke to them then.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

It is ingrained on my memory. It happened during the pig crisis. As a result of it, I, with others, came to the Palace of Westminster to lobby the then Agriculture Minister on behalf of the pig industry. I made a quiet resolution that day that I would never return here to lobby an Agriculture Minister because we were treated so dismissively. We now have a Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland, and we are dicing with the potential that that creates.

My second main reason for opposing suspension is that it seems abundantly clear that the chances of decommissioning will be greatly reduced if the institutions do not exist or function. I am not considering who will win the argument, who will lose or not lose face, but the achievement of decommissioning. If suspension occurs, and the institutions are not in place, will decommissioning not be immeasurably more difficult to obtain?

The Secretary of State and other hon. Members referred to George Mitchell's review. On his last day in Northern Ireland after the review, Senator Mitchell said that we could guarantee one thing: without the political institutions, decommissioning would not occur. Those are George Mitchell's words, not those of anyone in the nationalist community. It is incumbent on people to answer the following question: if the institutions are removed, how will the process towards decommissioning take place? I shall return to that point later.

The third reason for opposing suspension is that it plays into the hands of those who oppose the agreement. Many of them are present in the Chamber; some are members of the party led by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. Those people will gain satisfaction from suspension. I would never suggest that they might gloat about it, but they would wear the sort of smile that I can already see. Will that help the Ulster Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann or the process in which we are all involved?

My fourth point about suspension is that there is no such thing as a soft landing. That is a fact of political life, and I have experienced enough hard landings to know it. However contrived, and whatever the machinations, when a governmental institution comes to an end, there is no such thing as a soft landing, and we should not assume that putting such an institution on hold will create one. Some people cling to and propagate the notion that suspension will not really be suspension, that the word is used only for parliamentary purposes, that the event will be feather-bedded in some way and that all sorts of contrivances will sustain the institution. The harsh reality of life is that it cannot and it will not. People will find that out fairly quickly and I believe that we would all be well advised to realise that while we are making this decision.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument clearly, although I do not necessarily agree with it. However, if he wants the structures and institutions of devolution to be maintained, why is he not basing his case on section 23 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 whereby, with cross-community support, there could be exclusion rather than suspension?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intrusion. I mean to use that word, because he is suggesting once again that we tear up the Good Friday or Belfast agreement—whichever people want to call it—and do away with inclusiveness.

This goes to the heart of the hon. Gentleman's question: a reason why we are talking about suspension is that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann—or, to be impersonal, the First Minister—and the Deputy First Minister would not be returned on the basis of cross-community support in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The reason for that is that there are those in the Ulster Unionist party who would not vote for the First Minister. I can reasonably assume that if they would not vote for their own party leader they would not vote for a nationalist nominee for Deputy First Minister

I may be wrong of course, but I would dearly like to put that to the test for this reason: the right hon. Gentleman and I have had a very difficult two years—especially on that issue, which I shall come to—but the only people outside extreme Unionism in all parties who did not vote for either of us when we were elected First Minister and Deputy First Minister were supporters of Sinn Fein. People keep forgetting that, but I would like to challenge Sinn Fein and those in the Ulster Unionist party and other parties who have taken that stance and go back into the Assembly on the strength of a mandate that could never again be challenged. That is what is at stake here; that is what we are doing.

May I refer to last Sunday's bomb in Irvinestown? I am speaking at a public meeting there on Friday night. I am glad that the hotel is still there. This is not the first occasion; it has been bombed many times. I say to the House, with all the power of conviction that I have, that in a political vacuum those who carry out that type of activity thrive, and nihilism comes to the fore. I fully understand the profound disappointment and impatience of Members of the House. I share it. I share the views of the right hon. Gentleman, my colleague, and many in his party, but I ask them to understand that decommissioning is not a Unionist issue or a Conservative party issue. It is an issue for all who want a new future. I believe that we should all bear in mind the fact that that is being said not only by the Social Democratic and Labour party, but by every party in the Republic of Ireland—every one. Every party that I have been in touch with and know well shares that view. It is the position of the Government here, the Government in Dublin, the Government of the United States and the Government of every single country in Europe.

In the run-up to the signing of the Good Friday agreement, we had a remarkably long debate about the right of self-determination of the Irish people. They have self-determined that no group on the island of Ireland should hold illegal weapons. Who has the right to stand in the way of the voice of the Irish people when they have self-determined that issue? I repeat that I appreciate that members of the Ulster Unionist party and the wider Unionist community who have supported the agreement all along believe that they have been placed unfairly in a very difficult position. I believe that they have. I believe that they are right to think that. Most people in Northern Ireland with an ounce of common sense believe that, too, but I ask them again coolly to assess—even at this point of difficulty—where their deepest interests lie. Suspension by freezing the institutions will also, I am afraid, freeze our hope of ever resolving this issue.

I want to sound a note of caution. To me, suspension means just that, and no feather-bedding. When we are all suspended, if we are, who will remain key players—the key players? Who will come to the doors of the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the President? Not the ex-Deputy First Minister and, after a short time, not the ex-First Minister nor any Member of the House. I offer one guess, and they will not be knocking—they will be invited. Whatever the context, this issue has to be resolved. Whether we like it or not, George Mitchell was right in his review and Patrick Mayhew was right when he said the same thing in the House: decommissioning is a voluntary act and will only be done voluntarily. That is the harsh reality that we all have to live with, but it is a fact. Ultimately, in a political vacuum, those who carry the guns carry with them the type of influence that politics and politicians do not have.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I want to extract some additional wisdom from him before he finishes his speech. Can the Government do anything to give additional impetus to the decommissioning process, bearing in mind that his constituency contains many of those who are most eloquent about their deficiencies in facilitating it, or is there nothing we can do to move it on?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that pertinent question, which I admit is difficult to answer. Let me answer in these terms: the last thing I would do is let those who hold the arms off the hook. They are under pressure, but please do not overestimate the power of public opinion here, in Ireland or abroad. It swings like a pendulum. Why are they under pressure? Because there is a General de Chastelain, an international decommissioning body and pressure to have this issue dealt with. My answer to the hon. Gentleman is "Don't throw away that card."

A second answer is that even the IRA thesis and the Sinn Fein thesis is that only in the full workings of the institutions will the voluntary act of decommissioning be made. If we take away the workings of those institutions, do we not substantially leave them with the main plank of their argument? I do not want to see those who hold arms having the freedom to move outside of either the political process or the requirement to deal with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

The hon. Gentleman may recall that it is 30 years since a group of younger Labour MPs went to see him in Northern Ireland, long before he became an MP. Is he speaking for most of his serious constituents in what he says?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I have no doubt that I am speaking on behalf of the vast majority of people who would be termed "nationalists" within the island of Ireland. I am not speaking on behalf of those within the republican movement who somehow or other see merit in holding illegal arms, nor do I wish to speak on their behalf. But I suggest I am speaking on behalf of some republicans, perhaps many, who want this issue resolved as much as we do, and have not the capacity to do it.

I appreciate the extraordinary difficulties that we all face in the current situation. I know that the Secretary of State and all hon. Members are acting in good faith, confronted as we are with a terrible dilemma. I appreciate the work which has been done by the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs on this issue, and which will continue to be done. We should all think very carefully, and be very honest with ourselves, when we look at the issue of suspension. I would also urge the republican leadership to take the initiative, by allowing General de Chastelain to report meaningful progress to resolve this crisis. We all share a collective responsibility for doing so, but they hold the key.

I should like to pose one or two questions to the Secretary of State so that I may be given information in his winding-up speech. The answers are not clear from the legislation itself—nor could I be clear about the discretionary powers of the Secretary of State that are not in the legislation.

The first question concerns the north-south implementation bodies. Has a treaty been negotiated with the Irish Government regarding them? If so, may we be informed of the nature of that treaty? Could it be made available to Members of this House and Members of the Assembly?

My second question is posed without any rancour, because I agree with the Secretary of State that publishing the de Chastelain report as of now would not be the most beneficial thing to do. Obviously, it is deficient. My question has three parts. Is default, in relation to decommissioning, default of the terms of the Good Friday agreement, default of an Ulster Unionist party deadline, or default of the terms of the Mitchell review? The answer might be the first, second or third, but if we had it, we would at least be clear where the default lies, if there is default definable—and I mean "definable".

How will any review subsequent to suspension be structured? By whom will it be chaired? Will it be chaired by the two Governments? Will it be chaired by one Government? Its structure and how it is handled will be crucially important, because we cannot—and I will not on behalf of our party—have the same type of circumstances as we had in the last review. I have spoken to the Secretary of State privately about that, and will do so again.

The remit of General de Chastelain's commission ends on 22 May this year. Will it be extended? Will he and the other commissioners agree to remain? That is a crucial question for all of us. Or does the Secretary of State envisage another agency—any agency other than the international commission—to carry out this work? Those questions go to the heart of the problem. I finish with a salutary reminder to all of us. The document that I hold in my hand is the Good Friday agreement. Let nothing that we do in this House deviate from it or damage it. Let it not be played with—before a review, during a review or after a review—because playing with it would mean that we were playing not just with the present but with the welfare of the future.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

The peace process was never going to be easy—we all knew that—so, although disappointing, it is not all that surprising that we are here again discussing the matter today. One thing that has defined the last two years in Northern Ireland's history is the regularity with which core issues have been brought forward and had to be faced, sometimes for the first time.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) said that optimism turns to despair. I have a slightly different view. I think that, in Northern Ireland, optimism turns to frustration, because if Northern Ireland has one quality in abundance it is passion, energy and enthusiasm. The challenge now is to make sure that what we are discussing today does not convert that passion into something that has a negative impact on the process as a whole. Both the challenge and the reward of the process are that it has forced us to focus on key problems that have been around for decades—or even centuries in some cases.

Decommissioning is the issue on the agenda, but I ask the House to recall the context. We have had similar very heated debates about relations between the north and the south of the island of Ireland, relations between Dublin and Westminster, the status of Northern Ireland in the UK, prisoner releases and, indeed, the use of violence itself. It is not new for us to have these tremendously challenging impasses, nor is it new for us to find a way forward.

In that context, we need to recognise that this does not need to be an insuperable barrier. Recent statements from those speaking for the IRA would indicate that the ceasefire is intact and robust, and is set to remain so, despite the horrendous actions of some dissident hardliners in recent days.

The process of peace continues. This is a vital element in any assessment of where we must go from here. As we have seen many times before, it takes some pretty tough talking to make progress at times like this. If there is one thing that hon. Members and Ministers have learned, it is that one cannot bluff Northern Ireland politicians; one must say what one means and do what one says. Sometimes when there has been an element of brinkmanship, the House has come off worse. That is why we are debating the Bill today.

The Liberal Democrats have consistently been enthusiastic and, I hope, constructive supporters of the Good Friday agreement. We have worked in a co-operative, cross-party way both here and in Northern Ireland to try to achieve its full implementation. As I told the House in November, I have considered it a great honour to be here at this time, as power has been devolved to the Province. It is also very saddening that, only 10 weeks later, we are in the Chamber again—this time to see the making of decisions that effectively suspend the devolved institution. This also shows that there can be no doubt of the importance of decommissioning and that, as we approach the second anniversary of the Good Friday agreement referendum, the problem will have to be resolved. I agree with something that the Secretary of State said earlier: that this is an elegant solution to the political challenges facing Northern Ireland. The elegant solution, however, can work only if we get past a very inelegant and almost intractable problem.

Throughout the peace process, the Liberal Democrats have never accepted that the process of decommissioning should be a precondition for anything else. I take issue with something said by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who is not present now. He said that we would be much further down the track had we listened to his views on the link between prisoner releases and decommissioning. He is entitled to that opinion, as is his party, but I do not agree. I feel that linking releases with decommissioning constitutes a renegotiation of the Good Friday agreement.

That point is debatable. It is not primarily a point of principle; it is a question of looking at the Good Friday agreement and establishing the facts. It would not be helpful to debate the point at this stage. We must move forward and establish that there is no link, and that we should view decommissioning in the context of the promises made in the Good Friday agreement and of the 22 May deadline.

Let me turn to a much more important issue. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) described his own problem very lucidly. It seems to me that the strong perception of the Unionists is that they jump first and they jump far, and at this point they need something back. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann certainly feels that he needs something back. He has taken his party on an awesome strategic journey, way beyond what I thought possible a couple of years ago. However, as all Members know, one of the basic rules of politics is that it is possible to go only so far: one can build a bridge only so far across a river before the whole thing is in danger of collapsing into the water. That is one reason why it is important for the Unionists to see the bridge being extended further from the other side of the river.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) rightly said that huge steps had been taken by the republican movement. We now see a gap in the middle—a gap that I would call decommissioning. That, however, does not detract from the fact that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann has said, in effect, "I really cannot go any further until we see a profound and substantial breakthrough on decommissioning".

The problem is that, at this stage, people are not confident that decommissioning will take place by 22 May. We need a guarantee that that is the game plan. I do not believe that the guns themselves are as important as the commitment that violence has gone for good. It could be said that the whole debate is less about the decommissioning of guns and bombs than about the decommissioning of an attitude. That is my interpretation, and all sides appear to agree with it. Indeed, all sides seem to agree that the guns and bombs are the vehicle for a resolution of the issue.

On 16 November last year, Gerry Adams issued the following statement: Sinn Fein accepts that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process". There are many other examples of republican spokespeople reaffirming their commitment to the decommissioning process. Most importantly, however, the people of Ireland, north and south, have expressed their desire for decommissioning in their vote and in subsequent statements.

Given that nearly everyone agrees that peace is the way forward, and that the decommissioning of guns and bombs is symbolic of the acceptance of peaceful progress, the question must be "What are we waiting for?" What is the key objection? Notwithstanding all the claims that this or that paramilitary organisation did not personally sign the Good Friday agreement, we need to live in the real world. The connections exist: they have already been described in the House, and we are all well aware of them. We need to acknowledge that many speaking for the paramilitary organisations have accepted in spirit that, sooner or later, the guns must go. If that analysis is correct, we are arguing not about whether to decommission but about when, and about the process that is necessary to achieve that end.

One or two speakers have pointed out that the Good Friday agreement featured no process for decommissioning, and that we should put one in place now. This debate must be about achieving decommissioning within the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which means full decommissioning by 22 May; to say more than that could fairly be called renegotiation. Again, the sticking point is attitude. Unless we see some movement now, people will continue not to feel confident about the achievement of the 22 May deadline.

It has been claimed that there have been eight or 10 weeks for progress to be made. In this regard, however, there has been some movement. My view is slightly different from that of earlier speakers. During the review process, de Chastelain stressed that if decommissioning was to be completed by May, it would need to begin as soon as possible. The IRA appointed an official representative to liaise with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning immediately after devolution, at the beginning of December. Two months later, we would expect that, if actual decommissioning had not occurred, the discussions would be at an advanced stage, but as far as I know they have not gone as far as many of us would like. If we are to pass the Bill, we must be satisfied that it will help not just in raising the issue of decommissioning, but in resolving the problem of decommissioning in the medium term.

Let me return to some important points made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, who clearly considers that passing the Bill would be detrimental. He spoke of his fears about the potential ending of devolution and the possibility that, if we suspend the Assembly, it will never return. The community that he represents may share his view. Those people probably genuinely feel that if the institutions stop, they will not start again. Not everyone will feel that, but a proportion will. They fear that the whole devolution process—the whole Good Friday agreement—will have succeeded in repealing articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, but will have achieved nothing of substance for the nationalist and republican communities and their aspirations. They probably fear that it is all about to end.

I remember seeing frightening political developments on the television in about 1974, when I was a kid. I was frightened, without fully understanding the dynamics, because I did not know where Northern Ireland was going, and I lived there. I was scared for myself, and for my parents. Whether or not we agree with the analysis of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, we must respect the fact that people in Northern Ireland have genuine fears. Unless the Government handle those fears sensitively, there may be a political cost, as well as a social cost in the creation of stress and other negative emotions.

We are probably doing the right thing by passing the Bill, but, to me, the crucial import of the speech of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was that the Government must not ride roughshod over the concerns expressed in those communities. I ask the Minister and the Government to consider seriously what confidence measures they can take if they decide to revoke the Bill. If they do not take such measures, there may well be a negative repercussion in terms of support for the whole process in some nationalist and republican communities.

We embarked on an important and interesting thought experiment today. Both the right hon. Member for Huntingdon and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh encouraged us to see the situation from the perspective of the republican paramilitaries. In a political sense, we have not done enough of that. We do not have to agree with someone to try to understand their point of view, but we have to understand someone's point of view before we can move to agreements with those people.

Many of the people involved in paramilitary activity are individuals of strong character and tremendous spirit in terms of making hard decisions. Perhaps what we are really asking them to do today is to make a decision in a different way from in the past. It is only human for them to think about the risks of decommissioning and to feel uncomfortable about the symbolism that it involves, but I hope that they will recognise that there is a cost to their communities personally in not decommissioning.

Those people will have worries. We all have worries when we make such decisions, but it is almost as if, at this point in the process, a set of master keys has been passed around the various bodies, organisations and leading politicians in Northern Ireland. Now the master key that must be used is in the hands of those very people—the former terrorists in Northern Ireland. The Unionists have had to unlock many gates and so have the nationalists. Now the key rests in the hands of those republicans. Most worrying, there is no other way to the next stage. We all wait at the gate, unable to move further until that key is turned.

Therefore, my message to the paramilitaries, who no doubt assiduously read our debates in Hansard, is to think about whether they can muster the same courage that they have displayed in other areas of their activities and to do it in a different way. Yes, they will feel fear about what is being called for, but I ask them to do it anyway.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh made a very interesting point about where we might be heading in the next few weeks. It was about despair. We can avoid the despair and everything that goes with it if the people who have prompted us to have this debate decide to act courageously. I know that some of these terrorists have genuinely regarded themselves as freedom fighters, as defenders of their communities. I do not have to condone their actions to acknowledge that a number of those people also display those great strengths, but, if they can see the sense of purpose that led them to those activities and if they can remember why they did it in the first place—I am talking not about the criminals, but about those who would genuinely claim that they were politically motivated—I ask them to have the courage to try a new way. They can make the Bill irrelevant and ensure that it is never enacted, if they act swiftly and provide the sort of guarantees that clearly are needed by members of the Northern Ireland community. In that sense, they can convert themselves from being cold war warriors—an echo of a distant way of doing things in Northern Ireland—to sentinels for a more peaceful future.

I understand why we have got here, but I do not like the Bill and I hope that the Government never have to enact it. I hope that, if they do end up enacting it, they take seriously the sensitivities of the communities that I have described, which are extremely nervous about the measure. Above all, I hope that the Bill is made irrelevant by those cold war warriors finally deciding that it is worth their while to take the sort of risk that everyone has to take as well, and to finish the bridge from where we were to where we will be. I can promise that they will then be regarded as heroes by many people, both in the Chamber and in their communities.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 6:34 pm, 8th February 2000

I have a certain deep feeling as I stand here. As someone who, for four years, had responsibility for direct rule in Northern Ireland and had to suspend the previous Assembly, I take no pleasure whatever in contributing to the debate on the Bill. I am under no illusions that what we are being asked to approve tonight is a thoroughly unattractive alternative and that it would be infinitely preferable if, even in the last remaining hours or days, a way could be found in which to meet the legitimate concerns of those who are concerned about decommissioning and to keep the Assembly, which has been so painfully and carefully constructed over all these years—one cannot calculate how many years of work have contributed to where we have got to now. Clearly, it took a major shock to the system before the Government, who, like the previous Government, have worked hard to get an Assembly, introduced such a measure.

We had a not entirely satisfactory exchange with the Secretary of State about the de Chastelain report. Initially, it was suggested that it was not just British property; it was Irish property as well. Subsequently, it emerged that it was jointly agreed not to publish it and that it would not have been helpful.

I do not think there is any great secret in the House about the report. The Secretary of State made the position clear. He asked what the answers were to the three questions: whether, when and by what means there should be decommissioning. I think that his actual words were that there was no certainty, or there was uncertainty, on all those issues. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) was concerned about the matter.

The only point that I disagreed with in the speech by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) was his suggestion that the remarks of George Mitchell showed the way forward. The remarks of George Mitchell preceded General de Chastelain's second or third report. His third report is clearly the blockbuster because it has raised again all the fears as to whether there is any intention whatever to decommission.

It is not that we have reached 21 months and have been slow starting, but that, at the 21-month point, there is still not even any knowledge about whether there will be any decommissioning at all. That is the gravity of the present situation and the feeling. It comes as no surprise to me.

Some Members may have been at the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body on the day that the Downing street declaration was signed. The issue came up in the afternoon. In the general welcome that was given by British and Irish Members on that occasion, I raised the issue of decommissioning. I suppose it was four years ago. Every British Member thought that that was the most obvious and sensible point; every Irish Member thought that it was a thoroughly unhelpful contribution to the debate. One saw then that it was going to be the issue.

Anyone who cares to read the interesting autobiography by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) should read the chapter on Ireland—the exchanges with Albert Reynolds and how, at the last minute before the signing, there were issues about clarity on decommissioning, on which the Irish Government needed some persuasion, but were then persuaded. They should read those chapters and understand how difficult the issue is.

That is the feeling when we listen to some of the exchanges. As I understand the Good Friday agreement, Sinn Fein has undertaken to be a persuader. It is committed to seeking to persuade the IRA on the merits of decommissioning. It is that uncertainty which comes out of quoted comments.

I heard Mr. Gerry Adams, I think three days ago, say, "Who could expect an undefeated army to hand over its weapons?" He is supposed to be the persuader. He is supposed to be the person who has already accepted the argument for decommissioning, yet he appears at this moment to be repeating the arguments of those who do not want decommissioning.

I think that all of us took encouragement when the interlocutor was appointed; the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire claimed that he felt there was progress. He is entitled to feel that. There were a number of meetings. With the greatest respect to General John de Chastelain, whom I know from my work with NATO and other experiences, and for whom I have great respect, one wonders what on earth he has been talking about to a number of people for a very long time because, at the moment, as I understand it, the last report is a nil return. Obviously, that adds to the concerns and uncertainty.

A fairly telling cartoon in The Daily Telegraph today leaves one with a certain sense of understanding. It consists of a picture of the men in balaclavas, who, when there is a cry for clarity, say:

What part of No don't you understand? Nevertheless, as we are now in that type of situation, it is essential to determine whether we can achieve some movement. If we cannot, absolutely no confidence will be felt by Ulster Unionist party members or by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that movement will come.

We are therefore left with this desperate appeal, but also with a feeling that there has been so much progress. So much of the Good Friday agreement has run ahead of expectations. I do not think that many people in the republican movement expected the speed with which prisoners have been released. In so many aspects of the process, there has been no suggestion of a breach of faith; if anything, there has been an improvement on what they might have expected. That is what makes the decommissioning issue so disappointing.

I strongly and totally endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh on decommissioning. No civilised, democratic country can accept arms dumps around its countryside. Decommissioning is therefore not simply a Unionist or a Conservative party issue. It is not even a solely British issue. I have spoken to Irish Ministers, and—in the fullness of time, away from the bright lights of the current problems—they will not tolerate arms dumps in their country, which is where I think the dumps are principally located. Irish Ministers will not leave the dumps there, to be pinched by the Continuity IRA and other dissident bodies who gain access to them. Recently, there was a report of Semtex being transported by the Continuity IRA, clearly out of a Provisional IRA dump. That is the threat—the warning on the packet—that arms dumps pose to democratic, legitimate government throughout the island of Ireland.

I use the expression "throughout the island of Ireland" because the referendums were one of the constructs of the Good Friday agreement. If one wants to take the most republican, united Ireland position on the decommissioning issue, one could point out that the Irish people have spoken on it. By an overwhelming majority, the Irish people have said what they wish to happen. Therefore, whatever the ambitions and dreams of republicans may be, if they are loyal Irishmen and believe in the right of the Irish people to self-determination, they cannot insist on maintaining weapons and a programme of violence. The Irish people—the people on the island of Ireland—have spoken on the issue in the clearest possible terms.

We are faced again with an Irish situation and with a Bill containing provisions that we hope never to have to implement. However, this is not the first time that that has happened in Northern Ireland affairs. Nevertheless, although we find ourselves here again, our prayer must be that the message of hope gets through. With good will, we wish for the Good Friday agreement to be implemented. We want devolution and real power progressively to be transferred.

I tell those who have served in the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly that, in their early days, devolution was being implemented very impressively. We want that process, and decommissioning, to continue.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield 6:43 pm, 8th February 2000

I hope that the House will listen to me if I argue the case against supporting the Bill. I do not feel able to go into the Lobby to support it today, and I want to tell the House why.

I begin by saying what I said to the Secretary of State when he made his statement last week: I think that the Government's handling of the situation in Northern Ireland has been absolutely brilliant. I have sat here a long time, and I have heard many statements—some of the former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland are in the Chamber, but I do not blame them—and I recall all of the obstacles that have been put in the way of progress.

When there was a ceasefire, the reply was, "We can't talk to you because it isn't permanent." When it was permanent, there was a gag on the Sinn Fein leaders, and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) was not allowed to broadcast. There was also prevention of terrorism legislation, but it did not work.

A new Government were elected—I pay a personal tribute to the Prime Minister, the previous Secretary of State, now the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the current Secretary of State and all the Ministers in his Department—and things began to move, partly because they used correct language. We have been fighting a war with the Irish Republican Army. People never use those words—they say "the IRA", although many people do not even know what that means. We have been fighting a war with the Irish Republican Army.

When the former Secretary of State went to the Maze and spoke about prisoners of war, she was using real language. The release of the prisoners has been the release of prisoners of war that occurs at the end of a war. The result of it was a flowing in of confidence that brought some prospect of success.

If, 10 or 20 years ago, I had been able to say, "I must tell the House that, on the future of Northern Ireland, everyone—the Prime Minister and the House of Commons; the Taoiseach and the Dail; two Nobel prize winners, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume); the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon); two other Members, the hon. Members for Belfast, West and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) from Sinn Fein—is agreed: they all want the Good Friday agreement to work", people would not have believed it. That is the real guarantee of progress.

The whole House agrees that we want decommissioning. There is not a single hon. Member who would have any doubt whatever of the need for decommissioning. The question is whether decommissioning is really the obstacle to progress under the Good Friday agreement. Is it or is it not? In the absence of killing, there is a type of peace. However, the matter goes further than the absence of killing, because the desire to use the weapons has gone. I think that that is the best guarantee for the future.

There is a strange alliance between the opponents of the Good Friday agreement on both sides of the argument. Continuity IRA does not like the Good Friday agreement because it does not provide whatever its long-term objective is—the unity of Ireland by force. It does not like it, but neither do many Ulster Unionists like it—they think that it gave Sinn Fein far too much. Therefore, there is a type of coalescence of the rejectionists. They feed on each other.

Photo of Mr William Thompson Mr William Thompson UUP, West Tyrone

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a vast difference between paramilitaries who are against the Belfast agreement and those of us who are democrats and against the Belfast agreement? We are entitled to be against it, and we do not need to use arms to defeat it.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

Whatever the difference of method, the objective is identical: the hon. Gentleman and Continuity IRA want to see the Belfast agreement killed. I put it like that not to suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a gun in his pocket—of course not; he has something much more difficult to deal with: a veto in his pocket to bring the whole Assembly and Executive to a halt. The fact is that those two sides feed on each other, and that the real contemporary political division in Northern Ireland is not between the Unionists and nationalists, but between those who are for peace and the Belfast agreement and those who are against peace.

If Continuity IRA were to drop a bomb, the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) and his colleagues would say, "There you are—it proves that the Belfast agreement is a failure." If the Executive were to be suspended, Continuity IRA would say, "Yes—that proves it. They would never let us continue." The two feed on each other. My fear about the Bill is that it represents a victory for the rejectionists. I know that it would be a reluctant victory for them, but it would feed both.

The Bill is being considered eight weeks after the new machinery was set up. One would have thought that, if the Government had thought that it might collapse, they would have included a provision in the original legislation, but they did not do so at all. I shall not go over the history of Bills that have been passed in one day, but I can think of quite a few Bills that have been passed in a day that have not exactly been legislative triumphs.

What are we going back to? We have not given the new agreement a chance to succeed, but instead are going back to a system that everyone knows failed. I am not blaming anyone, but, my God, I remember the arguments on various provisions. Partition failed; Stormont failed; internment without trial failed; supergrass trials failed; and Diplock courts, plastic bullets, strip searching and broadcast bans all failed. I am not blaming anyone for trying them, but we have tried all the methods of dealing with terrorism trumpeted by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). I was in the Cabinet in 1969 when we sent the troops in. We were told that that would solve the problem. If my view is different now, it is because we have tried direct rule and it failed.

The opponents of the Good Friday agreement like the old system. The hon. Member for West Tyrone says that he has a democratic mandate, but he does not have a mandate for opposing the Good Friday agreement because that was put to the people in a referendum. Those Unionists who used to say that they represented the majority of the people in Northern Ireland, which they did on many issues, do not represent the majority on the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. I have been in a minority before, so I am not blaming them for being in a minority, but even the reverend gentleman the hon. Member for North Antrim is not a representative of the majority of the people of the north for whom he speaks. In the past, the Unionists proclaimed their loyalty to London and to the British flag, but all that they wanted was British troops to help them when they had trouble in repressing the nationalist community. That settlement has led to years of violence.

What alternatives were open to the Secretary of State and the Cabinet? What would have happened if we had not suspended the Executive when the First Minister, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann resigned? Would the Executive and Assembly necessarily have been brought down simply by his decision to go? People resign; it is not uncommon in politics. Usually, they are replaced. Sometimes deputies succeed their leaders. I am not saying that that would have happened in Northern Ireland, but it is not unknown. I do not believe that it is in the power of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to bring down the Belfast agreement by resigning to satisfy a difficult Unionist council, because the people of Northern Ireland want the agreement.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. He may represent a majority of the population on a religious or historical basis, but he does not represent the majority on the agreement. If the First Minister had resigned to keep in tune with his party—that still happens occasionally, although not very often these days—he would have lost touch with the people whom he represented. I do not think for a moment that we shall go back to the violence of the past, because so much has been achieved through the desire to make the agreement work, but there will be a damaging sullen atmosphere.

One issue made up my mind on whether I could vote for the Bill. Having set up an elective mechanism to produce an Assembly, the Government are now saying that if one of the leaders of the Assembly resigns they will destroy the whole democracy. None of us has the automatic right to be in Parliament or the Assembly, but the people who elected us have the right to have somebody here. Usually, if people resign from an Assembly there is a by-election. If the whole Assembly resigned in a huff, there would be a general election. For the Government to threaten to take away the votes of Unionists because the IRA will not submit weapons is saying, "We banned your bullets and now we'll ban your ballots. If they won't give up their bullets, we'll take away your ballots." That is not a proposal that a democratic House can endorse.

I find it hard enough that we do not let the hon. Members for Belfast, West and for Mid-Ulster sit here unless they swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. We expect them to deny their political history and faith to sit on the green Benches and then we lecture them on democracy. Now we are saying that if they cannot get on with the Assembly, we will cancel the whole thing. The Government can suspend it, then bring it back, then suspend it again—and so on for ever. We are being asked to pass permanent suspensory legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh will admit that the suspension could be lifted and reimposed indefinitely.

Democracy is being put in the hands of the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend is a very good Secretary of State and I am not saying anything against him, but I do not believe that the House should accept legislation on that basis. It is an error of judgment that I cannot support—I wish that I could. Even if the Bill goes through—

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

I am on my last sentence, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to prolong my speech that is always welcome.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

I have in my hand a copy of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which I believe the right hon. Gentleman supported in the House. Section 16(7) allows for the possibility of the First Minister bringing down the whole structure. Why did the right hon. Gentleman vote for that if he does not agree with it?

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

If that Act was effective, we would not need the Bill. I am not a lawyer and I would not dream of embarking on a dispute with one, because I would be out of my depth.

A nation that pretends to teach the Irish about democracy will not be believed if its first action is to take away the new democracy. It would be better if we gave matters a little longer to develop. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, who got a Nobel prize for his work for peace, would not then be so ready to resign his position while we are still within the time scale allowed for decommissioning, even though it has not occurred yet. The real hope lies in the desire of the people of Northern Ireland to build a better future.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire 6:56 pm, 8th February 2000

I hope that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will not misunderstand me if I find myself in the invidious position of having to defend his Front Bench against some of the allegations that he has just made. It is not a job that comes naturally to me. To talk about banning bullets and banning ballots is to misrepresent the Bill. To accuse the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) of trying to destroy the democratic process is not remotely connected with the serious issues that we have been considering since 3.30 pm. Like everyone else who has spoken, I regret the need for the debate. I share the Secretary of State's analysis of the urgency of introducing the Bill. I do not want to rehearse history and old tit-for-tat arguments. We have had a little of that, but not much.

Bearing it in mind that we are going to have a review, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the agreement to inform the future. The House knows that I have always supported the Belfast agreement from the day that it was signed. That has also been the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), representing the Opposition officially, although it has not always been the view of all my hon. Friends. I share the importance that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) attaches to the agreement.

The agreement was hugely welcomed when it was signed, but it always had a potential defect at its heart. That defect has best been summed up by those commentators who have referred to its creative ambiguity. That was never more evident than on decommissioning. There were those who said that creative ambiguity was brilliant because it allowed each party to interpret the difficult parts of the agreement in a way that permitted them to move the argument forward. In that sense it created momentum. Others said that that creative ambiguity was potentially lethal, because it formed the basis for criticism. For the second time in my speech, I am not going to criticise the Government.

The Government were in an extremely difficult position, as were the other parties to the agreement. They had only two choices. They could try in advance, in a political vacuum, to agree every nut and bolt. The reality is they would never have succeeded and there would have been no agreement. The other choice was an element of creative ambiguity, to allow matters to move forward to create a degree of political momentum—hoping that would be sufficient to get the various parties over the really big hurdles that everyone understood had to be jumped. If the clock could be turned back and we were sitting on the Government Benches, we would probably have taken the same view as this Government. The downside is that the momentum might deal with the easier issues but not be sufficient to deal with the really hard issue and leave it isolated. That is the position in which we find ourselves.

We have dealt, in some anguish, with a number of issues, yet 10 years ago that might have been thought inconceivable—the right hon. Member for Chesterfield was right on that point—but we are still left with decommissioning. It has been made more difficult by the creative ambiguity of the relationship between the paramilitaries and the political parties that purport to speak for them. It was in everyone's interest to create the impression, and be willing to believe, that the politicians were speaking authoritatively for the paramilitaries. We are discovering that is not entirely true.

Only two judgments can be passed. One is that a genuine debate is going on that has not been concluded; the other is that certain politicians deliberately and maliciously pull the wool over the eyes of everyone else. I have never had the opportunity to discuss those matters with the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), so I have not had the opportunity to form a personal judgment. I surprise myself slightly by saying that I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I believe that he does want change in a peaceful, democratic direction. I do not believe that is true of all his associates and I do not believe that that is true of all the IRA—if it were, we would not need this debate.

I can understand another problem for the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA. The history of Ireland is replete with examples of republican movements that have split to the enormous detriment—as they would see it—of the republican cause and have consequently resulted in a good deal of bloodshed to boot. The hon. Member for Belfast, West and others do not have to look further back than 1969 and the traumas of their taking over from the Official IRA. When they look back and then to the future, I can understand the importance they attach to not splitting the movement.

Perhaps the most important message of the referendums on the self-determination of the Irish people of which the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh spoke, is not that they represented a great agreement, but that the broad mass of sensible people in the island of Ireland were willing to contemplate splits in both the Unionist and nationalist republican movements to build a better future.

There have been splits in the Unionist community; there have not been any overtly evident splits thus far in the nationalist republican movements. It may be that the greatest leadership that can be provided is to contemplate the need to split on both sides, to allow the mass of the people to move forward. That challenge has already been faced by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. The House can legitimately ask the hon. Member for Belfast, West when he will face up to a similar challenge.

The bomb on Sunday was an evil act. I choose to believe that it was more—that those in the republican movement were saying to the hon. Gentleman, "Careful. If you split the movement, you will get more of this." It will take great political courage to put the interests of the people of the island of Ireland ahead of that threat. This House is saying that he and his colleagues must do so.

I pay tribute to the Taoiseach and his Ministers for their continuing hard work. Mr. Ahern said at the weekend that clarity is really needed. That is not what I think. We have clarity but we have no decommissioning. We need product. That will be difficult to deliver because it is hard for people not to feel let down by the new revelations in the de Chastelain report. It is hard for the Unionists not to feel that they have given, but have not received, commensurately in return. It is already hard to avoid recrimination and the instinct of people on all sides to use the coming review to start a new shopping list of demands.

Recrimination will make a difficult review process even harder. For that reason if no other, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and I part company on that issue. The sooner we are into that review, choke off recrimination and engage again in the constructive dialogue necessary to get devolution and decommissioning running in parallel—as George Mitchell said they should—the better. The fact that the guns are silent is not an adequate substitute for decommissioning. In the absence of any constructive alternative from Sinn Fein or the IRA or both—if such an alternative exists—I support the Bill. Not as an end in itself but as a necessary means to a better end.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde 7:09 pm, 8th February 2000

This has been a bleak and dismal debate. That is not surprising because, in a few days, we may see the dismantling or suspension of political devolution in Northern Ireland. I am saddened but not surprised by the powerful but pessimistic speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). I can well understand his sadness and anger over the bleak prospect of the suspension of the remarkable institutions created by the agreement—the Executive, the Assembly, the north-south bodies and the British-Irish Council. The last was debated the other day in the Scottish Parliament and every speaker supported it, with some arguing that it should have a Parliamentary Assembly.

At the weekend, I was asked by a group of young constituents whether the Northern Ireland Assembly was anything like our Scottish Parliament. Was it akin to the Scottish Executive? I ought to be careful here, because I recently criticised Scottish National party Members for being day-trippers here. However, I told my constituents that I had a day trip to Stormont last week. I saw the farmers' lobby, with 2,000 to 3,000 farmers being addressed by Members of the Legislative Assembly. I think I am right in saying that the motion seeking help for the farming industry was moved by an MLA by the name of Paisley, and the motion was supported by every party in the Assembly.

I met a number of Ministers and talked to them about their work—Mark Durkan, Michael McGimpsey and Mr. McGuinness. I spoke to many Back Benchers, and I had the good fortune—some might say the misfortune—to bump into the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). In a comradely way, with his arm draped over my shoulder, he gave me an impromptu lecture on the architecture of Stormont. He has two vocations—preaching and politics. He will never pursue a career as a lecturer in 20th century architecture. It was for me—someone familiar with the Scottish Parliament—a remarkable day out.

Later, there was a debate on disruption in schools. There was an absence of good will among Democratic Unionist party Members and the Minister of Education. I know also that the Health Minister, Barbara de Brun, has not won friends in some quarters as a result of her decision concerning a certain maternity facility. I genuinely believe that we must give every encouragement to that Assembly, the Executive and the other bodies.

I have sympathy with those who believe that the Bill is not helpful to the decommissioning process. As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh asked, what will happen when suspension takes place? It would be a tragedy if the suspension were to last for a year or more, but there is a danger of that. When are Ministers to meet their counterparts in the Irish Government?

My question to the Secretary of State was voiced by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh also—who will conduct the review? It is worth thinking that the review be conducted jointly by the Secretary of State and his counterpart in Dublin. I have argued for a definitive timetable for the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, and I have been supported by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) in that. I am concerned that there might be a danger of a readjustment of the 22 May deadline. Is that a possibility, or a probability? That is worrying, but I suspect that it will come about.

The two Governments must work closely together on the review. If the period of suspension is inflicted on the institutions and the people of Northern Ireland, it should be as short as humanly possible, and the review must be urgent. I have serious concerns about the Bill, and I share some of the reservations voiced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). However, I have sympathy for the Government, and for the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) concerning the difficulties that he faces. It is wrong to offer a simplistic analysis of his difficulties.

I took note of today's editions of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent. The latter said: Suspension is a bleak prospect, but the alternative is worse. I have some sympathy with the approach adopted by those newspapers.

As a Scottish Member of Parliament long committed to a federal structure for this country and to genuine political devolution, I—unlike some hon. Members—regularly visit Northern Ireland, although I have never lived there. I agree with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann that devolution is far better for all concerned than direct rule.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

The hon. Gentleman and I are in profound disagreement on the subject of devolution. It is better that we have genuine subsidiarity than direct rule. My sincere hope is that if we are faced with a period of suspension, it is of a short duration and that the review is conducted realistically, sensibly and compassionately, taking the interests of the smaller parties—as well as the larger parties—into consideration.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 7:17 pm, 8th February 2000

I regret that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is not in the House, but I still have to say that he should get his facts right. I happen to speak for 192,000 people. I fought my election on this very issue and I topped the poll, so I speak with a certain amount of authority. I, at least, am a democrat. I tell the people what I believe in, and I go to the people on the issues.

I and the people of Northern Ireland get frustrated when we are told that the people of Northern Ireland are overwhelmingly for the agreement. The Secretary of State let the cat out of the bag today when he said what would happen if there were an election in five weeks' time. What about all the talk about the referendum, in which everyone was for the agreement? He said that, in five weeks' time, it would all disappear down a black hole. How can he say that all the people from all sections of the community want the agreement, and then say that we must keep them from having an election? Any structure of government that cannot stand up to the results of an election cannot be a proper democratic structure.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) should consider this, too. Would he like to belong to a House that could be swept away because of a change in the voting pattern of the people? We need a solid building, and we do not have one. I am surprised that the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) is appealing to Mr. McGuinness to split his party. If he splits his party, would that help? The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) did not want to split his party—he wanted to hold it together—but he departed from his election pledges.

People in Northern Ireland may be different from those in other parts of the United Kingdom, but they expect election pledges to be kept. If they are not kept, the people deal with that at the next election. The right hon. Gentleman often said that he would not join an Executive without decommissioning, and that he would not sit down with the IRA and Sinn Fein until there was decommissioning. Eventually, he did the very things he said he would not do. Have not the people a right to take him to task in those circumstances? His own party are doing so, and they are democrats. They are entitled to do so.

We heard the Secretary of State today praise the glories of the agreement. Some of his claims that everyone is enjoying the current situation are far-fetched. Where does he live? He should go and ask the victims of terrorists whether they are enjoying the so-called agreement, when they see the person who murdered their nearest and dearest walking in the street, or past their house, or when they are doing their shopping. Is there any joy for them? There is no joy for the victims of terrorism and those who mourn their loved ones. Little has been said about the Royal Ulster Constabulary by Front Benchers tonight, but the guillotine hangs over the RUC.

We talk about the arguments over decommissioning, but what Mr. Adams thinks about decommissioning and what the majority of right hon. and hon. Members think about it are not the same. IRA/Sinn Fein believes that the guns should be taken from every soldier, every policeman and all the individuals who have personal weapons because the police think that they are in danger of being shot. IRA/Sinn Fein is not talking only about the decommissioning of illegal arms but about the prevention of the holding of all arms.

The Secretary of State then tells us that it would not be justified to demand that the terrorists hand in their weapons, because they must do so mutually. They must come to a voluntary arrangement. Well, the House and the Prime Minister did not say that after the killing of the children at the school in Scotland. They did not tell people who had held arms for many years and only used them for sport that they could voluntarily hand in their arms. They were commanded to hand them in and they were faced with imprisonment and heavy fines if they did not do so. Why should they be treated in that way while terrorists, whose hands are dripping with the blood of the innocent victims of their crimes, are not dealt with similarly? It is said that that is not possible, but it has never been tried.

All the programmes that have failed were thought up by Governments without any consideration for the people of Northern Ireland. How many times have I said that the House will reap what it sows? That is what is happening tonight, because of a flawed agreement that could not work. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) resigned. His resignation was indicated from the Dispatch Box by the Secretary of State, but then it was discovered that if the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh came back he would not get cross-community support. It was then discovered that he had not resigned.

We are having this debate tonight because the Secretary of State said that, in his opinion, there was no way for the First Minister and his deputy to be re-elected in a new Assembly. Why should they be re-elected? If the Assembly had lost confidence in them, it should have the right to say no to them.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I wish to make it clear for the umpteenth time, first, that I did resign; secondly, that I never said that I did otherwise; and thirdly, that I stand by everything I did, because I did it for a reason and I am pleased to say it was successful.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I never said that the hon. Gentleman did not resign, and he knows that. It was a resignation, but the point is that people cannot say, "This is the agreement", and then, when it no longer suits them, say, "This is not the agreement." The agreement has not been abided by: it has been departed from.

The matter before the House is serious, because upon it depends the peace and quiet of the minds and hearts of the people of Northern Ireland. They know that the IRA have the best weapons of any terrorists in the western world. The House knows what the IRA did at Canary Wharf. The records in the Library show how much compensation was paid after that bomb. It is nearly as much as the total compensation paid out in the whole of Northern Ireland in all the years of violence. Some people in Northern Ireland say that the trouble is that the Government are afraid of the IRA starting up again in this part of the United Kingdom. The Government are being bullied and blackmailed by that threat.

All I can say is that there is no way forward in the agreement as it stands, but if we are to have a review I want to know what sort of a review it will be. Will we have a narrow review or a proper review? Who will participate in the review—the Members of the Assembly or the members of parties who have representatives in this House or in the Assembly? Who will sit at the table? Who will advise as to what should happen as a result of the review? Who will preside at the meetings?

I have been at every conference but one that the British Government have ever convened on the issue, and we have discovered that the two Governments seem to think that they are there to push elected representatives in the direction they want them to go. We have all to go back to the electorate, and if the Governments want to carry the country, they must carry the representatives who have their people behind them. People cannot be pushed down an undemocratic path.

I saw the writing on the wall written by the Prime Minister, who told us that there would be no men in the Executive who belonged to lawless organisations. He told us that decommissioning would start and that no one would be let out of prison until it did. That is what people voted for in the referendum, but it did not happen. The people voted on promises, and they now say no. I have met hundreds of people who have told me that they voted yes, but that they would vote no today.

There are not many yes voters to be found who say that they want to maintain the agreement. We need only look at the demonstrations on the issue to know how the land lies. I tell the House: if we pull the Assembly down and have a review, let it be a real review and let us face up to the issues realistically and practically, and not be like Mr. Mitchell, sweeping them under the table so that they rise another day to haunt us.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull 7:30 pm, 8th February 2000

Not for the first time, I find myself at the Dispatch Box when little more needs to be said and, frankly, there is little time in which to say it. Equally, not for the first time, I find myself particularly impressed with the remarks of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon).

The question has been put to me: what does it matter if they have guns, ammunition and explosives if they do not use them? That is a seductive, but shallow, question. It could be rephrased, "Is it okay if one half of the political process agrees to observe the law and the other half does not?" Adopting the idiom of the geometers of classical times—that is, reductio ad absurdum, or taking an argument to the limits of absurdity—how would it be if we acquiesced in the proposition that Conservative Members could be armed with guns, ammunition and explosives but the Labour Government could not, and the Government said, "That's okay; they haven't used them much recently." We would not fail to recognise that absurdity.

It is the same question in Northern Ireland. Antrim, Armagh, Down, Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone are as much part of the United Kingdom as Warwickshire, Yorkshire, Aberdeenshire, Powys or Devon. Although Northern Ireland is historically and culturally different, the fact is that we do not allow armed people to participate in the running of our affairs in this kingdom, nor should we.

The Secretary of State said earlier in the debate that not merely was he taking power to resume direct rule in the absence of decommissioning, but that he felt that less damage would be done if he moved promptly than if he did not. We agree.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 7:32 pm, 8th February 2000

I should like to respond to one of the points made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). The hon. Gentleman accurately pointed out that, in the previous European elections in Northern Ireland, he topped the poll. He went on, rather modestly, to equate his position in the poll on that occasion with the position that he takes on the Good Friday agreement. It was a big vote, but it was a big vote for a big character, and did not necessarily reflect overall agreement for the hon. Gentleman's position. Events will prove me right or they will prove him right, but I think that he was unduly modest about his position in the poll.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield approaches many issues from the position of a democrat. I appreciate that he has a long record as a parliamentarian of viewing issues through the eyes of a democrat. That is perfectly reasonable; in fact, it is a very principled position. He went on to talk about how the Good Friday agreement, the elections to the Assembly and so on, were sacrosanct because of democratic considerations, and that, if anything was to be changed it should, de facto, be done by an election. However, my right hon. Friend overlooked the fact that all the arrangements—the Executive, the north-south bodies, the Assembly itself as well as decommissioning and many of the other issues that form part of the Good Friday agreement—are interlocking. They are interdependent. It is in some respects like a house of cards, although rather more robust. Take away one and the rest no longer make any sense and collapse. There are those who would like to see it collapse, but I do not think that my right hon. Friend is one. However, he needs to understand that the issues are interlocking and interdependent. Therefore, it is not enough to view the Assembly as a body that can be sustained only by further democratic endorsement. That is an over-simplification of the arrangements.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

If we are relying on the Belfast agreement as part of the process of interlocking authority, what authority is in the Belfast agreement for the suspension of the Assembly? There is none.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I will cover that point in my due course, and no doubt my hon. Friend will listen with care.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), in a speech that was full of wisdom and insight, was right to say that this was a Bill that most of us in the House, whether Government or Opposition Members, and the majority of people in Ireland, both north and south, hoped would never be needed. It is, however, the only way of sustaining the potential of devolution. The situation has, in the past few weeks, started to blossom into a real and meaningful political project, one that is uniquely suited to the conditions and history of events in Northern Ireland.

It serves no purpose to debate the actual decommissioning obligations under the Good Friday agreement or, for that matter, any comments that may have come out of Senator Mitchell's review. The truth is, as the right hon. Members for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), among others, have rightly said, decommissioning, trust and devolution go hand in hand. For one section of the community, trust is inevitably linked not only to the silence of the guns but to their absence.

Given the continuing difficulties in achieving progress on decommissioning, there are three options, as we see it. First, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield suggested, we could have stood to one side and allowed the Assembly and Executive to collapse. For, as sure as night follows day, we would have reached that position sooner rather than later. The second option would have been, by some means, to enable the exclusion of those parties which were considered to be in breach of, or in default of, the obligations to decommission. I do not think that that would have worked either. My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) explained eloquently why many delicate relationships exist in the Good Friday agreement and the arrangements that followed it.

That leaves us with the final option—to suspend. We hope that that will lead eventually—sooner rather than later—to progress on decommissioning. By extension, it will enable the political process that is under way to start again. This last option, as my right hon. Friend said, leaves all the parties in a position in which the issues can be debated. There will be a review process and, once the two Governments decide what form that should take, we can then get on with it.

Given that we, our close colleagues in the Irish Government, the pro-agreement parties and most of the Members of this House, remain of the view that the Good Friday agreement is the best way of making progress, any option other than suspension—we all hope that it will be a temporary suspension—would have been counter to the spirit of the agreement. No one is arguing that it was pre-figured in some way in the agreement. That is not the case. This is the best way that we can find to preserve the spirit of the Good Friday agreement. We did not want the Bill, but it represents the best available option.

I hope that the House will send a clear signal tonight that the Good Friday agreement is still in place. Overwhelmingly, we want it to work. On the Government's behalf, I thank both the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats for making it clear that they support us, and I praise all those parties in Northern Ireland who have taken their courage in their hands to move forward on implementing the agreement.

The agreement remains in place, and we all—nearly all—want it to work. Giving discretion—indeed, power—to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State demonstrates our support for the agreement. The most important thing that the House can do tonight is to show, by giving my right hon. Friend that power, that we still believe that the Good Friday agreement can be made to work. During the period of suspension, if it happens—we hope that it will not—there will be an opportunity for those who must take action to take that action. Only then can we achieve agreement and get the institutions back on track. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want.

I attended an event recently with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and others—

It being four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Bill, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Order [this day], put forthwith the Question, That the Bill be read a Second time—

The House divided: Ayes 352, Noes 11.

Division No. 65][7.42 pm
AYES
Abbott, Ms DianeChaytor, David
Ainger, NickClapham, Michael
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Alexander, DouglasClarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Allan, RichardClarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Allen, GrahamClarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon JamesClarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms HilaryClarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyClelland, David
Ashton, JoeClwyd, Ann
Atherton, Ms CandyCoaker, Vernon
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Coffey, Ms Ann
Austin, JohnColeman, Iain
Ballard, JackieColman, Tony
Banks, TonyCooper, Yvette
Barnes, HarryCorbett, Robin
Battle, JohnCotter, Brian
Bayley, HughCousins, Jim
Beard, NigelCryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs MargaretCryer, John (Hornchurch)
Beggs, RoyCummings, John
Beith, Rt Hon A JCunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)
Benton, JoeCunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Bercow, JohnCurtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Berry, RogerDarling, Rt Hon Alistair
Best, HaroldDarvill, Keith
Betts, CliveDavey, Edward (Kingston)
Blackman, LizDavey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Blears, Ms HazelDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Blizzard, BobDavies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Blunt, CrispinDavis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Boswell, Tim
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Dawson, Hilton
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Dean, Mrs Janet
Bradshaw, BenDenham, John
Brake, TomDobbin, Jim
Brinton, Mrs HelenDoran, Frank
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterDowd, Jim
Brown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E)Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Edwards, Huw
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Efford, Clive
Browne, DesmondEllman, Mrs Louise
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Ennis, Jeff
Burden, RichardFabricant, Michael
Burgon, ColinFeam, Ronnie
Burns, SimonField, Rt Hon Frank
Burstow, PaulFisher, Mark
Butler, Mrs ChristineFitzpatrick, Jim
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Fitzsimons, Loma
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Flight, Howard
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)Flint, Caroline
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Foster, Don (Bath)
Cann, JamieFoster, Michael J (Worcester)
Caplin, IvorFowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Casale, RogerFraser, Christopher
Caton, MartinFyfe, Maria
Cawsey, IanGalbraith, Sam
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Gardiner, Barry
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)Gerrard, Neil
Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Godman, Dr Norman ALivsey, Richard
Godsiff, RogerLloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Goggins, PaulLoughton, Tim
Golding, Mrs LlinLove, Andrew
Gordon, Mrs EileenMcAvoy, Thomas
Greenway, JohnMcCabe, Steve
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)McCafferty, Ms Chris
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)McCartney, Robert (N Down)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)McDonagh, Siobhain
Grocott, BruceMcFall, John
Grogan, JohnMcGuire, Mrs Anne
Hain, PeterMcIntosh, Miss Anne
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)McIsaac, Shona
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)Mackinlay, Andrew
Hancock, MikeMaclean, Rt Hon David
Hanson, DavidMcWalter, Tony
Harvey, NickMcWilliam, John
Hawkins, NickMadel, Sir David
Hayes, JohnMahon, Mrs Alice
Heal, Mrs SylviaMallaber, Judy
Healey, JohnMandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Heppell, JohnMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Hesford, StephenMartlew, Eric
Hill, KeithMaude, Rt Hon Francis
Hinchliffe, DavidMawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Hoey, KateMaxton, John
Hogg, Rt Hon DouglasMeacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hoon, Rt Hon GeoffreyMeale, Alan
Hope, PhilMerron, Gillian
Howard, Rt Hon MichaelMilburn, Rt Hon Alan
Howarth, Alan (Newport E)Miller, Andrew
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)Moore, Michael
Howells, Dr KimMoran, Ms Margaret
Hoyle, LindsayMorgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)Morley, Elliot
Humble, Mrs JoanMorris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hunter, Andrew
Hurst, AlanMountford, Kali
Hutton, JohnMudie, George
Iddon, Dr BrianMullin, Chris
Illsley, EricMurphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Ingram, Rt Hon AdamMurphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)Naysmith, Dr Doug
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)Norris, Dan
Jamieson, DavidOaten, Mark
Jenkin, BernardO'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jenkins, BrianO'Neill, Martin
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)Öpik, Lembit
Organ, Mrs Diana
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)Ottaway, Richard
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Paisley, Rev Ian
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)Paterson, Owen
Pearson, Ian
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)Pendry, Tom
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)Perham, Ms Linda
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldPickthall, Colin
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)Pike, Peter L
Khabra, Piara SPlaskitt, James
Kidney, DavidPollard, Kerry
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)Pond, Chris
Kirkwood, ArchyPound, Stephen
Lait, Mrs JacquiPowell, Sir Raymond
Lansley, AndrewPrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Lawrence, Mrs JackiePrescott, Rt Hon John
Laxton, BobPrimarolo, Dawn
Lepper, DavidProsser, Gwyn
Leslie, ChristopherPurchase, Ken
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)Quinn, Lawrie
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)Radice, Rt Hon Giles
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs HelenRammell, Bill
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterReed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Linton, MartinReid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Rendel, DavidStuart, Ms Gisela
Robathan, AndrewStunell, Andrew
Robertson, LaurenceSutcliffe, Gerry
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)Syms, Robert
Roche, Mrs BarbaraTaylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff
Rooney, TerryTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Ross, Emie (Dundee W)Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Ross, William (E Lond'y)Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)Temple-Morris, Peter
Rowlands, TedThomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Roy, FrankThomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Ruane, ChrisThompson, William
Ruddock, JoanTimms, Stephen
Russell, Bob (Colchester)Tipping, Paddy
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)Touhig, Don
St Aubyn, NickTrickett, Jon
Salter MartinTrimble' Rt Hon David
Sanders, AdrianTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Sarwar, MohammadTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Savidge, MalcolmTurner, Dr .George (NW Norfolk)
Sawford, PhilTurner, Neil (Wigan)
Sawford JonathanTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Sedgemore, BrianTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Shaw, JonathanTyler, Paul
Sheerman, BarryTyler, Andrew
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertWalker, Cecil
Shipley, Ms DebraWalley, Ms Joan
Singh, MarshaWaterson, Nigel
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)Webb, Steve
Smith, Miss Geraldine> (Morecambe & Lunesdale)White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Whittingdale, John
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)Willis, Phil
Snape, PeterWinnick, David
Soley, CliveWise, Audrey
Southworth, Ms HelenWoodward, Shaun
Squire, Ms RachelWoolas, Phil
Stewart, David (Inverness E)Worthington, Tony
Stinchcombe, Paul
Stoate, Dr HowardTellers for the Ayes:
Strang, Rt Hon Dr GavinMr. Greg Pope and
Straw, Rt Hon JackMr. Tony McNulty.
NOES
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)Mallon, Seamus
Corbyn, JeremySimpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Dalyell, TamSkinner, Dennis
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Etherington, Bill
Galloway, GeorgeTellers for the Noes:
Llwyd, ElfynMr. Michael Connarty and
McGrady, EddieMr. John McDonnell.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].

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