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Ending Suspension

Part of Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:29 pm on 8th February 2000.

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Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire 10:29 pm, 8th February 2000

Two speeches have expressed fully the view of those who are opposed to the Bill, and they should be responded to—one was from the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), and the other was from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I know and respect both Members, and they speak well and from the heart. However, their arguments were flawed and I wish to try to counter them.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that things are different now, and he wishes that state of affairs to continue. Everyone can agree with that, and there has been a fantastic change in the nature of Northern Ireland politics. However, we have to ask how that came about. It came about because of all the work done to establish the Belfast agreement, which is still in place.

The Assembly and the Executive extended the arrangements and started to bring people together. As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, the policy was one of jumping first and attempting to take others along afterwards. As that has not occurred, we have a problem. If suspension did not take place and if there were no decommissioning, the Assembly and Executive would go forward on a false prospectus. We must seek to tackle and correct that by the suspension method if decommissioning does not take place.

The second argument of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was that the chances of achieving decommissioning were lessened with the suspension. I do not know whether they are lessened or improved, and I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman knows, either. If suspension occurs, we will at least avoid the collapse of the Executive, which would have been much more damaging in terms of decommissioning.

We know that Sinn Fein has many interests in keeping the process on board. Its future in democratic politics is open. It can become a major party within Northern Ireland, and a major party within the Republic of Ireland, holding the balance of power. We should expect Sinn Fein to be involved in decommissioning, to achieve those hopes.

The third argument from the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was that the suspension played into the hands of those who are against the Belfast agreement. That is entirely wrong. Without the suspension, we would play into the hands of those—especially in the Unionist camp—who wish to see a majority of "no" voters and who wish to stop the developments.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh's fourth argument was that there was no such thing as a soft landing. I do not think that anybody is arguing that there is an easy or soft landing; there are many difficulties. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) argued that neither decommissioning nor going back to the bombings was on the cards, and that we would need to work carefully in continuing our efforts.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said that the desire to use weapons had gone. If that desire has gone, it seems to me that the circumstances are then much easier for weapons to be handed in. Those two things should go together, and the record of exilings, beatings and other incidents suggests that the desire has not yet gone.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield argued that suspension was a victory for the rejectionists—a similar argument to the one used by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. My right hon. Friend's major argument, however, was that democracy was taken away from Northern Ireland by the Bill. That is not quite true. Democracy, in some senses, is certainly weakened by having the institutions taken away. There are alternative democratic institutions that will operate—but what is democracy, especially in a context in which people live in fear of guns?

I have just finished reading once more Nye Bevan's book "In Place of Fear", which he wrote in 1952 and in which he talked about the need for democracy. He recognised that democracy was weakened in circumstances in which people were exploited and placed in fear, and he said that democracy could not function properly unless the conditions of exploitation were removed. He directed his remarks mostly at class power and wealth in society, but we can apply the principles in his book to the situation in Northern Ireland. Democracy will be distorted if the gun poses a threat to its operation.