I beg to move,
That, with effect from 8th January 2002, those Members who have chosen not to take their seats and thus do not qualify to participate in the proceedings in Parliament may use the facilities within the precincts of the House and the services of departments of the House, and may claim support for their costs as set out in the Resolution of 5th July 2001, relating to Members' Allowances, Insurance &c., and the allowances relating to travel within the United Kingdom for Members, their families and staff.
The motion relates to the facilities of the House, but I fully recognise that most Members come to the debate with views mainly shaped by events in Northern Ireland. Mr. Davies, who I understand will respond to my opening remarks, informed us this morning, courtesy of The Daily Telegraph, of the views that he brings to the debate. He said that the Conservative party is withdrawing bipartisan support in Northern Ireland over this issue. [Interruption.] I observe that he has the support of the Conservative party.
It is of course the right of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to end the principle of a bipartisan approach in Northern Ireland. We gave them bipartisan support on Northern Ireland when they were in government.
No, I am not saying that. As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, that Act raised a number of concerns about the treatment of people on the mainland who were not necessarily connected with the IRA. I am sure that he will also acknowledge, as he is a fair-minded gentleman, that we gave the Government full support for every effort that they made to get a peace process going in Northern Ireland.
I am not surprised that, in opposition, the hon. Gentleman does not feel bound to give us the support that we gave his party when it was in government. What does surprise me is that he has ended bipartisanship over access to the House of Commons. Never once in their 18 years of government did the Conservatives withdraw the right of access from Sinn Fein. Throughout the decade in which Gerry Adams was an elected Member of Parliament, a Conservative Government left him the right to enter the precincts and the right of access to any services provided. Indeed, in every month of his membership Gerry Adams was mailed his allocation of tickets to the Public Gallery, and occasionally used them. Not once in those years did the hon. Gentleman try to stop him.
I assume from the bewildered look on the hon. Gentleman's face that he was totally unaware of his Government's policy throughout that decade in which Gerry Adams was entitled to come into this place.
At that time, the right of access to Westminster for Members who had not taken the Oath was of long standing. For more than 100 years, there was nothing to bar from the precincts a Member who had refused to take the Oath. Indeed, in the 19th century, Members who had not taken the Oath on religious grounds attended Westminster regularly, and even listened to debates from beyond the Bar of the House.
It will be interesting to discover, when the hon. Gentleman makes his speech, whether he can clarify whether he was aware that that was the position throughout the time for which his Government were in office. He supported that Government, but he is not prepared to support us when we restore the position that existed when they were in power.
Not until a ruling by Madam Speaker Boothroyd after the 1997 general election was access to the precincts and the services of any of the Departments of the House withdrawn from Members who did not take the Oath. At that time, the IRA had repudiated its ceasefire and the peace process had foundered. In those circumstances, the ruling was understandable. Since then, however, we have witnessed historic developments in Northern Ireland. Three years ago, the Good Friday agreement committed the parties to it to pursue their different perspectives through politics and not through violence. Two years ago, power was devolved to an Assembly elected by the people of Northern Ireland.
It was against the background of those developments that in January 2000 the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend Mr. Mandelson, wrote to the leaders of all political parties in Northern Ireland proposing that Sinn Fein MPs be granted access to Westminster and the ability to claim constituency allowances. At the same time, the Prime Minister consulted the leaders of the Opposition parties. In the event, the Government decided that the time was not right, as further progress was required on the peace process.
We have now had that further progress. After a difficult few months, the existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been stabilised. General de Chastelain has confirmed that he has witnessed the first ever act of decommissioning by the republican movement in its history. He described it as significant, and he has confirmed that the material included arms, ammunition and explosives.
Does the right hon. Gentleman regard what was done in my constituency yesterday, on behalf of Sinn Fein, as evidence of progress in the peace process in support of the police? Posters were put up reading "Don't Join RUC/PSNI"—"PSNI" stands for "Police Service of Northern Ireland"—and listing "plastic bullets", "shoot to kill", "abuse of human rights", "sectarian intimidation", "collusion", "obstruction of enquiries" and "torturers". Does that constitute progress in support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the peace process?
What I said to the House, and what I stand by, was that there had been progress in the peace process. As I pointed out, part of that progress is represented by the fact that we have an elected Northern Ireland Assembly in which 18 members of Sinn Fein sit, and in which the hon. Gentleman's party participates. His party has sat in 2,000 committee meetings with members of Sinn Fein in Belfast. I think that he should explain why he is willing to take part in 2,000 committee meetings in Belfast, but will not even allow Sinn Fein Members access to the Travel Office or the Vote Office here.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman understands that those who are engaged in the committee meetings in Belfast have agreed the same terms under which committee meetings take place, whereas he is suggesting that there shall be a special kind of Member of Parliament who shall take what he wants and not what he does not want. Those of us who do not take the Unionist Whip are for the first time driven into a position of saying that this House must insist that Members of Parliament either take the whole thing or nothing at all.
The right hon. Gentleman suggests that the Good Friday agreement applies only to parties in Northern Ireland. It does not. The British Government are also a party to that agreement. He must explain why it is permissible for members of Sinn Fein to take a full part in the democratic process of Northern Ireland, to attend the Assembly and to sit in the Executive Committee, but not to have access even to the precincts of Westminster. That seems a double standard, which would not be welcome in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday agreement commits us to a parity of esteem for both traditions in Northern Ireland. It sets us out on a process. If my hon. Friend wants that process to succeed, she must recognise that it will involve different steps along the way, whether or not they are specifically written down in the document of three years ago.
I will continue with my speech.
All four of the Sinn Fein Members elected to the House are full Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. They regularly attend that body without any problems of security in the Assembly. There is no logic in saying to them that as a result of the peace process, to which we are party, they can attend, speak and vote in Belfast, but in Westminster they cannot get past the door.
One of their number, Martin McGuinness, is the Minister of Education in Northern Ireland. He has a pledge of office, which committed him to using only democratic, non-violent means. He sits in the Executive Committee with representatives of other parties, including the Unionists. He not uncommonly meets my colleagues in the United Kingdom Government. The House has initiated a peace process that involves him and his colleagues in the peaceful administration of public services in Northern Ireland. The question now is whether the House is willing to play its part in engaging Sinn Fein in political activity.
In view of what the right hon. Gentleman said about Martin McGuinness committing himself to purely democratic means, presumably the right hon. Gentleman will accept the amendments tabled today to require such an undertaking from those four people before they are allowed in here.
The position that I am putting before the House, which is clear within the motion, is that those Members who have not taken the Oath should be entitled to access to the precincts, in the same way as they were before 1997 and before progress had not been made on the peace process.
Can the right hon. Gentleman try to explain to my constituents in Eastbourne, who saw one of their previous MPs murdered by the IRA, why we are now proposing to give the benefits, privileges and facilities of this place to some of the people responsible for his murder?
Ian Gow was tragically and appallingly murdered during the year in which Gerry Adams was a Member of this House and had precisely the access to the precincts for which the motion provides. The whole point of the peace process is to prevent future murders of that kind and to ensure that we proceed by political activity, not by violent confrontation. I do not understand how the hon. Gentleman imagines that we can draw Sinn Fein into political activity if he will not even allow it anywhere near Westminster.
The Leader of the House referred to the pledge of office that people have to take to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and there are similar new pledges in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Will he help the House by saying whether, as part of his welcome modernisation programme, it is in his mind that we should amend the law on the Oath, which not only is of interest to people elected from Northern Ireland, but would be widely welcomed in many parts of the House and would facilitate many people living with their consciences as well as serving their constituents?
If the hon. Gentleman and any other substantial body of opinion in the House wish to raise the question of the Oath that Members take, that is a matter that we can explore at another time.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having his finger on the pulse and his assurance on that point, but at present I do not anticipate that giving a commitment to changing the Oath would assist me in the present debate. As I was saying, the peace process is a process, not a single event. A process requires parallel progress on both sides.
If the right hon. Gentleman lets me get a word in edgeways, I will talk about decommissioning. Both sides of the Chamber want to secure more decommissioning and want it to continue until it is completed. There is no difference between us about the need for further decommissioning by the IRA, but we are more likely to secure further decommissioning if we demonstrate that we are willing to maintain momentum on our side. I would ask all of those in the House who want more decommissioning, including the right hon. Gentleman, whether they really believe that they would make it more likely by voting down this motion tonight. I will happily hear the right hon. Gentleman's answer now.
The answer to the question is simply that the very limited decommissioning that we have had so far resulted entirely from our taking a strong stance, and not from appeasing in the way that the Leader of the House is today. He attempts to pray in aid the limited amount of decommissioning as the reason for this dreadful motion. Will he remind the House just what the terms of the Belfast agreement were on decommissioning, and will he tell us when all decommissioning was supposed to have been completed?
The Belfast agreement committed all parties to use their best endeavours and the right hon. Gentleman is right that the original timeframe provided was two years. He is also right that it is only very recently that we have received what General de Chastelain—whose judgment I trust possibly more than that of the right hon. Gentleman—described as a significant event. I find it strange that he should say that that happened when we played tough and stood our ground, because I do not remember him saying before the October act of decommissioning that the Government deserved praise for standing firm and refusing concessions. We secured decommissioning because we have a peace process in being, and we will secure further progress only if we keep that process alive.
I wish to make some progress.
The step that the House is being asked to take is a limited one. It will restore access to the precincts and Commons services that existed before the election in May 1997. It will not confer any right to take part in proceedings or to vote. It will not provide a salary or pension for Sinn Fein Members. It will not provide any Short money for Sinn Fein as a party. [Interruption.] Yes, it will extend the entitlement to constituency allowances to Sinn Fein Members on the same basis as any other elected Member. [Interruption.]
The only person who could possibly have claimed allowances in the past was Gerry Adams, because the others who did not take their seats were disqualified. He did not claim. Since then, the allowances have dramatically increased from near zero to about £100,000. In addition, there is a legislative Assembly in a devolved Ulster, whose Members also get about £50,000. Given that dramatic change, how can the Leader of the House argue that his motion today is a return to the status quo ante?
In respect of the access to the precincts and services, it is precisely that. [Interruption.] If I may say so, and if the hon. Gentleman is listening, that is precisely what I said and have just conceded. In respect of the allowances, the motion introduces a new situation.
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me to continue, I give him an undertaking that I shall give way to him next.
I concede that the motion would reduce the extent to which there is a distinction between Sinn Fein Members and other hon. Members. It is not my motion, but amendment (m), tabled by Mr. Duncan, that would perpetuate two classes of MPs—those of us who are entitled to support in our work for constituents, and those who are denied it.
Some amendments have been tabled that would introduce a new version of the two classes of MPs. They would divide us into those who would get constituency allowances under the same rules as everyone else, and those who would get them under special rules invented specifically for the four Sinn Fein MPs. If the motion is approved and constituency allowances are to be extended to Sinn Fein Members, they should receive it on the same basis, for the same purposes and with the same regulations as any other hon. Member.
Will the Leader of the House say how we are to police the allowances? One of the House's sanctions is that it can prevent hon. Members from sitting in the House if they have acted improperly. The Sinn Fein Members will not be sitting in the House, as they decline to do so. In those circumstances, how will the expenditure and allocation of the allowances be properly policed when no sanctions can be exercised against Sinn Fein Members?
I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that suspension from the House also involves being barred from the precincts of the premises. Any motion carried in the House to suspend any of the four Sinn Fein MPs would reverse the position set out in the motion today, and those MPs would lose access to the House and its facilities.
Mr. Hogg asked how the allowances would be policed, as he put it. The Sinn Fein MPs could claim the allowances only on the same basis as any other hon. Member can—namely, that they are spent "wholly, exclusively and necessarily" on constituency duties. The four Sinn Fein MPs would have to observe the same rules as everyone else. If Conservative Members do not believe that the rules are properly policed, they should, by all means, come forward with proposals to tighten the rules for every hon. Member.
If any of the Sinn Fein MPs' staff apply for a pass to the House's precincts, they will be required to satisfy the same security test as the staff of any other hon. Member. Those rules are common to all hon. Members. If they are unsatisfactory, they should be amended for all hon. Members, not just for four hon. Members.
The members of staff employed by hon. Members in furtherance of their parliamentary duties have to satisfy the office of the Serjeant-at-Arms that they are not a security risk. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to lay in the Library of the House the advice that he has been given by the Serjeant-at-Arms' office in connection with the changes that he proposes?
I have discussed the matter with the Serjeant-at-Arms. The advice that I have given to the Serjeant-at-Arms is that we cannot change the rules, the process of vetting or the tests for Sinn Fein Members' staff. They must be subject to the same test as the staff of any other hon. Member. I assure my right hon. Friend that no separate advice to the contrary has been tendered to me. I hope that that gives him the reassurance that he was seeking: the security tests will be the same for Sinn Fein Members' staff as for the staff of any other hon. Member.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. My question was not about the advice that my right hon. Friend had given to the Serjeant-at-Arms, but about the advice that the Serjeant-at-Arms gave to him. Could that advice be made available to hon. Members in the Library?
The motion will enable the four Sinn Fein Members to make an entry in the register. They are not required to do so under the rules, which provide that Members shall be obliged to make an entry only within three months of taking their seat. If that disappoints Opposition Members, I can give them the assurance that the motion will bring the four Sinn Fein Members within the scope of the remit of Mrs. Filkin, who will be able to apply the code of conduct. [Laughter.]
This place is an expression of the electoral process. Whatever our individual views of the politics of Sinn Fein, each of us must accept that the Sinn Fein MPs were elected to this House and were elected by their constituents.
Our constituents approach us with a wide range of issues, from their tax liability to their pension entitlement. It is because of that demand from our constituents that the House has approved allowances for all Members to provide a professional service to their constituents. We should not deny the same service to 250,000 United Kingdom citizens in Northern Ireland by refusing their MPs the same constituency allowances.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that Conservative Members see a very real difference between constituency MPs who are prepared to take the Oath and represent their constituents in this Chamber and those who are prepared to take the money but not take the Oath and cannot properly represent their constituents in this Chamber?
The Sinn Fein MPs will continue not to get any salary until such time as they take the Oath. The hon. Gentleman must ask himself whether he really regards his constituency allowances as money for himself. Does he not rather regard them as money to enable him to provide a service for his constituents? Most of those who voted in those four constituencies did not vote for the Sinn Fein candidate. Why should they be denied the same constituency services that we demand for ourselves and our constituents?
I began my speech by referring to the momentous developments that we have seen in Northern Ireland: I shall also end with them. The peace process has made it possible to contemplate the changes proposed in the motion, but it also makes it necessary to adopt these changes. The aim of many years of dialogue with republicans has been to persuade them to give up violence and engage instead in the political process.
No, I will not give way again.
In Belfast, republicans have engaged in the political process on everything from child welfare to care of the elderly. We cannot demand that process of engagement in Northern Ireland if we at Westminster keep the door firmly barred in case Sinn Fein MPs even put their foot across it.
I know that for some Members this is a difficult step. I respect the sincerity of those who feel that they cannot take it. However, I ask them to respect the sincerity of those of us who believe that the time has come to take this step to help the peace process.
We all—both sides of the House, I presume—welcome the ceasefire, which, for four years, has stopped IRA bombs and attacks on the security services. Most of us welcome the development of an elected Assembly in place of direct rule. If we want the ceasefire to become permanent and if we want the new democratic institutions of Northern Ireland to grow in strength, the House should also be prepared to contribute to the process of political engagement. The motion before us is one small contribution that the House can make, and I invite the House to support it.
I beg to move amendment (q), in line 1, leave out "8th January 2002" and insert—
"the completion of decommissioning, as verified by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning".
This is a worrying day for the House. It could turn out to be a very sad day—a memorable day in an unfortunate sense—for the House. Let me first say that I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan for intervening on the Leader of the House. The right hon. Gentleman should be particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for giving him the opportunity to salvage something of his reputation this afternoon. It was only after taking my hon. Friend's intervention that the right hon. Gentleman disclosed to the House a point that is blatantly clear from the Government's proposal: there is indeed a very real distinction between the regime that the Government are proposing for the Sinn Fein-IRA MPs and the status quo ante before the ruling in 1997 of your predecessor, Mr. Speaker.
During the earlier part of the speech of the Leader of the House, I was being given the clear impression—and I was not alone—that he was arguing that all that was happening was that the Government were restoring the status quo ante. The most charitable construction that one could have put upon that was that the right hon. Gentleman had not taken the trouble to read his own motion, which states:
"and may claim support for their costs as set out in the Resolution of 5th July 2001, relating to Members' Allowances, Insurance &c., and the allowances relating to travel within the United Kingdom for Members, their families and staff".
Those allowances were never available to Members who did not take their seat. That was explicitly set out in the statement made on
"In 1924, one of my predecessors ruled that any such Member"— that is, Members who did not take their seats—
"could not receive a salary, and this regulation also applies to allowances."—[Hansard, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 35.]
At that time, Madam Speaker made an authoritative statement of the position before she tightened the rules.
The Leader of the House pointed out that we were reinstating the situation pre-1997. Notwithstanding the fact that none of those Members availed themselves of the facilities, immediately before 1997 they could have done so. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he objects to the principle, or merely to the fact that the increased value of the office costs allowance is available to them? That is not a matter of principle, but it casts aspersions on the ability of the Fees Office properly to police the spending of that money.
The hon. Lady invites me to give her a preview of my speech. I should be happy to summarise it in one minute so that she can leave the Chamber if she wants to do so. Although I shall demonstrate—I hope, persuasively—the validity of two points, the focus of my remarks will be limited to those points.
The first point is that the Conservatives object very much to the whole concept of the creation of two-tier membership of the House, with the distortions that would flow from that. The second point is that we object fundamentally to the idea of making more unreciprocated concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA—especially treating the rules of the House of Commons as the currency for such concessions.
I thank the Opposition spokesman for giving way. Will he consider the democratic argument? Four constituencies elected Members of Parliament on the clear understanding that those Members would not partake in parliamentary proceedings—as they had made clear during the election campaign. What business is it of the hon. Gentleman or of the House to deny the constituents of those MPs facilities at Westminster that would enable the MPs better to represent individuals of all parties in their constituencies? Is that not a fundamental democratic argument that seems to have entirely escaped the Conservative party?
Is the hon. Gentleman advancing the extraordinary argument that anybody who stands for election in this country—on however absurd a programme as regards the parliamentary rules that he or she will or will not accept if elected—should, once elected, compel the rest of the House to change its rules to accommodate whatever bizarre demands they set out in their manifesto? That position is utterly unreasonable.
I would be obliged if the hon. Gentleman answered the extremely important question asked by my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey; it is important that we know on what basis the Conservative party has decided to end its bipartisan approach of 30 years. Does he object to the principle relating to the facilities involved or does he object to the money? If he objects to the principle, will he explain why the Conservative Government found no objection to the principle of providing the facilities for nine years while the IRA were bombing and not on ceasefire? Can we have a very straight answer to that fundamental question, because a political position that has lasted 30 years seems to have been broken? I repeat: does the hon. Gentleman's objection relate to the principle, or to the money? If it relates to the principle, why have Conservative Members changed their minds since past decades of Conservative Government?
The right hon. Gentleman also asks me for a preview of much of my speech, but I do not need to give him another preview because he, by parliamentary convention, is rather compelled—unlike Dr. Starkey—to remain in the Chamber to hear my speech, so he will hear exactly what I have to say on this subject. I assume that the Government want to hear my speech, or indeed that of any Opposition Member on this subject, but perhaps they are too ashamed of themselves and do not want to hear anything that we may have to say.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend will consider the fact that we are elected as Members of Parliament not just to deal with people's tax problems and the like; we are primarily elected to take decisions in this House about the future of this nation in the world in which we live, and we are given the allowances for that purpose as a whole. Does he agree, therefore, that at the very least there ought to be a different understanding for those who are not prepared to shoulder the main job of being a Member of Parliament?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The allowances are, of course, given to those hon. Members who wish to do a full job here and to enable them to do so.
No, I will not take any more interventions for the moment; otherwise we shall not make progress—[Interruption.]
I am conscious of the fact that a great many right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part in this debate, and rightly so because it touches the integrity of House of Commons, so I do not want to take up too much time.
I must, however, deal with two extraordinary distortions—I can only politely call them that because I am conscious of your strictures, Mr. Speaker, that I must keep to parliamentary language—that emerged from the speech made by the Leader of the House, the first of which was the comparison of the anomaly that would be produced by agreeing to the motion with the situation in Stormont. There is in fact no comparison at all between the position in Stormont and that in the House, because Sinn Fein-IRA have agreed to take their seats in the Assembly at Stormont and in the Executive there; they are playing a full part in those two new devolved institutions. For my part, I am delighted that they are playing a full part in those institutions, and we would welcome it if they decided to take a full part in the proceedings of the House of Commons and took their seats here.
We have no illusions about Sinn Fein-IRA, unlike the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who, in last night's debate on Northern Ireland, compared the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA to that between the Labour party and the trade union movement. We have no such illusions about them or their record, but we respect the rules of democracy. Those four persons have been democratically duly elected to their seats in this House and the doors here are open; they are welcome to take their seats. If they take their seats, they are, of course, welcome to all the facilities and allowances that go with that.
I shall give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, then to my right hon. and learned Friend, and then I shall proceed with my speech.
Although there are many differences between Members in the House and Sinn Fein—and we disapprove of Sinn Fein—does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that there is one honourable difference? Many Members on both sides are republicans but not a single one of them was elected as a republican. Because of the Oath that the House sets, a Member who is a republican and who was elected as such needs to deny the platform that he was elected on before he can take his seat in the House. How does the hon. Gentleman defend that?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman intended to make a helpful intervention, but he is simply misinformed about the facts. Sinn Fein-IRA have made statements recently—one appeared in the Irish Times on
To build on my hon. Friend's point, once it is accepted that it is right to allow former terrorists or supporters of terrorists to become Members of the House—that is my view—should we not resolutely confront the problem of the Oath? I am a constitutional monarchist, but I do not see why my duties as a Member of the House should be defined with reference to the Crown. Should we not, in fact, re-examine the Oath, so that we have either no oath or an oath that does not strain the consciences of loyal republicans? I refer not to the IRA but to others who are loyal and committed republicans.
My right hon. and learned Friend is a very distinguished lawyer and he takes a considerable theoretical interest in all these matters. He raises enormously important subjects that are not at all germane to today's debate. If anyone in the House seriously wants to abolish the concept of the Loyal Oath, I suggest that he or she take the opportunity to table a separate motion so that the House can pronounce on the subject. I have a very clear view as to how the House would pronounce in such an eventuality. However, that is not the issue that has been raised today.
The issue before us is not a suggestion that we should change our rules for everyone—that would mean that everyone would still be subject to the same rules on the same terms—but the suggestion that we should distort our rules to produce two sets of rules: one for one type of Member of Parliament and one for another type of Member. Conservative Members will certainly decide—and I hope that the whole House will—that that is a thoroughly unacceptable course to take.
The hon. Gentleman has just said that the Oath of Allegiance is not germane to the debate. However, amendment (t)—which is in his name and which you have selected, Mr. Speaker—makes specific reference to the "oath of allegiance". If therefore the hon. Gentleman is speaking for the Conservative party, he has the duty to answer the question of Mr. Hogg.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The present rules, which the Government are trying to change, deal with elected Members taking or not taking their seats. The suggestion is that there should be one regime for Members taking their seats and another for Members who do not. The extent to which taking their seat is conditional or should no longer be conditional on taking an oath is a separate matter. I shall not be drawn any further down that road.
I have dealt with two entirely gratuitous distortions that the Government have made this afternoon. The first is the suggestion that there is an analogy with Stormont. There is no such analogy. In Stormont, Sinn Fein-IRA accept the same rules as everyone else and they are welcome here on the basis that they accept the same rules as everyone else.
The second distortion is the suggestion that we are trying to bar Sinn Fein-IRA Members from taking the seats here to which they have been elected. I have explained that that is not at all the case. They themselves have precluded themselves—most recently in a statement on the radio only this morning—from taking their seats in Parliament, whatever we do about the Loyal Oath or about anything else.
I heard Pat Doherty on the "Today" programme this morning as, I am sure, did other hon. Members. He described this place as a foreign Parliament. The problem is not the Oath of Allegiance, but his complete contempt for this place. Why should we allow someone who holds this place in such contempt, and who does not play a part in it and has no wish to, any access to public money in this country?
I share my hon. Friend's immediate response. There are two issues to consider. The first is whether we should create a distorted regime with a two-tier categorisation of Members of Parliament. The second is that if we create a specially privileged category of Members of Parliament who can access facilities, money and so forth without taking their seats, we must consider whether it is bizarre—
No, not for the time being.
We have to consider whether it is perverse and bizarre to allow the beneficiaries of such a special regime to be people to whom we owe so little by way of favours—I am trying to make my point as mildly as I can—as we do to Sinn Fein-IRA.
Why have the Government made this proposal? We all know—they have not attempted to deny this—that they would not have attempted to create a special regime for special types of MPs in any other context. If any one of us had formed up to the right hon. Gentleman in his role as Leader of the House and said, "Look, it would rather suit us after the next election, if we get elected, not actually to take up our seats, but to have the offices, money and travel allowances. Would that be all right? Would the Government like to use their vast majority—their pay-roll vote—to help us get that through?", we would have got a dusty answer. We all know that the Government are providing a specific and direct privilege that is to be handed over to one category of Members of Parliament who have been elected on a Sinn Fein-IRA ticket.
The great question that the Leader of the House has to answer is: why are we doing this? What are we getting in return? We know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland discussed the matter with Sinn Fein-IRA, because he told us so last night. As that has been the subject of negotiation, what is the other side offering? The Government have promised to change—indeed, I repeat, to distort—our rules in the House of Commons, but what are they receiving in return?
I shall be delighted to give way to the Leader of the House if he wants to answer my question, but he shakes his head and does not intend to respond. That goes to the heart of the trouble that we have with supporting the Government on Northern Ireland. They introduce such one-sided measures without consulting the Opposition or giving a public response in the House of Commons to our questions, and then expect us to support them. What an extraordinary state of affairs it is that a Government in those circumstances seriously think that they deserve support.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those words. Does he remember that, at the height of IRA terror, his Government constantly denied that there was any contact between them and the IRA, yet on
If that is an invitation to launch into a seminar on Irish history, now is not the time or the place, much as I would find it fascinating to do so. If, on the other hand, it is an attempt to throw me off my stride or to help the Leader of the House by protecting him from some of my strictures, I have to tell him that it simply will not work, because I do not intend to be thrown off my stride.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman told the truth in his own inimitable way. I am sorry that I was not here at that time to hear what he said or to witness the reaction; it sounds as though it was rather traumatic.
We have established that this measure, which was brought forward as a change to the rules of the House of Commons, has nothing to do with the interests of the House. In no sense at all is the Leader of the House making this proposal as part of his responsibility to improve and modernise our procedures. It is simply part of the Government's policy of endless concessions to, and appeasement of, Sinn Fein-IRA. Hardly a week goes by—this week, hardly a day goes by—without the announcement of a further concession.
I spoke about this last night. It is a deplorable situation for two reasons. First, these endless concessions are unreciprocated. They are being given away in exchange for precisely nothing. Let no one say that they are being made in exchange for decommissioning. Decommissioning was part of the Belfast agreement and should have been completed two years after the agreement was made. Against that, various things had to be done by the other parties concerned, including the British and Irish Governments. The British Government made a major concession to paramilitaries by releasing all terrorist prisoners. They released those prisoners unaccountably and extraordinarily, even though it was not necessary to do so within the terms of the agreement, and without any progress having been made on the other side or any decommissioning having taken place. That was a catastrophic mistake. It meant that decommissioning did not happen within two years; nor did it happen within three years.
The Government then completely panicked and decided that they had better make more concessions, which were not even in the Belfast agreement. In other words, they proposed to increase the price but were still receiving nothing at all. They went to Weston Park and made a whole new raft of concessions, but what happened? They did not get decommissioning. A week or so later, Sinn Fein-IRA withdrew from the agreement on the methodology of decommissioning which they had negotiated with General de Chastelain at the time of the Weston Park meeting. As I said last night, that was a real blow to the Government and indeed to the peace process.
The tragic events of
Against that background, I am sorry to say that the Government have fallen back, with a vengeance, into their bad habit of throwing out concession after concession without receiving anything in return. We have had dramatic evidence of that today. We all know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is not slow to intervene in the House. He loves to jump up when he thinks that he can gain a point. The Government have brought this measure forward as a concession to Sinn Fein-IRA. That has been established beyond any doubt in the debate this afternoon. I asked the Secretary of State a simple question: what was received in return? I said that I would give way to him and am prepared to do so now if he will answer that simple question. No answer. Shall I wait? Shall I observe a five-second silence while the right hon. Gentleman gathers his thoughts? It is clear that nothing—
Although the hon. Gentleman with his much vaunted history of Ireland is too blind to see it, one of the gains that we get is a compromise from republicans on engaging in dialogue in the House, as I shall point out later. Now that I have told him the gain, will he tell me the answer to a fundamental question that he promised 20 minutes ago, and explain the foundation of Conservative Members' opposition? Do they object in principle to what is being done on facilities or is it the money? If they object in principle to extending the facilities now that the IRA have decommissioned, why did his Government not object in principle when they were blowing up ordinary civilians throughout the country?
I will not allow the right hon. Gentleman to get away without taking up the absurdity of his remarks at the beginning of his intervention. I distinctly heard him say that it was necessary to pass the motion to give us opportunities for dialogue with Sinn Fein-IRA. He has an opportunity, as do I or any one of us, to engage in dialogue with Sinn Fein-IRA in Belfast or anywhere else, including London, if they came here. They can come to the House of Commons—
I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he will sit down for a moment and let me finish my sentence. We have every opportunity for dialogue with Sinn Fein-IRA, to use the right hon. Gentleman's phrase; they can come to his office in the House of Commons any time they choose. The idea that we have to pay them money, travel expenses and an office cost allowance to have a dialogue is absurd. Does he think that whenever he wants to have a dialogue with someone he has to pay them money in advance?
The hon. Gentleman is proving himself not only blind but deaf. I did not say that that was necessary to have a dialogue. I said that one of the gains that we all got from the move was to bring Sinn Fein into dialogue in the House. Now that I have clarified that again, will the hon. Gentleman answer the question. Is he objecting in principle or to the money?
I shall answer the right hon. Gentleman's question frankly. The proposal is objectionable and problematic in principle, but life consists of making difficult choices. If the right hon. Gentleman did not know that, let me tell him it now.
No, no, no. The right hon. Gentleman cannot ask me a question and not even allow me to finish one sentence before he tries to get in again. I am sorry—he will have to sit there until I have finished answering his question.
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman again that life consists of difficult choices. Politics and much of human life consist of defending what is essential and being prepared if necessary to give away the less essential and the non-essential. I shall explain frankly to him the views of my colleagues and me on the matter. We would not lightly change the rules of the House; above all, we would be extremely reluctant to produce a regime for Members of Parliament that is not universal, does not apply equally to all Members and does not give them the same obligations and rights. Even more essential to the national interest is fulfilling the Belfast process and achieving complete decommissioning, which the right hon. Gentleman has so far failed to do. We are therefore prepared to contemplate such an arrangement, anomalous and objectionable as it is, if it is the price of full and complete decommissioning. Under no circumstances—
Let me finish; this is important. Under no circumstances are we prepared to contemplate it simply as a kind of goodwill gesture or unilateral concession. Above all, the arrangement is not necessary or—if the right hon. Gentleman would like me to correct my earlier quotation of his remarks—desirable to help to promote dialogue. That is utterly absurd and he knows it full well.
Now we have it. There is an objection in principle to the facilities of the House being extended to Sinn Fein after the IRA have gone on ceasefire, after Sinn Fein has Ministers and Members of the Assembly, and the IRA have decommissioned. [Interruption.] Can the hon. Gentleman explain why there was no objection in principle from the Tory Government to the facilities being made available when the IRA were not on ceasefire, Sinn Fein was not participating in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the IRA were bombing and blasting their way through this country?
I have already explained exhaustively to the right hon. Gentleman that there is no analogy between the position in Stormont and the position at Westminster. Surely I need not repeat myself a third time on that subject. I have also explained exhaustively that, contrary to what his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House implied at the beginning of his speech, it is certainly not true that the motion would restore the status quo ante. That impression would have been extremely deceptive, had the right hon. Gentleman continued to sustain it. I am glad that he corrected himself and the point has been made clear.
Before I conclude my remarks, I must set out, first, what we find particularly objectionable about the Government's approach to Northern Ireland, and secondly, how the Opposition could do a great deal more to protect this country's interests and facilitate decommissioning.
We object to the Government's policy of endless unilateral concession. We object to the lack of reciprocity, discipline and any sense of how to conduct a businesslike negotiation. We have seen that again and again. The Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, in which there are further unilateral concessions, had its First Reading today. We saw another example last night, when the regime for decommissioning was extended by five years, whereas we had all hoped that the extension would be for just a few months or a year at most. What an appalling signal to send to Sinn Fein-IRA.
Far from maximising the leverage that they have on Sinn Fein-IRA, the Government are continually relaxing the pressure. They are continually making concessions and demanding nothing in return.
I am not giving way at this stage. The hon. Gentleman will have to catch Mr. Speaker's eye later.
The Government's approach is disastrous. Sinn Fein-IRA do not take it seriously. They know that they have merely to whine, and the Government will keep them happy with some new concession. That has been the story all along.
Our second great objection to Government policy is the extraordinary mind set with which they approach the problem. They seem to think that of all those with whom they might be negotiating in a hard world, Sinn Fein-IRA alone are soft people who will respond generously and sentimentally to concessions. The lack of realism is amazing. It was most graphically represented the other day when the House debated the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.
As originally drafted, the Bill contained an extraordinary clause whereby the powers taken against terrorism in the Bill—understandably taken, in the present circumstances—would not apply to terrorism directed against a part of this country. Of course, we objected to that, and the Government accepted the error of their ways and withdrew that pernicious distinction. However, the Government seemed prepared to introduce an anti- terrorism Bill which perversely discriminated against this country—in other words, a Bill that provided a less severe regime for terrorist threats directed against our own citizens than for terrorist threats directed elsewhere. It is difficult to speculate on the mind set that could produce such a distortion.
I said that I would not give way to the hon. Gentleman. Did he not hear me the first time? [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I am sorry that I cannot give way, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that many hon. Members want to take part in the debate. I accept that it is necessary for Front Benchers to take as many interventions as possible and I appreciate that that is what Parliament is about, but there comes a point when one must move on. I am within a few minutes of letting everybody else take part in the debate, if I am allowed do so.
Against the background of completely uncontrolled concessions, the Government's seemingly complete failure to appreciate the need to maintain some balance in their dealings with Sinn Fein-IRA, and an extraordinary tendency to believe that terrorist threats in this country are not as real as those in the rest of the world, it is not surprising that we in the Conservative party have had to review very seriously our policy towards supporting the Government. We would love to get back to a greater degree of bipartisanship and I hope and trust that we may do so. We remain utterly committed to the Belfast agreement, the peace process and the success of devolved democracy in Northern Ireland. We simply do not believe that the Government are going about things in a sensible way if they wish to reinforce those institutions.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He rightly reminded the House that, when the Conservatives were in government, the Labour Opposition from time to time did not support measures that we introduced. The bipartisan approach never implied total agreement or accord, but it was the pillar on which the Belfast process was built and moved forward, and it was also of great succour to our fighting men and women who were putting their lives on the line for this nation. Can I say to him that, while he is right to criticise individual aspects of Government policy, especially tonight, many of us are still wedded to the concept of the importance, both historically and in the future, of a bipartisan approach?
I am one of those people. I am very much committed to the idea of bipartisanship in this field, as I have said. I agree entirely that we have jointly supported the Belfast agreement. Indeed, I continue to hope—perhaps against hope—that we can get back to a bipartisan approach, but we will not do so on the basis of the tactics adopted by the Government. Neither will we do so, I must tell the Leader of the House, on the basis of the Government's attitude to the House of Commons as he represents it. He cannot get away with neither answering questions to the House nor consulting us in private and still expecting us to support his policies. That does not make any sense.
I am very sorry; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I had to make an exception in favour of my right hon. Friend
The Opposition's view, which I have reiterated several times—I can see that I shall have to return to it on future occasions, as I do not think that the Government have taken it on board—is that it is very important, if we are going to maximise pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA to decommission and get decommissioning from other paramilitaries, that a slightly more robust stance be taken. I have proposed that the Government should at least attempt to negotiate a full package—I have called it a programmed process—leading to full decommissioning, so that all parties concerned, including the British Government, know what needs to be done by whom, when and in what order, and so that we have a clear, linked and co-ordinated agreement leading to the completion of decommissioning. Until and unless such a package is negotiated, there should be no further unilateral concessions, least of all if they involve throwing away the integrity of this House. That is what we are deeply concerned about.
As Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman must recognise that he has an absolute responsibility before the House and before history to ensure that we do not lightly treat our rules and procedures, lightly create different rules for different people, or play ducks and drakes with the constitution of the House of Commons. Above all, he must recognise that we do not sell our rules and procedures, least of all if we receive nothing in return.
I hope that all hon. Members recognise that I have a record of strenuous opposition to Sinn Fein and that I would never wish us to be soft on it. However, I support the motion so that we can engage with Sinn Fein and express views that its members would find uncomfortable but would have to try to tackle.
My assistant chairs a group called New Dialogue, which has often disputed Sinn Fein's ideas. I have supplied access to the House to people such as Sean O'Callaghan, who was the southern organiser of the Provisional IRA, but changed his position and became an informer on that organisation. There would therefore be some difficulties for me, and people who work for me, or are associated with me, if Sinn Fein had access to the House. Nevertheless, the motion could lead to substantial gains, and it should be supported.
That already happens in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and there are no problems there. Indeed, the Opposition have said that they would not worry if Sinn Fein Members took their seats as long as they took the Oath and thus became full Members. However, there is a difficulty about rubbing shoulders, which must also exist in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I believe that we should bear it and try to deal with it. We should be aware of it but respond to it strongly.
Does the hon. Gentleman know that as recently as
It is the right time. I do not doubt what the hon. Gentleman says about the positions that Sinn Fein adopts in Republican News. I have been attacked on its front pages for lines that I have taken. However, changes are happening. A sea change is beginning that allows us to start to draw Sinn Fein into the political process and to put alternative viewpoints, which, I hope, will drive it from having any standing or position in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.
We cannot get rid of Sinn Fein's political viewpoint by trying to distance ourselves from it. At one time, we tried to deny Sinn Fein the oxygen of publicity. Sinn Fein Members were seen on television, but their voices were not heard, because their words were spoken by actors. We were told that if that system were changed, the news media might engage in proper discussions with Sinn Fein. Unfortunately, when the change occurred, that full and fearless discussion did not take place. Sinn Fein gets away with murder on television, and perhaps elsewhere, in terms of their position. We should be capable of taking on Sinn Fein and we should have sufficient strength in our position to be prepared fearlessly to argue those points.
The fact that Sinn Fein Members would be around and about within the Palace of Westminster has advantages for the rest of us in taking on board their position. I would sooner that means were found—perhaps getting rid of the Oath—to allow them to sit on these Benches. It would then be easier to take on their arguments, because they are not unanswerable.
If there were to be an opportunity to debate the abhorrent policies of Sinn Fein-IRA as a result of those Members taking their seats, the hon. Gentleman's argument would stand up. However, we know that the Sinn Fein Members said in their election addresses—and repeated it on the "Today" programme this morning—that they were not prepared to take part in any democratic debates in this Chamber. It is not a matter of the Oath, important though that is. They abhor democracy and have referred to this place as a foreign Parliament. How can we allow these terrorists into this democratic debate? They are not democrats.
Abhorring democracy and seeing this place as foreign are not tied together. The loyalty of those Members may be seen to be more towards the Republic of Ireland than the UK, but the Republic has a democratic system. Those Members have some problems in dealing with the argument within the institutions of the Republic. I would like to see the day when they are taken fully on board within the Republic of Ireland.
May I take my hon. Friend back to the Oath? The general understanding of the Sinn Fein position is that its Members do not wish to take their seats in the British Parliament because they want a united Ireland and a Parliament there in which they could take part. The argument on this motion is fundamentally a democratic one about the rights of those Members to represent their constituents in the best way that they can. By denying them access to this building, we deny their constituents access to democratic representation.
They should be here, but not just because of the rights that that would give them and those on whose behalf they speak. It is about the rights that we are given to deal with their position—a position that we should be capable of responding to.
Did not the Provisional IRA come into existence not to achieve democratic reforms in Northern Ireland, but for one reason and one reason only: to bring about a united Ireland, against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland? Where is this united Ireland? Is it not as remote as it was 30 years ago? Why on earth do some people give the impression that the IRA has won a remarkable victory?
Yes. The Belfast agreement essentially guarantees Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom, unless the people agree in a referendum to change it, and that is light years away. Unionism should recognise that it has gained a tremendous advantage from the situation. The Opposition continually argue that concession after concession has been made to Sinn Fein, but that is not the case. An overall position advantageous to Unionism has emerged from the agreement, and that must be recognised.
On occasion, attempts are made to push back Sinn Fein. For example, in my speech last night, I discussed the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, a Bill that is directed fundamentally against Sinn Fein, which manipulates and manoeuvres the electorate to get seats. It has not been ruled against by electoral courts, so its members still hold legitimate positions, but, in the end, if the issue is dealt with fully and properly in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein will win fewer seats.
If we take on the politics that I have described, I believe that we will overrun Sinn Fein so that constitutional nationalism, through the Social Democratic and Labour party, for instance, would be in a prominent position. The Labour party should be willing to organise in Northern Ireland to take those issues on and we should take the debate on measures that the House considers into the Province to argue the case.
I agree totally with my hon. Friend on that count—for many years, I have advocated restoring the Northern Ireland Labour party—but may I ask about another matter? I assume that he regards himself as my equal. Like me, he was elected by adult franchise and by a majority in his constituency according to an electoral system that he and I recognise. If he arrived in the House of Commons and found that, unfortunately, he was subject to one set of basic rules while another Member operated under a second and totally different set that offered some privileges without the work having to be done, what would be his response?
Any elected Member is subject to the provisions that are being agreed to tonight and that are established generally. In some future situation, someone else, apart from Sinn Fein Members, might decide that he wants to operate in that peculiar way, but it is not a matter of fundamental constitutional or parliamentary principle that what is proposed should not occur.
I return to the intervention by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. Traditionally, Sinn Fein would not take seats in the Republic of Ireland or in Stormont, but the situation has changed. The distorted principles that it held in the past have been influenced and altered, and it is willing to act to try to maximise its political advantage or to minimise disadvantages. Owing to that, it agreed to the position on putting some arms beyond use. It was under tremendous pressure and liable to lose very much financially and politically, so it has altered its views and attitudes. It is on the slippery slope over its past position and we should encourage that.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his shadow had an argument about whether the motion is a matter of principle or of money. The shadow Secretary of State said that, in the end, it is a matter of principle, although it sounded to me as though it is about the money.
If it is about the money, I do not know what Sinn Fein is after. It is the richest political party in western Europe, and it has obtained its money by all sorts of devious and other means. I agree with my hon. Friend Helen Jackson that Sinn Fein Members should be obliged to make an entry in the Register of Members' Interests.
A number of Members have registered the fact that 25 per cent. or more of their election expenses came from certain organisations, such as trade unions in the case of various Labour Members. Where did 25 per cent. of Sinn Fein's money come from when its members stood for election? If Sinn Fein Members had to register such details, they should be subject to investigation, especially if—for all Members—we made investigation of such matters more rigorous. If we began to take account of some of the manoeuvres and manipulations in which the organisation has been involved, that would be a healthy development.
Perhaps that could be clarified. I understood that those who had taken the Oath and had been Members for more than three months must then be included in the register. If that excludes Sinn Fein, the provision should be altered.
Let me clear up this point. The provision does not exclude Sinn Fein, although my hon. Friend is right about the requirement for registration within three months of a Member's taking his seat. If registration were required of Sinn Fein Members, or indeed any other Members who did not take the Oath, it would have to take place three months after their election.
In response to an earlier intervention, let me add that those who do not take the Oath are bound by the same code of conduct as those who do, and are therefore required to accept investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Not all the consequences of the motion might be equally welcome to the four Sinn Fein MPs.
Some Members laughed during that intervention, but I think that such points about standards and arrangements are very important. Even if there is no general willingness to obey the rules, they will take on a new significance: they will begin to alter the shape of the activities in which the Members have been involved. That has already begun to happen in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. If we can encourage it to happen here, we should take the chance.
Not for the first time, I fully agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He makes an important point which, with respect, the Leader of the House has not properly answered. Nothing in the motion will change the current position whereby a Member who has not taken his seat is not required to make an entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I confirmed that today—Members may not know that the new register was published today. Under "Adams, Gerry" we see only:
"Mr. Adams has not taken his seat."
If the hon. Gentleman is trying to press the Leader of the House to change that as well—if the House passes the motion giving Sinn Fein Members these allowances— I am right behind him, and I think that most of the House will be as well.
That matter should be taken on board. If it is not covered by the current arrangements, it should be. We are not doing it on this occasion because it might not be procedurally possible. If some of us had known of this debate a little earlier, we could have tabled the appropriate amendments. Nevertheless, it should be done as soon as possible. The measure on registration should apply to Sinn Fein Members as much as it applies to anyone else.
I admire the hon. Gentleman's hope and optimism. He may be aware that the Electoral Commission has already published the expenses of the parties at the last general election, including the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but the figure for Sinn Fein accepted by the Electoral Commission is £8,000 or £9,000. How will the commission discover what was spent by Sinn Fein and bring that out into the open? Is it not time that we stopped pussyfooting around in the whole business?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am in favour of the finances of Sinn Fein, the IRA, other paramilitary bodies and the parties linked to them being thoroughly investigated and seeing the light of day, and of taking action that flows from that against those organisations, but that is not the only tactic that we should be engaged in. We should not always engage in the tactic of pressure to get concessions, as it were. We should also be for pulling them into the political process.
The analogy between how the Labour party came out of the trade unions and how Sinn Fein as a political body came out of the IRA has some relevance. The Labour party started to change over time. It distanced itself from the trade unions—too much, some of us think. We want Sinn Fein, because it has been pulled into the political process, to begin to detach itself from what remains of the IRA. I suspect that the IRA will still be strong and involved in racketeering and mafia-type activity. Action will have to be taken at that time. We could reach a situation in which the organisations begin to be distinct and not inextricably interlinked, as they happen to be at the moment.
I am a Liverpool, Irish, cradle Catholic. I happen to be inclined towards republicanism. I also aspire to a united Ireland, but I knew when I came in here that I would have to take an Oath of Allegiance. I also knew that the honour of being an MP was about representing not just Westminster in the constituency but the constituency in Westminster. Does it not denigrate hon. Members to suggest that there is an honourable role for people to act just as glorified social workers in their constituency, without their being held to account in this Chamber, with all the rules that go with it?
Sinn Fein should be here and should be held to account. On a past occasion, I acted on behalf of a constituent in Belfast, West. I finished up getting what seemed to be a letter of safe conduct from Gerry Adams in connection with that, saying that it was okay to go ahead. I argued about that because he should be here doing his work, and checking and responding to the Executive, but it is a matter of how we achieve that situation. It will not occur dramatically.
It is all right for people such as me. I have reservations about the Oath and about the religious prayers that take place here each day, but I involve myself in them. I am not one of those people who sits down during prayers to show that I have a principled position. I will be a hypocrite, pray and turn around with everyone else even though I might not share those views. The Oath to the Crown is perhaps like that, but there are far more important and significant things to do. I wish that Northern Ireland politics was not so hung up on ideas, views and strict principles that can never be invaded, even though those views are sometimes despicable.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the point that I made to Mr. Davies? Is there not a difference between holding republican or atheistic views, such as those that my hon. Friend expressed, and standing for election and being elected on them, and then being asked to deny them to take a seat in this House?
My hon. Friend's point was well put, and that is a particular problem. If principles, whatever they are, are writ large, people have difficulty moving beyond them. I believe in many different principles that all rub up against each other. On some occasions, I have to make difficult choices between them. I wish that that were the case for Sinn Fein and many other politicians in Northern Ireland.
Building on the point made by Mr. Jones, is not the way forward not to create two separate classes of Member, but to remove the Oath, either entirely or in the form in which it stands in the way of loyal, committed republicans honestly taking it? If we remove the Oath in its present form, Sinn Fein has no possible excuse for not sitting here, and its members can take up all their rights and obligations or none of them. What they cannot do is say that we are standing in their way.
I have much sympathy for that point of view, because if not having the Oath made it easier for Members to take their seats, everybody would be on an equal footing. The argument of Sinn Fein Members would then be weakened. One could ask why they had taken their seats in the Republic of Ireland Parliament in a divided Ireland and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but refused to take their seats in the UK Parliament. They would, in time, take their seats here. If we accept the motion, we will make progress in that direction. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to press for that change, I would support it, but it could build on the motion before us today.
My hon. Friend said that we should make it easy for people to take an Oath and enter the Commons. Surely we should have an Oath that concentrates on the essentials, which concern the way in which political affairs should be conducted in this country. That might be difficult for some people to take, but it would be essential for us to hold to. We need to put aside some aspects of the Oath that are not essential but that may be barriers to people taking it, and concentrate on what is essential. We should not make the test one of whether it is easy for people to take the Oath, but of whether the Oath is meaningful and reflects the democratic way of life that this Chamber represents.
Either we need an Oath that relates to democracy and parliamentary activities or, as suggested by Mr. Hogg, no Oath at all. Why have an Oath if people have been elected to the House through due procedure? Such people would have been elected by the majority of the electorate in their constituencies, and we should proceed on that basis.
It would have been possible to make a speech even if I had had no notes, because I have taken so many interventions. They have carried me along and made me think on my feet.
In conclusion, I shall describe my general political position, as it affects my attitude to the motion. It is sometimes argued that people who adopt my position are really Orangemen or Unionists. That is not the case. I happen to believe that there are many honourable and decent Unionists. We should be very concerned about the Unionist working class, and we should not parody Unionists as people in bowler hats walking in parades. We should understand the reality of their culture.
However, I am not green either. In the long run, the commercial and economic links between the north and south of Ireland might grow and people might decide to change the constitutional arrangements. That is up to them. I have neither a green agenda, nor an orange one. I feel that all the stuff about the border is trivial, and has been blown up into a great issue. It prevents us from discussing the bread-and-butter political issues that affect people's lives in working-class areas.
In different territories of Belfast, the streets are either red, white and blue or green, orange and white. Yet the people in those areas have much more in common with each other than they have in opposition to each other. Therefore, my colour is red, not green or orange. My position is that of the traditional democrat socialist: I believe in the essential unity of people, and especially of working-class people. I believe that their position in society should be raised, and that working-class Catholics and Protestants should live together.
In 1906, the Labour party—formerly the Labour Representation Committee—held its first conference in Belfast. The problem is that the party does not even organise in the city now. That is something to which we should return.
It is clear that the key question is whether it is acceptable to agree with the Government and provide office space and costs to Sinn Fein Members, or whether the idea is such a bad one that it justifies the Conservative party walking away from the bipartisan arrangement.
I and many other hon. Members accept that this is a vexed issue. Many hon. Members whom I respect—such as Kate Hoey, and others among my hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches—have significant concerns about the principle involved in giving Sinn Fein Members these facilities when they are not required to take the Oath, and all that that entails.
The vote at the end of the debate will be free, and I suggest that the balance is in favour of approving the motion. The concerns about principle, valid though they may be, are outweighed by the benefit that would be done to the peace process. Crucially, they are outweighed by the fact that, at every stage in the negotiation of the normalisation of life in Northern Ireland, similar leaps of faith have had to be taken, and by parties of more than one colour.
Should not the hon. Gentleman be a little more realistic? He is the Liberal Democrat Front- Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland matters, and I am one of the security spokesmen for the Conservative party. We both know that the reality is that, even though tonight's vote may technically be described as free for members of other parties, the Government intend to insure that their payroll vote will force the matter through in a way that is wholly unconscionable. Will not the hon. Gentleman speak about the reality of the position in this House on this important matter?
The reality is that it is not for me to pronounce on the internal organisation of the Labour party. I assure the hon. Gentleman that tonight's vote will be genuinely free for Liberal Democrat Members. I hope that my colleagues, when they make their decision, take into account my comments, as well as those of others. However, as an aside, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that it is curious that, although the motion is subject to a free vote among Conservative Members, it nevertheless has sufficient policy implications that the party feels able to walk away from the bipartisan agreement. I fail to understand how those two factors can coincide.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the official Opposition—the Conservative and Unionist party—might demur from the bipartisan approach to the Northern Ireland peace process as a result of understandable principles on such issues as the release of prisoners or lack of progress on decommissioning? Does he accept how inexplicable people over here and in Northern Ireland will find the fact that 30 years of bipartisan work is being torn up over the principle of a desk, an office space and access to a photocopier?
The hon. Gentleman and I take the same position. There is a fundamental contradiction, however, in the Conservative spokespeople on Northern Ireland pretending that their party has a free vote and yet pronouncing, hours before the debate is even held and before they have seen how their colleagues vote, that they will walk away from the bipartisan agreement.
The explanation is simple. Much to our regret, we have found it impossible to support or, often, even to understand Government policy in recent weeks. They have made no attempt to explain it to us either privately or in the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman has heard me ask questions that go to the heart of this and other proposals for Northern Ireland to which we have not had responses. It is not the case that we have walked away from bipartisanship because of this issue, or, indeed, that we have walked away from bipartisanship at all. The Government have made it impossible for us to be bipartisan. This is just one of a series of endless and apparently uncontrolled concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA.
Conservative Members always have a free vote on House of Commons issues, and this is essentially a House of Commons issue. It is, however, one of the many contexts in which the Government have given us great grounds for anxiety about the course on which they are launched in negotiating the completion of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
That serves to confirm that either the hon. Gentleman is not aware of his pronouncements in the press or that he is choosing to redefine what a free vote means. He specifically stated in the press that Conservative Members were walking away from the bipartisan agreement explicitly because of the decision that they anticipated would be made tonight.
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to say that he speaks for the Conservative party. As I am a Liberal and enjoy an eclectic political approach, perhaps I should join the Conservative party. It seems that a free vote is not a free vote and that Front-Bench Members can say whatever they like because the free vote really belongs to them.
I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is quoting, but he is not quoting me. If he had listened to what I just said, he would understand what our policy is. If he has some other quotation, let him put it to me. There may be some speculation about my position, but whatever has been said is not a direct quote from me.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. On its front page, The Daily Telegraph—which is daily reading for me—says:
"the Tories said they were pulling the plug on the principle of cross-party support".
That appears to be in the context of what The Daily Telegraph helpfully says is an interview with
"the shadow Northern Ireland secretary".
Either Mr. Davies made what I am sure was an error in misleading The Daily Telegraph as to what the Conservative party was doing or he has had second thoughts since that interview.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to correct what the Leader of the House has said. The right hon. Gentleman did not quote my words, which are quite properly quoted—except for one wrong word—on page 4 of The Daily Telegraph. The words in inverted commas are properly attributed to me, except for one, and I stand by them. I am not responsible for any press comment on that interview or anything else.
I knew that the anti-terrorism legislation was pernicious, but if it is so powerful that the Government have managed to win over the heart and mind of The Daily Telegraph, that is indeed worrying. I have made my point, the hon. Gentleman has tried to respond and the House can draw its own conclusions.
I assume that to walk away from bipartisanship does not mean walking away from the shared goal of peace. I hope to convince hon. Members—on the Liberal Democrat Benches and elsewhere—that, at heart, the judgment that we should make tonight is whether the motion will so help peace and improve the chances for a sustained and normalised political environment that it is worth the risks and the emotional costs involved. The real debate is thus whether such a precedent—it is indeed a precedent—is acceptable in the context of the big picture in Northern Ireland that we must always bear in mind.
I hope that the House will accept the following point in the spirit in which it is intended. The debate has thrown into sharp focus for the entire House a matter that is often debated by a small and experienced number of Members—perhaps 20 or 30—who are often in the Chamber. We are really discussing a snapshot of the point that we have reached in the peace process. The discussion of the need to do things in a new way is not a new principle.
Having criticised the Conservatives for walking away from bipartisanship, I now offer the House three examples of momentous precedents set by the Conservative party in the pursuit of peace. Hon. Members will remember the stress and the history of the Anglo-Irish agreement. Although we all accept the strength of the relationship that now exists between Dublin and Westminster, let us not forget that it was almost non-existent before the advent of that agreement.
The Anglo-Irish agreement was instituted at a time when the Dublin Government claimed a constitutional hold over Northern Ireland—that they had a constitutional mandate to reunify Ireland. Who was the person who pushed through that agreement? It was Margaret Thatcher—not regarded as a republican icon in any quarter. Why did she promote the agreement? Because in her judgment—and to her credit—and in the judgment of her Government, the potential loss of popularity was more than outweighed by the benefits to the peace process.
The second precedent was created by another former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. He picked up the phone and spoke to the IRA at a time when they were not even on a ceasefire. When he was holding those conversations, which had been—as we have already heard—going on for some time, the IRA were bombing, maiming and killing, and destroying property as part of what they considered a war.
Was John Major an apologist for the IRA? Absolutely not. The reason that he took what turned out to be a courageous and laudable decision was that, in his judgment, it was the right one to secure the ultimate goal of peace. I said during our debate last night—as I have said many times in the Chamber—that John Major's great contribution to the House was the series of decisions that he took, initially in private, which he then made public, to negotiate with individuals who had never been involved in the decision-making process.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and I am most impressed by his argument. However, can he offer me a single instance—just one—of evidence that the important change that we propose to make tonight will produce the kind of result that he is talking about?
I am describing unique and unprecedented incidents and arguing that the proposal falls into the same category: it is a new and unique opportunity to set a further precedent. I fully accept the hon. Lady's implication: a risk is involved—as there was on those previous occasions. However, I want to show the House that whenever we have taken such risks—although they may not have been justifiable at the time—they were worth it in the longer term.
When a Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a statement regarding contacts with the IRA, I do not recall that any Conservative Member objected to what was being proposed—perhaps hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench would care to listen to my remarks. Is not it true that the only Conservative who resigned from a Government position over the Anglo-Irish agreement was Ian Gow, who was to be foully murdered by the IRA? No other Minister considered it appropriate to resign.
The hon. Gentleman's intervention simply serves to show that, to the credit of the Conservative party and others in the House, it was decided that the interests of Northern Ireland exceeded the party political gain to be made from taking an opportunistic shot at the then Government. Furthermore, they were vindicated in taking that decision.
The third example closely relates to what happened last night. In 1997, when John Major was still the Prime Minister and Conservative Members occupied the Government Benches, they passed an amnesty on handing in weapons under which paramilitary organisations and terrorists would not be prosecuted for handing in their guns. Let us remember that that took place in a political vacuum—there was no Good Friday agreement, nor any guarantee that there would be any lasting ceasefire, yet, once again, John Major set a precedent in Northern Ireland's recent history. He did so because he believed that the risk of setting that precedent—letting people off the hook and, by implication, letting people off the principle of being prosecuted for being terrorists—was more than outweighed by the benefit.
I have been following my hon. Friend's argument carefully, and I agree with much of it, but does he not agree that it would be much to the benefit of the House if some of the issues raised so far in the debate were taken forward by the Leader of the House, particularly those relating to the Oath, Members' interests and the possible reimposition of the terms of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 on the financing and management of Northern Ireland parties?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and the Minister would be advised to respond to it in his summation at the end of the debate. Some very important issues have been raised—for example, by Mr. Barnes—and I shall say a few words about them in a little while.
Mr. Davies said that there has been no reciprocation, but those three examples provide evidence to show that the risks that the Conservative Government took were paid back in clear and definitive results. I am sure that the Anglo-Irish agreement was the forerunner to the decision by the south of Ireland to abandon, eventually by referendum, its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. That momentous decision would not have been taken if the Conservative Government and Margaret Thatcher had not driven forward that decision at an earlier stage.
On the secret talks on terrorism, I am pretty certain that the Good Friday agreement would not have been reached if the former Conservative Government had not had the courage to make progress, first in secret and then in public. Once again, there is clear evidence—albeit circumstantial—that that was justified.
I am absolutely certain that the limited movement on arms in October 2001, which has led to the first important, albeit symbolic, act of decommissioning by the IRA would not have occurred without the amnesty which was launched in 1997. If the risk is tested against the result in each of those three examples, we can put a tick in the box and say that the risk was vindicated on all three occasions.
The process is not new. It is a little known fact that in 1972 Gerry Adams and other republican prisoners—
I am sorry. Internees were flown to London for secret talks with Secretary of State Whitelaw to find out whether progress could be made. I hope that I have clearly shown that such precedents often produce results in Northern Ireland.
Mr. MacKay said that a strong stance leads to progress, but on what basis? Each of those three events was an act of good faith, and each produced howls of protest in the Chamber, uncertainty among Northern Ireland's politicians for very good reasons and discomfort within the Government, yet each event led to breakthroughs that have brought us very close to peace.
The issue is not whether this proposal is a precedent but whether this precedent conforms to the criteria that caused previous Governments to take comparable risks. I would argue that it does and that the points raised by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford do not stand up to scrutiny when they are compared with the earlier practical precedents. Furthermore, the claim that that view has a basis of principle was clearly undermined by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who pointed out that, in large part, we are returning to circumstances that prevailed for half the entire term of the previous Conservative Administrations—for nine years—without being amended. Therefore, in fairness to those on the Conservative Front Bench, I must assume that they are willing to listen to arguments about practicality.
To return to the points made by my hon. Friend Mr. Stunell, certain issues need to be resolved. There is confusion as to whether Elizabeth Filkin will have a binding power to scrutinise the new Members. Will the Minister respond on that point and, if she does not have that power, will he assure us that the position will be amended in due course? However, as Unionist Members have pointed out, some fear that Mrs. Filkin risks being put verifiably beyond use.
The issue of confidence-building measures on both sides came up in the debate last night. Those who have most justification for being deeply concerned by the proposal are those on the Unionist Benches. They are on the front-line of Northern Ireland politics and they—not us—have had to put up with many concessions, perceived concessions and reconciliation and so forth.
By taking some of the heat ourselves, we are, to some extent, making amends for the enormous pressures that we have put on Northern Ireland's politicians. This proposal is not a new concept for Northern Ireland or for Stormont and, if we feel some discomfort, it is only a fraction of that felt in Northern Ireland as we caused a political settlement to take place that mandatorily required cross-party support and cross-party alliance. It is telling that that cross-party alliance led 100 per cent. of the nationalists and republicans in Stormont to vote to maintain Mr. Trimble—a Unionist—in the post of First Minister. [Interruption.] I can hear the delight and joy as hon. Members behind me recall that wonderful occasion, but the achievement of Stormont is that it has achieved some form of reconciliation. I suggest that we are now taking on a small share of that process.
The amendments to the motion can be categorised in three classes: requirements about the Oath, requirements about renouncing violence and requirements about decommissioning. On the first class, Liberal Democrats feel that there is a strong case to move forward on the Oath, and I have heard other Members also express that view. I seek guidance from the Minister on what plans there might be to tackle that issue. However, I doubt whether simply changing the Oath will overcome the strong principled objection to the republicans sitting in the House. However, let us remember that history shows us that they have been here before.
On the second class of amendments, no one wants individuals who celebrate violence in this place. However, this proposal is hardly a green light for anyone coming here to use it as a base to promote violent activities. I doubt whether anyone in their right mind would seriously suggest that a terrorist organisation would have the audacity or even the stupidity to do that from within the curtilage of the House.
On the point about decommissioning, I believe that this proposal will be a driver to decommissioning. One of the tests of success is whether decommissioning proceeds, and we will be sorely let down by the republican movement if it fails to deliver arms on the basis of such concessions.
The hon. Gentleman mentions three classes of amendment, but is there not a fourth class? It tries, perhaps unsuccessfully, to make the important point that being a Member of Parliament is not just about doing the things that we all want to do, and care about doing, on behalf of our constituents as we look after their taxation needs and the like, but about playing a part in the House. The allowances are provided for both those activities. To apply them specifically to one activity makes a statement about the nature of the House that many of us, who are not known to be supporters of the extreme Unionist position, find distasteful.
The right hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly respect on many issues, rightly outlines the principal objection. If hon. Members believe that that objection is so great that they cannot go along with the motion, despite the perceived benefits that I suggest will accrue for the peace process, it would be principled for them to vote against it. I am simply saying that that is not where I stand, and I encourage my hon. Friends to take the same view. It is unarguable that the right hon. Gentleman raises an important consideration; if it were not, the debate would not be so charged.
If Sinn Fein Members were totally cynical, they could take the Oath now and receive all the benefits, together with the salary. The fact is that they have not. I believe that we are discussing a halfway house that might one day lead them to take their places here. More than anything, however, it will stitch them closely into the parliamentary procedures of the Chamber, which will cause them to moderate their behaviour and to recognise that any return to violence will be hugely damaging to their public image both on the mainland and among the electorate to whom they are attempting to appeal.
Let us also recognise that an enormous bitterness surrounds Northern Ireland politics. As human beings, we have human feelings about, for example, Airey Neave, the 300-plus police who have been killed in Northern Ireland and the thousands of casualties. The House would be a worse place if we did not have those feelings. However, we are at the juncture at which we should draw a line between the past and the future, and this measure is a watershed in that process. The emotional pressure that many people feel is understandable. The frustration about where we might be heading is genuine and we must make judgments accordingly. However, reconciliation is a "doing" word. It is a mutual act that is hard precisely because it begins with one side negotiating with those whom it hates and who, ultimately, have to reciprocate.
We could demonise Sinn Fein and the leaders of the republican movement, although every time that we have done so we have caused a retrenchment and sometimes a recruitment drive in those organisations. Alternatively, we could subjugate our feelings to our values and ask whether this is another opportunity to build on the precedents set by the Conservative Government and this Government. I do not suggest that the world will end if we do not do that; nor do I suggest that peace and decommissioning will be secured tomorrow if we do. However, I ask hon. Members to consider whether the principal objection that Mr. Gummer outlined is so great that it precludes us from taking a further risk. If hon. Members think that, there is not much more that I can say to them, because the alternative is to take that risk in this free vote.
Incidentally, unlike the Conservatives, we will not pull out of the agreement even if the Liberal Democrat vote goes against my recommendation. We will continue to play a positive and proactive part with all sides and all players, whatever the outcome tonight. Ironically, the debate has occurred simply because we have not had an opportunity to discuss the subject before, but it was inevitable that we would have to face it. This degree of cynicism is no longer appropriate.
That is all I want to say. I shall respect what my colleagues do, but I sincerely hope that we prove, in our vote tonight, that reconciliation is not something that we force on the politicians and people of Northern Ireland and then leave at the door of the House when we come here to debate the very same matters.
As Lembit Öpik suggested, the debate has two broad strands—the rights of Members who stood for election on the basis of not taking their seat in this place, and the Northern Ireland peace process. Although I regard the first factor as important and deserving of careful debate and scrutiny, the second overrides it by far. On that basis, I shall urge all my hon. Friends to vote for the motion.
There is a long history to the debate into which, obviously, it would not be appropriate to go, but I say to Mr. Davies that the fundamental flaw at the heart of his argument is one that the Conservative party has made a number of times, and it concerns the political judgment to be made. That judgment is about whether we want the peace process to go forward. The flaw in his argument led him into difficulty when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland asked him about the principle versus the money. The Conservative party has at times taken a view of the whole problem instead of a single part of it. Every now and then, it lurches back into looking at a small part, which is what it is doing today.
I remember my earliest involvement in Northern Ireland issues in the House in the early 1980s, after the horrors of the dirty protest and the hunger strike. Jim Prior, now Lord Prior, was in my judgment probably the best Secretary of State that Northern Ireland had under that Government, or indeed under previous Governments. He made dramatic progress because he recognised, as a number of us had been arguing for many years, that neither the Unionists nor the republicans could overturn what was desired by both the British and Irish Governments acting in union, and that what was required to sort out the complex problems of Northern Ireland was a joint agreement between Ireland and Britain.
It was Lord Prior who achieved that agreement. He sat on the Government Front Bench, and I on the Opposition Front Bench, late into the night, night after night, and he was being driven to the wall by the late Enoch Powell and all the Unionists. I would rally what few troops I had—there were usually only one or two of us about at 3 o'clock in the morning—to support the Conservative Government when it came to a vote. We did that because we knew that the process was going in the right direction, even though we might have had individual disagreements about the way in which it was achieved.
I knew early on that, quite apart from the horrors of the hunger strike and the dirty protest, not only would those events be a publicity disaster for Britain but they would not help Sinn Fein in the long run. The way out of the trap was to achieve the classic British fudge, which I and others had been suggesting for some time, of refusing to give the prisoners political status, which would have been utterly wrong, while making certain concessions, such as allowing them to wear civilian clothes, which we had already given prisoners on this side of the water regardless of why they had committed their offence.
We might describe the proposal tonight as a British fudge—I do not care whether we do or not. The principle that we are concerned with here, of sorting out the nightmarish problems of Northern Ireland, is more important than whether there are slight inconsistencies in the use of the allowances paid to Members of the House.
Why, then, does not the motion make it clear that we are talking not about the House of Commons but about a concession for the House that has political implications way beyond our shores, and which should be regarded not as something that affects the House but as a matter relating to Irish politics? There is no indication of that anywhere on the Order Paper.
My hon. Friend is right, but as I said at the beginning of my remarks, there are two strands to this matter. I shall turn in a moment to the second strand, which might satisfy her, but only to a limited extent. We cannot approach the motion without bearing in mind the overall political context. I make to my hon. Friend the same point that I made to the Conservative party: if we make that mistake again, we will lurch back into the problems that the Conservative Government got into several times when dealing with Northern Ireland. They got stuck on a detail, instead of looking to the long term.
Some of those problems have been referred to already. I remember the Conservative Government having secret talks with the IRA, never mind Sinn Fein. I supported them in that because in my view the talks were necessary and a good idea. The Government were in difficulty with their own side partly because they were reliant for their survival, at that stage, on Unionist votes, and because they could not themselves, as a party, face the difficulty of crossing that bridge. It was a difficult bridge to cross, just as the release of prisoners was difficult. No one should doubt the difficulty of these issues.
There is something else that we in this House, rather than people in Northern Ireland, need to remember: that both Unionists and republicans have made incredible concessions. We ought to respect that. The concessions that they have made could not have been predicted 20 years ago. They became a little more predictable recently. I turn now to some of those concessions because they return us to the core of the motion.
There is a process whereby Sinn Fein, in particular, and some Unionist paramilitary groups, are moving, hesitantly and at times in contradictory ways, towards accepting the democratic process and rejecting violence. There are very few examples in history of such organisations renouncing violence overnight and sticking with that promise. It is almost always a messy, unpleasant, inconsistent and dishonest process, but it is a process, and that is why the phrase "peace process" is so important and why I tell people to keep that in mind.
I am following what the hon. Gentleman says, and I agree with him very much. Does he agree, however, that the peace process can go forward or backward, but that it cannot remain stationary, which is one good reason for moving it forward tonight?
I was going to say that the one thing that Northern Ireland cannot afford to do is to stand still. It stood still for hundreds of years, which did it nothing but damage. At times, we all look across the water at Northern Ireland and think, "This couldn't possibly be Britain." As I used to point out to Sinn Fein, 10 or 15 years ago, nor could it be southern Ireland, because southern Ireland had changed. Britain had changed too, but the idea that Northern Ireland, whether Unionist or republican, was like Britain or Ireland was becoming a nonsense. The more that Northern Ireland dug itself into the violence and hatred, the more different it got. One of the core problems was that we had to pull Northern Ireland out of that process.
I turn now to the second strand of the issue, to which my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody referred. If I were pushed, I would say that there is a difficulty about how far we make concessions about the facilities that MPs can use, even if they got themselves elected on the basis of not taking their seats. There is no great point of principle. This is an argument about where the line should be drawn. More importantly, rather than getting bogged down on the question of whether Members are representing their constituents—a fair point made in an intervention—we should address a different argument that links the matter straight back into the peace process. That argument is that Sinn Fein will move.
In the past, I have made certain predictions about where the Unionists will end up and where the republicans will end up. I have been wrong on both scores at times, but I have also been right on several occasions. I make another prediction tonight: that within about four years, Sinn Fein Members will be taking their seats on those Benches. [Interruption.] Let me tell the House why I say that. I have seen statements from Sinn Fein saying that its Members will not take their seats even if we change the Oath, and I shall return to the Oath. When members of Sinn Fein told me that, they did so with the same intensity that they told me they would never take seats in the Stormont Assembly—that they would never accept the idea of a united Ireland by consent because that would mean a Unionist veto. They said that they would stay with the bullet and the ballot box, or the Armalite and the ballot box, until the British were driven out of Ireland. That did not happen and they accepted the present situation.
In saying all those things, I do not wish to underestimate or understate the concessions made by the Unionists. I recognise how far they have moved, especially in recent years. People on the ground in Northern Ireland—the Unionist population—are changing. Seeing them used to make me sad because they seemed to be trapped in the past. Now, however, they are emerging from that and, although their progress is slow and painful, they are moving, and we must help them with that.
The issue of the Oath is important. When I served on the Modernisation Committee three or four years ago, I put it to members of the Committee that we ought to change the Oath. I proposed not that we get rid of the existing one, but that alongside it should run an oath that would enable Members to swear allegiance to the democratic process of Parliament.
Many countries have accepted such an oath. In fact, we have drawn up such oaths for them—it is not the first example of our writing other constitutions rather better than we wrote our own. People ought to have a choice. When I served on the Modernisation Committee I made the point—I think that Baroness Boothroyd refers to it in her book—that such an oath would assist in getting Sinn Fein into the House. I said so because wider issues were involved; it was daft that people such as the late Willie Hamilton should come to the House, take an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen, then stand up in the Chamber and denounce every aspect of the British royal family. That is a contradiction for many Scottish nationalists; it is anomalous that many Members on both sides of the House should have to take the Oath in that way.
Although my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was right to separate the issue of the Oath from today's debate and vote, it would be a mistake to lose sight of the underlying argument.
That might be enough, but dictators have emerged in Parliament; it might be a little easier for them to take over if people have not signed up to the democratic process. One can argue about whether or not such an oath is important; most of us who believe in a democratic process should not have any difficulty in taking it. Sinn Fein argues that it is in favour of the democratic process. One can question whether or not it—or, indeed, many Unionist paramilitary groups—has been in favour of it over the years, but it is moving towards that position. The fact that members of Sinn Fein are taking their seats in Stormont, when they said that they would not, and are serving as Ministers, when they said that they would not, indicates that that is happening.
First, would it not be more intellectually honest of the Government to debate the Oath or whatever affirmation is required of Members of Parliament, and then come to the debate that we are now having? Secondly, would it not be more intellectually honest of them to deal with the point made by Mrs. Dunwoody and refer not to the facilities of the House but step 54 of the peace process?
It would have been more intellectually honest of former Prime Minister John Major to say that he was having secret talks with the IRA. At the beginning of my speech I said that two things were being held up for judgment: the process by which people take their seats and receive support, and the question of Northern Ireland. I made it clear that although there may be problems with people taking their seats, taxpayers' support and so on, in such a situation we should do something that the British are good at. We should say, "In these circumstances, certain inconsistencies are involved, but there is a greater political gain because we are engaged in a peace process that is helping the people of Northern Ireland enormously."
That is profoundly important. If one sets the issue in that context, it is a mistake to get hung up on the absolutes of black and white, putting things in little boxes and insisting that they stay there. The issue could, by all means, be blurred; if one tries to run politics by logic alone, one inevitably ends up fighting, not least because one person's logic is another person's contradiction.
I subscribed very much to the case that the hon. Gentleman has been arguing until he came to the question of how to solve the problem. If there is a genuine problem with the Oath, it should be addressed; otherwise, the issue is about dual Members of Parliament. We are talking about something serious; the wrong issue has been addressed to take the peace process further forward.
First, the issue is not big enough to get in the way of the wider interests of the Northern Ireland peace process. Moreover, the question of how to move on that is not critically important to the Oath. If members of Sinn Fein were here now and I asked them whether they would take their seats in the House of Commons if we changed the Oath so that they did not swear allegiance to the British Crown, they would say, "No, we will not, because we want to be part of a united Ireland, and this is the wrong place." They would say that, just as a relatively short time ago—perhaps four, five or six years ago—they told me that they would not take their seats in a Stormont Assembly set up by the British. Well, we set up the Assembly and they took their seats; they do their job, some of them are Ministers, and they work with the Unionists.
We must keep things in perspective. One cannot run politics by logic alone—at the end of the day, one has to make judgments about what is best. I shall leave my judgment with the House. We ought to change the Oath, because that would help to keep the process moving and would help us to put more pressure on Sinn Fein Members to take their seats, as I predict they will in a few years' time. We should change it because that is the right thing to do for the peace process in Northern Ireland and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said, there is no great principle at stake. I accept that there is a difficult question about the right thing to do with people who have stood for election on the basis that they will not take their seats. Although there is a messy argument about that, frankly, the problem is not big enough to justify great displays of opposition, breaking cross-party agreements and so on. I am not totally opposed to parties at times expressing opposition on Northern Ireland—it is sometimes necessary to do so, and I have done so myself—but we should not do so on an issue of such insignificance.
I made my maiden speech in a debate on Northern Ireland. In the succeeding twenty-two and a half years, I have had the privilege of attending more Northern Ireland debates than most people in the House.
Virtually all those debates were characterised by the way in which the word "principle" came to dominate the discussion. Seldom do Members want to elevate their views to a matter of principle on virtually anything that we talk about in the House—except in Northern Ireland debates. We quickly got into matters of principle this afternoon; I should like to back out of that cul-de-sac as quickly as possible. I remind the House—I have no delusions of grandeur, so it will need reminding—that I was the first Minister involved in the peace process. On Valentine's day 1989, Tom King gave a speech in Belfast in which he said that he would ask me to initiate discussions with the political parties to see if there was any way forward. That was the start of the process. If I had stood up the following day in Belfast and said, "In 12 years, there will be a Northern Ireland Assembly, there will be an Executive, an Ulster Unionist will be the First Minister, an SDLP member will be the Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein Members will serve—perhaps uncomfortably, but serve—in that Executive", the Secretary of State would have withdrawn me from the process the day afterwards and put somebody else in my place, and both sides of the House would have acclaimed his wisdom.
Here we are, 12 years and two Governments later, with that process—that achievement—in place. That achievement necessitated the taking of risk. Most, if not all, of the parties in the House can legitimately put up their hands and say, "We played our part. We took risks in that process." Some of those risks worked and some did not, but more worked than did not, which is why we are where we are today. I played my small part in that process.
It helps to underline for the House why in opposition I have maintained my consistent support for the peace process and the Belfast agreement. I did so because of the bipartisan approach. It was enormously important that the people of the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland should understand that it did not matter who was in government at Westminster; there was a commitment to them and for them.
That is why I intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Davies to say that that principle seems to me—I have used the word, and I intend to use it only once—to be still of paramount importance. Mr. Soley was right. He did criticise us when we were in government. He sat on the Opposition Front Bench and I sat on the Government Front Bench, and from time to time he was aggressive in his bipartisanship. We had a good healthy debate, but I did not call into question his fundamental commitment, and I hope that he does not call mine into question today.
I shall not vote in support of the motion tabled by the Leader of the House. There are problems associated with it. Had the Government wanted to move forward in the spirit that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, they could have done so, but they chose not to. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford is right. I have not taken many opportunities in the House to be critical of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but had he initiated some dialogue around the issues and offered some explanation, that would have helped the House immeasurably to come to a calmer judgment than is likely to be the case by 10 o'clock tonight or whenever we vote. However, the right hon. Gentleman chose not to do that.
The Government have made an even more fundamental mistake. There is no doubt that the subject of the debate is one of a number of issues that have arisen out of secret discussions between the Government and Sinn Fein. The Government are perfectly entitled—indeed, in my judgment it is right—to have secret discussions from time to time with political parties, particularly Sinn Fein. I have no problem with the fact that secret discussions have taken place. The problem arises from the fact that the Government have not told anybody what emerged from those secret discussions, much less tried to explain it.
Instead, the Government have adopted a salami approach to policy. They produce one measure which they know that the House will not much like, and they argue, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush has just argued, that that is not big enough to put the whole peace process at risk, so the House must support it. Just as the House holds its nose and supports the measure, along come the Government with another one—no explanation, no justification and no indication of whether it is No. 2 on a list of two, five, 10 or 20.
We go through the same motions. Hon. Members on both sides, but particularly on the Government side, say that the measure is not worth putting the whole peace process at risk, so the House is invited to support it. Blow me, before we get through that, the next one comes. It is rather like buses—one waits for ages and nothing happens, then they come one after another.
The Government have got themselves into difficulty this evening in part because they have not been willing to be straightforward and honest with the House. The House does not know what the Government's agenda is or what Sinn Fein's agenda is. If I may respectfully say so to the hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench—even worse, the House does not know what the combined agenda is. That contributes to the sense of alienation produced by motions like the one before us.
We have had much debate this evening about the Oath. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I do not intend to participate in that debate. I am just a simple Belfast boy. We have an Oath; it is a requirement for membership of the House. What may or may not happen in the future is, for the purposes of the motion, totally irrelevant. The Oath exists in its present form. I swore it, the Leader of the House swore it, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland swore it, my hon. Friend the shadow spokesman swore it—we all swore it.
Is not my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer right, and am I not right in my suggestion to those on the Government Front Bench, that one of the chief criticisms of the Government's approach to the motion is that they failed to address the question of the Oath first? For many of us, the problem of the Oath should be addressed before there is any ad hominem disapplication of rules in the case of Sinn Fein.
As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, I hold both him and my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer in high regard and I have frequently benefited from their wisdom. I shall not get into that debate tonight, because whatever the Government should or should not have done, we are faced with the Oath in its present form, and it will not change between now and 10 o'clock. If it does, that will be the story for the "Today" programme.
It has already been said that that constitutes a major problem for Sinn Fein. To it, this is a foreign Parliament. Given that it is a foreign Parliament, I am not entirely clear why Sinn Fein wants to be a part of it, but it alleges that it does. The Leader of the House—I think it was the Leader of the House—drew attention to its focus on abstention and absenteeism. Sinn Fein did not wish to be part of anything. When it said "ourselves alone", boy, did it mean it! Now, Sinn Fein is involved in the Dail, it is involved in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and it would like to be involved in the Westminster Parliament. The difference is that it wants to change the rules to be involved here, as compared with the rules in the Dail and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hold the Leader of the House in much higher regard than to believe for one moment that he does not understand that. I hope, therefore, that he will take in a spirit of generosity the suggestion that that is one of a number of points in his speech on which he was, at best, disingenuous. However, we ought not to be disingenuous; we should face up to the reality, which is that that is the issue.
Why, then, is so much heat generated by the motion? It seems of no little significance that the thread of violence has run through this debate from its inception and will continue until its conclusion. For what we are talking about is welcoming into this Chamber or Palace people whose hands are dirty with the blood of others. Three Members of this House were killed by the IRA. Some of us have been the focus of personalised and determined assassination attempts. I still recall the evening when I sat in Londonderry and, to my surprise, saw my photograph on the evening news while the newsreader said that the IRA had announced a few minutes before that it had decided not to assassinate the Education Minister during his visit to Londonderry, on the grounds that innocent passers-by would be injured. This debate cannot be separated from that thread of violence.
The record of the IRA is known to all of us and to their numerous victims, of whom there are hundreds, if not thousands; but if the yardstick is the record of murderous violence, surely the issue would be the same if the Members in question were to take the Oath. Whether they have office facilities without coming into the Chamber or otherwise, the issue would be the same. Surely the point is that, whether we like it or not, they were elected as Members of Parliament and that is a fact of life.
I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, whom I hold in regard on Northern Ireland matters, in the middle of making my point. Perhaps it might have been more helpful if I had waited until I had finished doing so. I wanted to establish that when we debate these matters, the issue of violence is not far from the surface, but I was about to say that if that issue were the only criterion, there would not be a Northern Ireland Assembly today. It is not the only criterion, and it is not a sufficient criterion, given the progress that has been made in the past few years. I think that he will also accept, however, that human beings find it very difficult to switch off from issues of violence.
Before I entered the Chamber this afternoon, I was approached—it was completely unsought—by a number of secretaries who had been working in this Palace when the bomb went off. Their message was, "We don't know, Brian, whether you intend to speak, but if you do, would you tell your colleagues that a number of us who work here are extremely nervous, concerned and unhappy about the prospect of the motion being agreed to this evening, because we have had contact with these people in the past?" I agree with David Winnick that violence is not of itself a sufficient criterion—so what is sufficient?
What this debate should be about is whether this House is willing to countenance a two-tier Member system. In my time on the Government Front Bench, I had the privilege of being a Minister of State in the Department of Health. I see some Labour Members who used to upbraid me because Conservative health policy, as they saw it, led to a two-tier health service—of course, they were quite wrong—which was anathema to them. I find it difficult to understand why two-tier representation in this Chamber is not even more of an anathema than an allegedly two-tier health service.
Northern Ireland is the background to this debate, but the issue is simple: should all Members be equal in terms of their responsibility, the facilities that they enjoy and the influence that they can exert, or should some be more equal than others?
No, I have almost finished, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not doing so.
Let me refer to what the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush said; this is a parliamentary debate, so I am responding to the last speech made before mine. I think that I wrote down his comments correctly. He said that the issue tonight was not big enough to endanger the peace process and that we should therefore vote with the Government so as not to put the process at risk. Where have I heard that before? I want to tell the House that this issue is not big enough to put the peace process at risk and Sinn Fein will not put it at risk if it does not get this motion. It is for that reason and on that analysis, and on the basis of reaffirming the importance of a bipartisan approach in general but with scope specifically to disagree from time to time, that I disagree with the Government on the motion and will not support them in the Lobby.
I am very pleased to follow
Yes—freedom to speak in a debate that has been thoughtful and interesting, and significant in the context of the many debates in the House to which I listened during the last Parliament.
I have considerable reservations and questions about the issue with which the motion deals, but I am determined to look at it, as I am a good constitutionalist who believes in the democracy that we enjoy here in this House and in its value to all of us here. I do so primarily from two points of view. First, I am not terribly interested in the people who represent the people of Northern Ireland, but I am very interested in the responsibility that we all have as Members of the House of Commons for the life, peace, political process and economic well-being of the people who live in that part of the United Kingdom, so I think that it is their interests that we have to consider first. My second guiding principle in addressing the matter is that of whether voting for the motion will ensure political progress and a continuation of the unsatisfactory but relative peace and ceasefires that that part of the United Kingdom has now enjoyed for some time.
It angers me that the media have characterised the debate on the motion as, "Shall we offer these four Members the benefits of the House of Commons?" They ask whether the four Members should enjoy the "benefits" of having a cup of tea in the Tea Room or entering the Palace. I have great sympathy for the views of hon. Members who have bucked against that interpretation of our debate. They have explained that we are being asked to say to Sinn Fein Members, "If you are legitimately elected by the constituents of West Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Mid-Ulster and Belfast, West, you have a place in this House." I believe that. They were democratically elected to represent 250,000 people.
If we accept that premise, those Members should take up their responsibilities, step by step. It is therefore important to make it clear that being a Member of Parliament does not simply mean enjoying some sort of benefit. We use our office allowances for our constituents. Being a Member of Parliament requires responsibility and public accountability. I agree with the stress that my hon. Friend Mr. Barnes placed on the four Sinn Fein Members being as accountable to the public as any other Member of Parliament.
I looked at the new Register of Members' Interests this morning, and read the four Sinn Fein Members' entries, which were nil because they have not taken their seats.
I want to correct the hon. Lady. The entries are not nil, which would tell people that hon. Members have no interests. Many hon. Members put nil. The entries simply state that the Sinn Fein Members have not taken their seats. That is a fundamental difference.
Yes, but the entries are nil in the sense that a member of the public who reads the register has no idea whether those Members receive any benefits from organisations. That is not right. Perhaps a change should be effected so that declaring interests is a requirement, not a request, on being elected rather than on taking one's seat. Let us ascertain whether we can do that. I do not say that it should be done today; I would be happy to do it next week or next year. The matter cannot be left as it is.
I shall go along with the motion, but if it is accepted, we must be sure that the use of the allowances is properly scrutinised. There were some stupid, jeering comments such as, "Money for guns" from Opposition Members. The office allowances of the four Sinn Fein Members should be subject to no less scrutiny than ours. That also applies to the use of their staff's time.
First, how will the allowances be scrutinised? Secondly, the motion creates a two-tier system of Members of Parliament. That may not be important to some hon. Members to whom Parliament appears increasingly to act as a rubber stamp, but we are dealing with a fundamental description of rights and responsibilities.
I had started to respond to that point by saying that the same scrutiny should be applied to the four Sinn Fein Members. We should begin by ensuring that we know what their interests are. The next step is to ask about their use of free telephones and headed notepaper in the House. We must ensure that they are used for constituency purposes.
The people whom we are considering have not taken their seats and are therefore not Members; because they are not Members, no sanctions can be applied against them. How can they be held to account if they cannot face the same scrutiny as Members who have taken their seats?
They have not taken their seats and their inability to sit in the Chamber cannot therefore be questioned. However, their ability to use facilities and office allowances can be questioned and sanctioned—[Hon. Members: "How?"] If there is any evidence that the allowances are being used for party or other purposes, sanctions can be applied.
Let us reflect on the times when hon. Members' conduct has been found unsuitable. The House debates the conduct and applies the sanction of suspension for a period of time. If people do not take their seats in the Chamber, what sanctions does my hon. Friend propose for bringing them to order in the same way as other Members for breaking the rules of the House?
No. The sanction is clear: if the facilities are misused, we withdraw them.
I believe that the whole approach should be slightly different. We must put ourselves in the position of residents of Mid-Ulster, Belfast, West, Fermanagh and South Tyrone or West Tyrone. If the motion is accepted, they will know that their elected representatives will come to the House of Commons and use the facilities. If I were such a constituent, I would ask, "What are they doing on our behalf in the House of Commons?" The democratic process would begin to take its course. When that happens, as the Conservative party found to its sorrow in the last two general elections, the result is the transfer of power to someone from another party, and perhaps the beginning of real politics in Northern Ireland.
We must consider the significance of the motion in a wider context. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing and Acton—
I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Soley that we must not believe that the motion itself constitutes the overriding principle. We must reflect that we have come a long way down the road of promoting politics over violence in Northern Ireland. The motion may lead to strengthening the genuine democratic process in the areas of Northern Ireland that we are considering and other constituencies. If so, even though we do not like it, we must make a difficult decision, which will affect us as Members of Parliament. In the same way, many aspects of the Good Friday agreement have been extremely difficult for Unionists and members of Sinn Fein to stomach. However, this matter comes closer to our sensitivities in this Chamber than some other aspects of the agreement.
The hon. Gentleman describes this as one single issue and does not recognise that we have a responsibility to the wider public in Northern Ireland and to the peace process that has been negotiated satisfactorily over the past few years.
I understand the lecturing from my hon. Friend. I am simply making the point that if somebody who stands says, "I will not take my seat", the electorate know what they can do. My guess is that many vote for such people because they are on the path to peace. If they went back to the path of violence, they would lose a lot of votes.
We have to decide whether we are taking it on trust that Sinn Fein signed up to the Good Friday agreement and has pursued a policy—by no means on a united basis within the party—to move into the political system and the political process and away from achieving its goals by violence.
For me, that was what the bipartisan arrangement in this Parliament was about. I agree with others who have said that this is not an issue that is bigger than the importance of the bipartisan approach. It is clear that Sinn Fein is eager to participate in a major way in the general election in the Irish Republic next year. Its members will take their seats in the Dail and, as Members of Parliament, we should be asking what interests they will register and how the party is scrutinised there. I am sure that the other parties in the Dail will be watching that closely.
Trust is the key issue. Is there trust that we can move forward? Is there trust that the Unionists will share power? Is there trust that the republicans will continue to work within the political system? I listened to the debate yesterday and it was clear that we have a long way to go. Although some of the democratic and constitutional issues are on the way to being solved, there is still a culture of blame and bitterness.
I have felt for many months that the Opposition's insistence on decommissioning as the touchstone was the wrong issue. The touchstone that affects the people on the street is the obscene level of violence that still exists in both loyalist and republican communities, with acts of grievous bodily harm usually going undetected and unpunished. The key issue for me is the establishment of a civil police service in Northern Ireland. Decommissioning is an issue, but people can go and buy guns the next day. If one stands for Government within a constitutional situation, one goes along with the rule of law. If so, one accepts a police service.
The hon. Lady refers to accepting the rule of law and to a civil police service. I have referred to a printed statement from Sinn Fein on posters that are going up in my constituency in Glengormley—a troubled area next to north Belfast—that tells people not to join the RUC or the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and attacks the police as "torturers". How can she say that Sinn Fein is now taking part in a process and recognises as a civil police force the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has a policing board with representation from all the democratic political parties, but not Sinn Fein? She does not seem to be facing reality; she has left Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point. My argument is that we need to agree the motion precisely because we need to bind Sinn Fein as tightly as we can into the political system and the political process in this House. This is our opportunity to do that.
The first reason that I will vote for the motion is that we have to bind Sinn Fein closely into the political process. The second reason—some colleagues will be surprised to hear this—is that the Government's Front Benchers have made the point strongly and, on this occasion, it is absolutely right to go along with the recommendation of the Secretary of State and the Leader of the House. I am very proud, as is most of the parliamentary Labour party, to have been part of a Government who have carried through the peace process over the last five or six years, following on from what the Conservative party started before we came into power.
This is a difficult issue for this Parliament, but one we should go along with tonight. The final reason for doing that is that the politics of Northern Ireland have become problematical when they have become polemical, and that people have started to find the answer when they looked at what works, what works best and what is the most pragmatic way forward. This is a pragmatic step that may take us one step further and may help in the future.
Helen Jackson touched on an important point when she gave one of her primary reasons for supporting the motion—loyalty to her party and her Front Benchers. In saying that, she uttered a truth about the nature of the debate and tonight's supposedly free vote in that the vote is not free and the debate is not what it should be—namely, a debate on a House of Commons matter treated seriously as such. I am afraid that the Government's approach from the outset showed a failure to engage with the seriousness of the issues and the occasion.
In drawing up the list of speakers, Mr. Speaker was wise to decide that the first Government Member to speak after the Leader of the House would be Mr. Barnes. Members will have gathered from my comments last night that I have a high regard for him and he produced an argument for the motion, which the Leader of the House did not. The hon. Gentleman's argument, with which I shall engage in a few moments, was made at some length and with great seriousness. In an exchange with Members on both sides of the House, he set out his view sincerely and it deserves to be addressed.
When I came to the debate, I thought that we might hear the Leader of the House's explanation of why the motion has been introduced at this particular moment and the reasons for addressing the matter that were absent in 1997 and 1999, which, so far as we know, was the last time the Government considered it. We did not get that. Instead, the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State, who came to his rescue several times, produced a series of red herrings.
I hope that I have noted the first red herring correctly, but if I do not get the language precisely, we can always correct it later. The Leader of the House suggested that the former Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, made her ruling in 1997 partly because the ceasefire had collapsed, but that is unfair to Baroness Boothroyd and it is in no way accurate.
It is worth placing on record what Baroness Boothroyd said on the radio this morning when she discussed the issue and referred to her 1997 ruling. She said:
"My concern when I was Speaker and it still is, is not so much the politics of the situation because on that issue when I was Speaker . . . I was totally neutral. My concern then and now was to protect the rules of the House of Commons and to uphold the rule of law. And the rule of law of course, is the Parliamentary Oaths Act. And I wasn't discriminatory at all when I met with the Sinn Fein members, I explained the position to them, that they either had to take the Oath of Allegiance or they could not take up their full membership of the House of Commons."
I have no doubt that that is precisely what motivated Baroness Boothroyd in 1997 and the Leader of the House may regret his suggestion that other factors influenced her.
Will the right hon. Gentleman address the question whether we should have an Oath that many hon. Members who are perfectly honourable about their republicanism—I am not referring to IRA members—cannot honestly take?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a point that he made earlier. I shall deal with it if I manage to get through all my notes, but I must describe some other red herrings that Ministers dragged across the debate at the outset.
The Leader of the House also said that the motion restores the position that pertained before the 1997 ruling. Of course, he had to withdraw that and acknowledge that it does not restore the pre-1997 status quo. It puts in place a completely different and novel regime, which, as a number of Members have said, would create two classes of Member of Parliament and, in so doing, open up important issues.
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that point, an aspect of the briefing that we were given is that the move being made today is part of the agreement that led up to the Belfast agreement. Was he party to that aspect of the agreement? Are there other parts of the agreement that the House does not know about, but which he knows about, that we shall be asked to approve following an ambush at the end of the Session?
The right hon. Gentleman repeats a point made during the debate, which I shall touch on again, but he is right to say that the matter is not in the agreement. People should realise that. It was never raised as an issue on any occasion during the negotiations leading up to the agreement. As far as I am aware, it never arose.
I shall repeat the point shortly, but to those who say that this step is necessary to promote or implement the agreement, I say sorry, but please read it. Occasionally, when people make comments, I have to re-read the agreement to try to find the basis for them and often I cannot find it. That is an important point.
Another red herring was introduced when the Secretary of State repeatedly asked what was the position before 1997. Of course, we should not forget that the issue simply did not arise before then. In two Parliaments, the person elected to represent West Belfast did not take his seat, did not come anywhere near the place and did not seek any facilities, and I dare say that most Members, whatever Bench they sat on, did not turn their mind to the issue, because it did not arise.
The issue arose after the 1997 general election, however, because the two Sinn Fein Members elected made it clear that they would come here and use the facility whereby people enter the Palace before taking their Oath. Necessarily we all do so, and they wanted to use that foothold as a basis to establish a substantial bridgehead and put themselves in a position to conduct God knows what operations, whether of a political or other nature. Of course the Speaker had to consider that matter according to the law and according to practice, and she produced the ruling. The question of what happened pre-1997 is irrelevant.
Another red herring, which is also irrelevant, is the fact that Sinn Fein Members sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They participate in the administration of Northern Ireland and do so alongside me and other Members who sit on this Bench. That happens, but again it is not relevant. That takes us to a key point: historically, Sinn Fein was an abstentionist party. It was abstentionist because it did not believe in politics. It was part of a republican movement that wanted to achieve its objectives not politically, but purely by violence.
Consequently, Sinn Fein did not participate in elected bodies and refused to take its seats either in elected bodies in Northern Ireland or in the Irish Parliament or this place, but over the past number of years the republican movement has retreated from abstentionism. Indeed, it has also retreated from republicanism. Although some Members have introduced republicanism to the debate, in no real sense is the modern Sinn Fein membership republican, but that is another issue. Whatever arguments there may be on that point, Sinn Fein has clearly shifted its position on abstentionism.
I am well aware of the logic of that argument, and I will deal with it shortly—along with the points made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, who presented what I considered to be the only coherent case for the motion.
As I have said, Sinn Fein and the republican movement are clearly moving away from abstentionism. The Sinn Fein Members took their seats in the Dail, and also came into the Assembly, which was a very significant act. Coming in, and accepting partition and the consent principle, were massive concessions by republicans, when viewed from a republican position. That raises a question I touched on earlier—are they really republicans?—but it is a peripheral issue, floating around in the background.
The argument that can be presented in favour of the motion constituted the burden of the intervention by Jeremy Corbyn and the speech of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire. It is that we are dealing with a process of transition, and that it is therefore desirable to draw people who have hitherto been involved in violence but whom we hope and believe are now turning to the normal democratic political process into that process, and bind them into it. If that involves their coming into the Palace of Westminster, it is a good thing.
Members may have various views.
Let me now touch on not just the motion, but what could be described as the process generally. As was said last night during our debate on decommissioning, it is crucial for us to be clear about the principles on which we proceed. It is crucial for us to make it absolutely plain that there must be a demonstrated move away from violence, and an unequivocal commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. I know that this is a transition period, but we must be clear about the principles involved.
It would be fatal to our hopes of bringing about a peaceful and democratic future to allow those who have been involved in violence in the past to think that the rules will be waived or adjusted so that they need make no hard choices—to think that they can sneak into the process, and that no one will confront them with such choices. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough said, it would be very nice if questions were to be put to them about the use of their allowances and so forth; but will such questions be put? Will any rigour be exercised? Who can believe that it will, when the Government are bending the rules—distorting the rules—and taking unprecedented action in allowing these Members to enter the House? By all means let us make it clear that they are welcome to take their seats, but let us also make it clear that they must do so on a coherent basis.
Is this not wrong ab initio? Let us leave aside the rigour. The whole allowance will be available to people who will be doing only part of the job, which will suggest to those who come here on those terms that the rest of the job is not important—but it is, in fact, the real reason why we are all here.
That is a valuable point, with which I agree. If my comments seemed to point in a different direction, I misled the right hon. Gentleman. When I spoke of sticking to the rules, I included Madam Speaker's ruling in 1997, which I think is right and should be adhered to.
If we are to proceed along the Government's desired path, the question of the Oath of Allegiance becomes the relevant one, and I understand why the right hon. Gentleman raised it earlier. It too has entered the debate as, in some respects, a bit of a red herring, in that it has been discussed in connection with the monarch. Although that aspect is important, there is more to the Oath.
The best context in which to view the Oath is perhaps to be found in a judgment delivered recently by the European Court of Human Rights on the application by one of the gentlemen concerned. I refer to the gentleman who was returned to serve as Member of Parliament for Mid-Ulster, but has not yet done so. The court said that the requirement for elected representatives to take an Oath of Allegiance to the monarch
"forms part of the constitutional system of the respondent State, which, it is to be observed, is based on a monarchical model of government. For the Court, the requirement that elected representatives to the House of Commons take an oath of allegiance to the reigning monarch can be reasonably viewed as an affirmation of loyalty to the constitutional principles which support, inter alia, the workings of representative democracy in the respondent State . . . In the Court's view it must be open to the respondent State to attach such a condition, which is an integral part of its constitutional order, to membership of Parliament and to make access to the institution's facilities dependent on compliance with the condition. "
I think that that view of the Oath is right. It refers to the person of Her Majesty, but it goes beyond that: it is an acceptance of the established constitutional order, our democratic principles, and the idea that things must be done in accordance with those principles. There is no difficulty here for a republican—an honest republican.
I well understand that a reasonable person could arrive at that interpretation, but given that interpretation there is no argument, in principle, for not reformulating the Oath to make it say more precisely what the court described as a reasonable interpretation.
Indeed. It would be perfectly reasonable for the Government, if they wished, to reformulate the Oath so that it spelt out all the things implicit in it. It should not present an obstacle to any honest republican, because at its heart is a statement that the person concerned accepts the existing legal order and democratic process and that, if he or she seeks change, it must be done peacefully, democratically and legitimately.
That, of course, is precisely what we want the republican movement to do. We want it to make plain, not just implicitly but in all its actions, that it will pursue its objectives by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Here again the Government have made a mistake. Rather than maintaining a position that would nudge the republicans towards acting coherently and honestly, they are conniving at a dishonest fudge that will carry serious long-term dangers in encouraging among republicans the belief that they can bend the law and get away with it. Who knows where that might take them?
Let me repeat what I said earlier. If we want the political process in Northern Ireland to proceed, we should certainly support the Belfast agreement and seek its full implementation; but we should stick to that agreement. Let us not have little add-ons that suddenly come out of nowhere. It is not the first time that that has happened. It happened with the legislation to allow people to sit in this House and simultaneously to sit and hold office elsewhere. That was never part of the agreement. That was never part of a negotiation.
We believe that that earlier provision came from—I am sorry that the Leader of the House is unable to be here; he dropped me a note apologising for his unavoidable absence—a series of moves by Sinn Fein in the last moments of the negotiation, when it saw that an agreement was emerging that was uncomfortable for Sinn Fein. It sought desperately to try to get some added advantage and made approaches to the Irish Government. The Irish Government were open about that because they published a letter, but it is reasonable to believe that Sinn Fein may have made approaches at the same time to the British Government.
Sinn Fein raised a number of issues. Among them was that of dual membership: of being simultaneously in the Dail and elsewhere. Alternatively, it also asked the Irish Government whether Sinn Fein Members elected to serve for constituencies in Northern Ireland could have facilities available to them at the Dail in Dublin. I have no doubt that they would have liked to sit and to debate in the Dail but they were willing simply to be in the place—the position that will be produced by the Government's motion.
To my knowledge—correct me if I am wrong—the Irish Government have resisted and refused that. That quest for a novel status within Parliament has been turned down by the Irish Government, who have been more rigorous and honest than our own Government on this issue. It shames me to have to say that.
I have been listening very carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. I take it that his reference to dishonesty was a group reference and not a reference to me individually. In all fairness, before I make my winding-up speech, I should ask him if he expressed a view when my predecessor consulted him on the extension of facilities to Sinn Fein.
I find the question curious because I have no recollection of saying anything other than that I opposed that. If there is anything to the contrary, I would be willing to say so. I am sorry to say that I have stood here before and heard Governments misrepresent my position. I hope that that will not happen this evening as well.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman would not suggest that I am misrepresenting his position. I am talking about a consultation that took place in January 2000. I may have misinterpreted his position in that, but I ask him to reflect before making the imputation that we gave no consideration to it.
"I am writing with reference to your letter of the 12 inst. proposing the granting of access to facilities at Westminster for Sinn Fein MPs who do not wish to take up their seats.
Our views on this matter were clearly voiced to the Prime Minister and yourself at our meeting yesterday. It is the view of my Party that the action Government is proposing is premature. While you are correct in your assessment that political progress has been made that progress has been facilitated by this Party agreeing a sequence of events with Sinn Fein to implement in full the Belfast Agreement. This Party"— that is, the right hon. Gentleman's party—
"has honoured its obligations under the Mitchell Review but it has yet to be seen if Sinn Fein is to honour its obligations.
I would therefore urge Government to postpone tabling any Motion with regard to this matter until such time as actual decommissioning has commenced and been verified by the International Commission on Decommissioning. It is that action and the continuing decommissioning of weapons which will demonstrate Sinn Fein's true commitment to their obligations to peace and democracy contained in the Belfast Agreement".
I do not say that the right hon. Gentleman should not now be able to reach a different decision. He may have his own views on the process and the pace of that, but I think that there was an imputation throughout what he said that we had disregarded and acted without considering the positions that would be taken by his own party and the various other parties in Northern Ireland.
I would have appreciated it more if the Secretary of State had, prior to tabling the motion, consulted us about that motion. Had he done so, I would have expressed a view, which would have been precisely the view that I have expressed this evening. If there is a development in thought and greater clarity in what I am saying tonight compared with the contents of the letter then, I ascribe it to further reflection and perhaps the diplomatic nature of the letter on that date, but what I am saying now is what I think this Government should do. Had they consulted, they would have received that advice.
Is it not indicative of the regrettable attitude that the Government appear to take on this serious issue that the Secretary of State was willing well into the course of this debate to produce a document out of his pocket and then to seek to trip up the right hon. Gentleman? The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly capable of looking after himself, but it strikes me as deeply regrettable that documents come whipping out of back pockets. The Government should have laid their case out fully at the outset this afternoon.
I might be tempted to say something about it being partisanship, but not preceded by any other phrase or term. It is a rather partisan approach, but well and good. The Secretary of State is entitled to do it. I hope that we have dealt with it.
I remind the House of the point that I was making because we took a detour from it. We should stick to the agreement. We should not have these add-ons. I gave the background of one add-on that came from discussions at the tail-end of the agreement between the Government and Sinn Fein. I suspect that the origins of this measure lie there, too. The question arises: if the origins of this measure lie in the dying moments of
It has happened at this time precisely because of the conditionality of the right hon. Gentleman's initial response, that condition having been met.
The one thing that I am confident of is that the motion has not been caused by anything that I have said. The Secretary of State is wrong to suggest that. If he wants to say that the Government have brought this forward because of a beginning of decommissioning, let him say that, rather than imputing it to me.
No. I am not going to take more interventions on that point, even ones intended helpfully.
I do not want to labour the point, but we should stick to the agreement. This motion is not part of the agreement. Let the Government explain why they are introducing something that is not part of the agreement, that will damage the process that we are engaged in, that will not be helpful and that will not achieve the laudable objective of bringing the republican movement fully into the democratic process, which we can do only on the basis of an exclusive commitment to peaceful and democratic means.
That commitment has not yet been fully apparent. That is demonstrated by the poster on policing that my hon. Friend David Burnside read out and by the fact that only a few weeks ago, the republican movement decided to republish without any further commentary an article that it wrote exulting in the murder of a Member of the House. That conjunction of events is most regrettable. I am sorry that the Government are proceeding in this way, at this time.
I wish to oppose what my Government propose tonight. I do not doubt their motives, but I doubt greatly their judgment of what led to the motion. I also question why it has been introduced at this stage. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked why it has been introduced now, just before Christmas, without proper consultation. Why is it being slipped through just before we rise for Christmas? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has not answered those questions. If the motion is about decommissioning, as he confirmed from a sedentary position a few moments ago, why was that not made clear as soon as the so-called decommissioning took place?
Several hon. Members have made good speeches with which I agree, especially
Some hon. Members have said that the motion will move the peace process forward. They have implied that it will ensure, somehow, that IRA-Sinn Fein are moved forward. My concern is with the perceptions of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland and how it is feeling tonight. I am especially sad, given the speech made recently by the Secretary of State in which he drew attention to the alienation that the pro-Union community feels, that he is pushing the motion tonight, when nothing appears to suggest that the peace process will collapse if it does not pass.
There have been historic developments in Northern Ireland in the past few years, and I supported the Belfast agreement. I welcomed the setting up of the Assembly and the fact that IRA-Sinn Fein took their seats under the same agreement as the other parties. That was an attempt to bring some normality to politics in Northern Ireland, but it is important to point out that IRA-Sinn Fein recognise the centrality of Westminster. They say that they want to come here, even if they do not want to come into the Chamber. They also said that they would never go to Stormont, but they are now in Stormont. They also said that they would refuse to give up the claim to Northern Ireland, but they have had to accept that.
The Belfast agreement has had many positive effects. It is especially sad, therefore, that the motion, rather than moving the peace process forward for IRA-Sinn Fein, will move it back for the pro-Union community, which already feels that small extra concessions beyond the Belfast agreement have been made to the nationalist community, including dual membership and Northern Ireland's exemption from the introduction of party funding rules. Those issues had nothing to do with the Belfast agreement and were additional to everything else that the pro-Union community—and all people who believe in law and order—found difficult to accept, such as the release of terrorists from prison with little being given in return.
Will the hon. Lady include in the list of concessions made to Sinn Fein-IRA that are not part of the agreement the recent amnesty that the Government offered to IRA terrorists on the run from justice who have never faced the courts in Northern Ireland or in any other jurisdiction? They will be permitted to return home to their families without facing justice, which is a gross injustice to the innocent victims of terrorist violence.
I share those views and it is a real shame that that will happen, but all those people who have had to leave Northern Ireland under the threat of violence and knee-capping have no amnesty. They will not be able to go back home and spend Christmas with their families.
Although I disagree completely with what the Government are trying to do tonight, something may be gained from recalling that IRA-Sinn Fein has moved away from classic Irish republicanism and adopted almost a John Redmond position. That will not go down very well with the members of IRA-Sinn Fein. It is unfortunate that one of the leading members of Sinn Fein will not be able to watch this debate tonight on television, because I am not sure that Cuba—where he is enlisting the support of Fidel Castro—has the parliamentary channel.
On the question of finance, my hon. Friend Mr. Barnes said that IRA-Sinn Fein were rich and did not need the money. It is worth pointing out that since
There are many reasons why I do not think that the motion is right politically, but the fundamental issue is the question of a two-tier Parliament with two types of Members of Parliament. We should not allow people to use the facilities of the Palace of Westminster, such as the Members' dining facilities, the Library and the Members' Lobby, without being Members of Parliament. I have been told that they would even be able to come into the House and stand behind the Bar. We cannot have two types of Members of Parliament.
Many people outside the Palace of Westminster are very cynical about politics and politicians from all parties, and that will be precisely what they will take from the motion tonight.
My hon. Friend Mr. Kilfoyle made a good intervention about Members of Parliament being here to serve their constituents in Parliament as well representing Parliament in their constituencies. It was suggested that those who voted for IRA-Sinn Fein Members knew that they would not take their seats, but what about all the people who did not vote for them and now have no representative? They will now see public funds being made available for members of IRA-Sinn Fein to come here and use all the facilities without representing the voters in any way. That is undemocratic and wrong. Every Member of this House should be equal and, if the House supports the motion, it will be saying that we can break the rules when it suits us. It will not ruin the peace process if we reject the motion and I urge all decent, ordinary Members to vote against it tonight and give a vote for democracy.
It gives me great pleasure to follow Kate Hoey. The House listened so attentively to all that she had to say because she has immense practical experience of Northern Ireland, and I agreed with every single word that she said.
Many hon. Members want to contribute, so I shall be brief in explaining to the Government why Conservative Members feel such anger and annoyance at this motion. The same sentiments were clear in the remarks made by Mrs. Dunwoody and for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle).
The Government have acted in a shabby manner. The timing is disgraceful. The exercise reminds me of Jo Moore. The Government have sought a way to slip out something embarrassing, nasty and expensive in terms of votes, and they have decided to do it just before Christmas. They hope that the press and the public are thinking of other things, and that hon. Members will not be around. The process has been very shabby, quick and short.
The official Opposition first heard of the Government's intention last Thursday, and Mr. Trimble said that his party first heard about it on the same day. There has been very little time to table amendments or to consider the motion. This is an absolutely classic bounce.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall explain why I think that the Government's action is counterproductive to the peace process, and why it will not help the peace process one iota.
The second shabby element is the role of the payroll vote tonight. This is not a free vote for Labour Members. The Leader of the House made it clear when he was extensively cross-examined last Thursday during business questions that he expected Ministers, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and others on the payroll to be here tonight to vote. Therefore, any suggestion in Northern Ireland or elsewhere that this debate shows the House of Commons at its best, and that Labour Members will have a free and independent vote, is entirely wrong.
I listened carefully to Lembit Öpik, who confirmed that Liberal Democrat Members will have a free vote. The same is true of Conservative Members, but not of Labour Members.
That is a probably a perfect illustration of the sort of hon. Member that the Prime Minister would like on the Labour Benches. However, the more serious point is that the Government fear that they will not get the motion through if they do not whip the payroll. That is why Ministers have been brought back from abroad. There will be a full payroll vote tonight to force the motion through.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that Conservative Members have been whipped to be here because this is important business, but we have been given a completely free vote. I see that my hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin, the Opposition deputy Chief Whip, is in his place. I am sure that he would confirm that if he cared to come to the Dispatch Box.
The second reason for anger is that there is an easy solution to the problem. If Sinn Fein Members were to take their seats after taking the Oath, we would not need this motion. If those hon. Members are serious about representing their constituents, playing a full role in our parliamentary democracy and even influencing events here, that is the logical way for them to proceed. It is deeply regrettable that we have not insisted on that course of action.
Instead, we are going to have a two-tier system of MPs, as the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich and for Vauxhall, and my right hon. Friend
Equally, the motion is an insult to constitutional nationalists in the House. I refer to those hon. Members who belong to Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party and the Social Democratic and Labour party. All those hon. Members have deeply held views about being part of an independent Wales or Scotland, or of a united Ireland. However, they can take the Oath because they do not feel that it undermines their positions in any way.
If those hon. Members can all take the Oath, I see no reason why Sinn Fein Members cannot—apart from the fact that they have secured a wonderful publicity coup in being given a different tier of membership of the House. I am afraid that the Government have fallen into the trap completely, and that they have given Sinn Fein that publicity coup, at the expense of the SDLP, the constitutional nationalists and other democratic parties represented in this House. That is another example of shabbiness.
The third reason for our anger was well illustrated by what Baroness Boothroyd said on the BBC's "Today" programme this morning. I shall not repeat what she said about why the motion was wrong, or about why she believes that circumstances have not changed since she made her original ruling. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann has already explained all that very fully and correctly. However, I remind Ministers that Baroness Boothroyd went on to say that she could not understand why, in the four intervening years, the Government had not consulted members of other parties in the House to see whether the Oath could be amended, or whether there was a way to allow Sinn Fein Members to take their seats. There has been no consultation at all. I find that strange and unfortunate, and it makes me very cross.
Several hon. Members have posed a perfectly legitimate question and asked why the Government have tabled the motion now. The hon. Member for Vauxhall was right to point out that, if the Government are responding to decommissioning, the original decommissioning verified by General de Chastelain took place some months ago. The hon. Lady asked why it has taken so long to bring the motion forward.
So far, only initial decommissioning has taken place. Most hon. Members were appalled when the Secretary of State said earlier today that there "has been decommissioning", as if that meant that all arms had been decommissioned. I remind the House once more that the Belfast agreement—which the Opposition strongly support—requires the so-called loyalist and republican paramilitaries who are signatories to decommission all illegally held arms and explosives over a two-year period. We all know that they have singularly failed to do so. Only now, very belatedly and after much pressure from the First Minister and others, has there been some limited decommissioning.
I hope that all hon. Members want further decommissioning to take place. However, in the wake of
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does not he agree that the process has undergone a quantum leap that should be welcomed in the interests of peace throughout Ireland?
I think that there has been a modest move, belatedly, in the right direction—I do not define it as a quantum leap. We do not know how many illegally held arms and explosives have been decommissioned. I suspect that not many have been yet; I do not quibble with that, provided that there is more to come. However, there is no sign of more decommissioning. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that this sop to Sinn Fein-IRA—this further carrot, this further undermining of democratic politicians in the Province—makes it less rather than more likely that further decommissioning will take place, and will therefore be counterproductive to the peace process. That is another reason why the motion is mistaken.
Recently, the process has been virtually all take by Sinn Fein-IRA and very little give. That puts great pressure on the Ulster Unionist community as well as on the constitutional nationalists and others in the Province. Whereas the Ulster Unionist community and the constitutional nationalists have stuck rigidly to the Belfast agreement and fulfilled all their obligations under it, the paramilitaries have not fulfilled their commitments, particularly on decommissioning. The suggestion that Sinn Fein Members could take up facilities and use taxpayers' money for office allowances in this House was no part of the Belfast agreement. That has been accepted in this House after debate, albeit with reluctance from the Government Dispatch Box.
Does the Under–Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is on duty at the Dispatch Box, understand how undermining it is if one side fulfils all its obligations under the Belfast agreement, which underpins the peace process, and the other side cherry picks and is then given even more cherries to chew, which is the effect of the motion before us? It is counterproductive, demoralising and wrong.
I hope that when we come to the vote there will be enough Labour and Liberal Democrat Members to ensure that it is a free vote, to take the motion on its merit and throw it out where it belongs.
The official Opposition have indicated their extreme distaste for making special provision for Sinn Fein. In his speech, which was, as ever, thoughtful and thought-provoking, Mr. Trimble expressed similar reservations. I, too, feel extreme distaste for making special provision for Sinn Fein. However, I see a solution to the anomalies different from the one suggested by Conservative Front Benchers.
I also feel extreme distaste for many of the compromises that have had to be made in relation to the Good Friday agreement, particularly on prisoner releases. That hardly needs explaining at a time when we are involved in an international campaign against terrorism. But when I compare the Good Friday agreement with the decades of violence that came before it, I am certain which is the lesser of two evils. I would go further—I am certain that it is a positive good. Of course, it needs to be improved on, and we must work to improve on it. Of course, Sinn Fein in particular must do much more, especially on decommissioning and on ceasing all the remaining violence in which it is involved, as must all the paramilitaries. When I listen to some Sinn Fein spokesmen, I could wish for fewer demands and more in the way of delivery.
I was disappointed to hear Conservative Front Benchers talk about deserting bipartisanship. In response to the pertinent intervention of
Even so, I have been disappointed over the past few years that Conservative Front-Bench Members have on occasion given the impression of being prepared to support all the popular bits of the Good Friday agreement but of opposing all the difficult bits. Mr. Davies said that there are difficult choices. One gets the impression that on occasion those on the Conservative Front Bench have been dodging the difficult choices. If we are going to talk about cherry-picking, as Mr. MacKay did, it sometimes seems that Conservative Front Benchers have been guilty of that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is hard to see what might change if the Conservatives abandoned that bipartisanship? They seem to have been happy to vote against a raft of legislation that has gone through in previous months, and I am at a loss to know what they mean by abandoning bipartisanship.
This party has supported the Belfast agreement but has, for a considerable time, reserved the right to criticise its implementation when things go badly wrong or are handled badly. I refer in particular to prisoner releases and the absence of any reciprocal concessions in terms of decommissioning from Sinn Fein.
The press has decided that we are walking away from bipartisanship; we are not. The Government have walked away from bipartisanship because of the way in which they are carrying out the process. It is perfectly proper for us to do our duty in this place and criticise the Government when they deserve it.
I think that it has been accepted in earlier exchanges that bipartisanship has always involved the possibility of some criticism. However, I thought that it was agreed that we would leave the decisions on decommissioning to General de Chastelain. He has made his decisions; decommissioning has started, and we wish to see it progress rapidly.
Given that the motion is not part of the Good Friday agreement and that there has been no consultation—it was simply imposed on the House when it was announced last Wednesday or Thursday—how can the actions of the Labour party be described as bipartisan?
Whatever our disagreements on this issue, my request to the official Opposition is that they try to maintain basic bipartisanship on as many issues as possible.
I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford on one point. He drew a distinction between not taking the Oath and not taking seats. He made the point that Sinn Fein Members say that, irrespective of any change to the Oath, they do not intend to take their seats. However, it is perfectly proper to say that, although the motion refers to not taking seats, not taking the Oath is central to the debate. The 1997 ruling by Speaker Boothroyd specifically referred not to whether Members took their seats but to whether they took the Oath.
I wish to concentrate on the Oath. I believe that we should review the Oath without regard to Sinn Fein. Indeed, I would go further—I believe that the House might have reviewed the Oath if it had not been for sensitivities over Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that I shall come to that point in due course. To sustain interest, I shall try to leave the point until later in my speech.
It should be remembered that the Oath of Allegiance does not, as most of the public probably believe, derive from the old feudal oaths of fealty of the House of Lords. The excellent research document in the Library shows that it derives from three oaths, all of which stem from the reformation. They are the Oath of Supremacy of 1534, the Oath of Allegiance of 1605 and 1609 and the Oath of Abjuration of 1701. All those oaths related to the maintenance of the Protestant monarchy and the Protestant succession. At various stages, they also included other disqualifications or discriminations on religious grounds.
During the 19th century, those disqualifications were gradually reduced to permit Catholics, Jews and members of other religions to become Members of Parliament without difficulty. Then, of course, after the famous case of Charles Bradlaugh, those of no religion were permitted to become Members of Parliament. Until 1997—as the Leader of the House pointed out—that did not mean that people who were fully and properly elected were refused other things. They were allowed to sit below the Bar of the House, although not to speak or vote.
Although the 1997 ruling took account in one respect of a previous decision in 1924, it was in effect a new ruling and was understandable in the circumstances. There was no ceasefire and it was judged that there was a real terrorist threat. There were valid reasons for the fears expressed at the time by members of staff—fears described earlier by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. Those fears persist to this day. The ruling was understandable at the time, but in some ways, it was temporary and unusual. It was made before the Good Friday agreement and the ceasefire.
Does the hon. Gentleman consider that, in the light of continuing republican extremist terrorist activity, there is no threat at present? Is he really prepared to tell the House tonight that there is no terrorist threat anywhere on the mainland?
I repeat that, in some ways, Sinn Fein and Northern Ireland have delayed the whole issue of review of the Oath. The Oath is an anachronism: it grew wholly and solely out of the European wars of religion—the wars between Catholics and Protestants that disfigured Europe for two and a half centuries, but which have been over for more than two centuries.
Some of us have the impression that the House sometimes takes a while to respond to change—just as some of us have the impression that its lifts take a while to respond to the button. However, it might not be unreasonable—after two centuries—to start thinking about changing our rules. Mr. Hogg made eloquent and perceptive interventions earlier—one is always inclined to flatter people who make an intervention that is almost exactly the same as one had planned to make, but who express it better. He asked whether, if a Member—not necessarily from Northern Ireland, but from any part of the country—who is properly elected to the House happens not to be a monarchist but a republican, it would be proper for us to say that they should not be allowed to take their seat.
I have a clear view on that question. Indeed, I should go further: in our population, there are a certain number of cranks, oddballs and nutters. They have a right to be represented—[Hon. Members: "They are."] No doubt many people would say that they are over-represented in the House.
As a brief aside, the new Leader of the Opposition has not been paid sufficient credit for one of his first great achievements: at a stroke he managed radically to reduce the number of bizarre extremists on the Conservative Back Benches. However, I digress.
If an eccentric were to be properly elected to this place—for example, someone who was a passionate Jacobite or someone who, for some other reason, did not agree with the present succession to the monarchy—surely he should have a right to be here. I go further: even for those of us who, as democrats, believe that we should remain a constitutional monarchy for as long as that is the wish of the majority of the population, it can still seem strange that one's first duty here should be to declare—or appear to do so—that one will look after the interests of the monarch rather than those of one's constituents and of the common good of the whole population.
I shall leave the hon. Member in suspense as to precisely what I shall recommend, but he may not be far wrong.
I respect the fact that for some elected Members the monarchy is a symbol of the nation, and that for them the Oath of Allegiance is deeply meaningful. However, I also respect the fact that for other Members the monarchy may seem to be a symbol of wealth, power and privilege. They may feel that the greatest responsibility of the House is to look after those who are weak, poor and powerless. We should respect both views. We should also respect the feelings of—I suspect—a considerable number of Members who feel that the current wording of the Oath is meaningless and that what it asks them to do when they first arrive here is not completely honest. That needs to be considered.
Is not the purpose of the Oath that Members should undertake to owe allegiance to their country, and that Her Majesty the Queen happens to be the sovereign of this country? Other countries have presidents and perhaps we, too, are going down that road—I hope not. However, that is the purpose of the Oath. Mr. Doherty made it clear on the radio this morning that he does not owe allegiance to this country because he believes ours to be a foreign Parliament.
The point that I have been making, based on the history outlined in the Library research document, is that the Oath had nothing to do with constitutional democracy—as suggested by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann—or with general loyalty to the country. The Oath derived simply and solely from issues relating to the Protestant succession to the throne—that is all.
Should we adopt alternative forms of oath and attestation, as suggested by my hon. Friend Mr. Soley? Should we have no oath or attestation, as suggested by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn and others? Should membership be by right of election, as it is in the European Parliament and as I would favour?
Simon Hughes pointed out that when we set up the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, we created a further inconsistency by demanding the Oath of Allegiance in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Some of the charades that went on during the establishment of the Scottish Parliament brought both that Parliament and the monarchy into disrepute. I hope that we can reconsider some of those matters.
I take the point that—as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann pointed out—the European Court of Human Rights did not rule against our Oath, but I still believe that the Oath goes against modern democratic principles. The matter is not merely one of abstract theory; it has practical consequences—and not only for Sinn Fein Members who do not want to sit in the Chamber at present in any case.
There was a disgraceful example when my hon. Friend Mr. Dalyell—the Father of the House—suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon. Despite that, he gallantly came to the House for the election of the Speaker, but was then incapacitated and warned that he should not attend the House as the injury might become permanent. The 1997 ruling made allowance for that, so he was still allowed to enjoy the facilities, but because he had been unable to take the Oath, he was not allowed to support early-day motions or to take part in other activities. If a Member happens to be hospitalised immediately after an election, it is wrong that his or her electors should be effectively disfranchised unnecessarily.
I repeat that I am not saying this in response to those in Sinn Fein who do not want to take their seats at present, although I hope, with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, that they will gradually do so. I am saying that, in voting for the motion tonight, I will be asking the Leader of the House and the Modernisation Committee to consider oaths of allegiance and attestations of allegiance in general. I hope that, as many hon. Members have said, it will be made absolutely clear that the Register of Members' Interests should apply to all elected Members, irrespective of whether they have taken the Oath or their seats. I hope not only that the paramilitaries will make progress towards peaceful, democratic politics, but that Parliament will make progress towards modern, democratic politics.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will recall that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland intervened on me earlier and read out part of a letter that I had written. My recollection is that he stopped immediately after the phrase
"until such time as actual decommissioning has commenced".
That recollection is correct, and it is particularly unfortunate that the Secretary of State did not quote the next sentence, which refers to the need for
"the continuing decommissioning of weapons", or the point towards the end of the letter where it states:
"In addition to these points until such time as the total commitment to peace and democracy is evidenced".
It was unfortunate that the Secretary of State did not read the entire letter, especially as hon. Members were asking him to do so, so that people could assess it in the round.
The right hon. Gentleman is experienced enough to know that that is a matter of debate, not a point of order. I understand that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has, as I suggested, made the letter available to hon. Members by placing a copy in the Library. As I said before, it is for the benefit of the House that a document that has been extensively relied on should be made available, and I express the hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that it is now laid upon the Table.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have no hesitation in acceding to the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, which relates, in particular, to the reference to
"the continuing decommissioning of weapons".
In fact, I did read out that section, although he is correct to say that I did not read out the second paragraph. My point was not to try to pretend that he had agreed to something in Stormont—[Interruption.] As I said, I did read it out, as Hansard will show. I read out the words "continuing process" as well. I was contesting the implication that we had acted dishonestly by never asking people for their views on this matter, but I am more than happy to accept fully that the words that I read out give the implication which the right hon. Gentleman seeks to give to them, which is that it was not just the first act of decommissioning, but the continuing process of decommissioning that he, no doubt, would wish to examine and make his judgment on. That is precisely why I said that he was perfectly consistent in taking a different view now from the one expressed in the first section, and Hansard will show that as well.
That contribution is also more a point of debate than a point of order, but I am grateful to the Secretary of State for making the letter available. It is now up to right hon. and hon. Members to judge the issues for themselves, as the document is now available to the House, and it would be better if it were laid on the Table officially.
The ruling that I gave relates to a document that, in itself, was relied on to a substantial extent in debate by the Secretary of State. Other documents that flow from that must be pursued by hon. Members in the other ways available to them.
The House is grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your indication that the document should be placed in the Library. As one of those hon. Members who heard the whole exchange, I am bound to say that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did a serious injustice to Mr. Trimble, and I am glad to think that that injustice will be put right.
This has been a distinguished debate, although I do not think that the House was holding its breath when Mr. Savidge was explaining how he was likely to vote—I and all other hon. Members knew in advance.
The motion has undoubtedly aroused a great deal of emotion on both sides of the House because many of us feel intensely about it. We are being asked to make concessions to those to whom we owe nothing at all—indeed, in respect of whom we have a deep sense of contempt and, dare I say it, loathing. Many of us knew the three hon. Members who were murdered. Ian Gow and Tony Berry are two who come to mind, and they are but a tiny number of those who have been murdered in the Province and elsewhere by those for whom the Sinn Fein Members are apologists. It is in no sense surprising that this debate has engendered the emotion and disgust that has been manifest on both sides of the House.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to three Members, but there were four, and I look forward to the day when the House will remember them properly and place their coats of arms alongside that of Airey Neave. I am here today because Robert Bradford was murdered, and we have already seen Sinn Fein, through An Phoblacht, glorying in that, yet it is said that it is going down the road of peace.