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Ending Suspension

Part of Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:19 pm on 8th February 2000.

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Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down 10:19 pm, 8th February 2000

When the Bill is passed today, as I am sure it will be, it will be a very traumatic experience for the political process in Northern Ireland. In 1974, I participated in the formation of the Executive. In the intervening 26 years, we have struggled to re-establish that which we had then. It is true that, at that point, the Executive—that partnership—was brought down by the violence of the loyalist paramilitaries and the extreme loyalist political parties. Times change over a quarter of a century and I thought that we had built an edifice that would withstand the test of the coming weekend.

My party is opposed to the Bill, as we showed by voting against Second Reading. We do not see any merit in it, or even understand the strategy involved. Because the leader of one party gave a pawn ticket to his party that certain things would happen by a certain date, we are condemned to be the unserving elected representatives of Northern Ireland for an indefinite time. As many people have said, in Northern Ireland it is much easier to destroy than to build.

I understand the difficulties and the gamble that the Government are taking, but we think that the gamble is wrong. We do not understand the purpose of the Bill other than to protect the leadership of one of the eight parties in the Assembly. If the Bill, with all that could flow from it, is directed to that one end, as I fear that it is, it does not say much for the Government's understanding of the circumstances of Northern Ireland and our capability—it takes time but it has been well illustrated over the past 24 months—to muddle through our differences somehow and come out again at the other end.

I have experienced 30 years of killing and maiming. I say clearly that weapons should have been decommissioned—indeed, they should never have existed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said many months ago, the process is for the slow learners who failed to understand what Sunningdale was about. I would not like to contemplate the aftermath of the failure of 1974 being repeated.

If the Secretary of State's intention is to achieve decommissioning, I assure him that he is going about it in the wrong way. I sincerely want decommissioning. I have opposed violence all my life. I know that promises and understandings given during the Mitchell review in the last weeks of November have not been fulfilled by Sinn Fein. The question was who was to jump first—would it be devolution or decommissioning? The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party took the courageous step of jumping first. My understanding was that decommissioning would be the second phase and would happen before Christmas. If that had happened, the de Chastelain report of 31 January would have been positive. I understand that it is not, although I have not seen it.

We have been let down yet again by the paramilitaries, but let us pause with this thought: are the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries—let us not forget that they have not decommissioned either—working together to ensure that the democratic process fails? Do they see the development and success of the Assembly—I assume that its last meeting was held today—as a danger to their programme of violence? Do they see no future for themselves? Is that why they are trying to break the process?

Getting eight different parties to work together has not been easy. Even the members of the Democratic Unionist party, who are opposed to the agreement, are working in all the Committees and other paraphernalia of the Assembly, even if they are in separate rooms from the rest of us. That is an evolutionary process. We have a lot to tolerate in one another and the only way is participation in the Assembly. I fear—virtually dread—that the effects of the Bill will come into force prematurely, without giving us the chance to create our solution to our problem. The Bill is a bad idea.

I understand the sincerity and integrity of the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues in presenting the Bill to the House. We must beg to differ on interpretations of what will happen. I hope sincerely that the Goverment are right and I am wrong.