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Ending Suspension

Part of Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:02 pm on 8th February 2000.

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Mr. Öpik:

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

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

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

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

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

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