Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
This has been a sombre debate. I contrast it with the time, nearly two years ago, when we had a sense of hope and a sense of the future. It was then that we realised that the Belfast agreement might give us the opportunity of ensuring that the future of the island of Ireland would be determined not by the gun or the bomb or by British mandate, but by the Irish people themselves.
The agreement gave the Unionists the possibility that their future would be decided neither by some form of brute force nor by a British sell-out. They would be a party to decisions: that is why they would regain the structures of a statelet. For republicans and nationalists, there was the acceptance of the sovereignty of the Irish people as a whole, and the prospect of a mechanism to create a united Ireland. The agreement gave all of us—both traditions—peace and an opportunity to involve ourselves in policy making and governmental structures that would have an impact on the day-to-day lives of the citizens of the Six Counties of Northern Ireland. It offered the chance of a normalisation of politics—of the politics that we have taken for granted on this island: politics that are determined by electoral mandates and policy discussion in a civilised framework.
The agreement gave us the chance of a radical reform programme, the achievement of equality, respect for human rights and, in every area of policy and everyday life, a debate about what the quality of life should be. I am sorry that some quarters have appealed tonight for a retreat from that programme of reform, for it is important that we press on.
For some of us, the agreement provided the hope of a united island of Ireland at some time in the future, on the basis of agreement and mutual respect for different traditions. It provided the hope of an Ireland strengthened by the process of agreement. We accepted that peace was never to be a single act and that there were never to be any armistices. It was a process that would be achieved in stages. There must be incremental steps: lessening violence, removing violence, engaging in dialogue, achieving the appreciation of different perspectives and the understanding of different views, and securing agreement for a way forward.
That is why the Bill is such a step backwards—and it is a major step backwards. It removes the structures of the government of Northern Ireland that would make possible the debate, the process of reform and the dialogue. I am confident that we shall eventually restore those structures and achieve peace, but, as we have heard today, there is a history of structures being abolished or suspended that goes back about a quarter of a century.
I believe that the Bill poses a risk. Some people are trying to use the decommissioning issue to undermine elements in the Good Friday agreement, and some are trying to undermine the agreement overall. Decommissioning has become a weapon in the hands of anti-agreement elements—of rejectionists. It was used first as an excuse to delay the setting up of the Executive; now it is used to put the whole peace process in jeopardy. But what does decommissioning mean? The IRA has not fired weapons or exploded bombs since the restoration of the ceasefire on 20 July 1997. Before that, the ceasefire had lasted from 13 October 1994 to 9 February 1996. With the exception of the tragedy at Canary wharf, the IRA had held a disciplined ceasefire, with weapons out of commission for more than five years.
No one in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s would have ever been optimistic enough to hope that that could be achieved within that time scale. The weapons are out of commission. We are urged today to suspend the arrangements and structures that have consolidated that ceasefire, that form of decommissioning. Why? Because some want to press some extraordinary process of surrender—and surrender is what it will be viewed as.