I beg to move,
That this House
notes the serious breaches by Sinn Fein/IRA of their obligations under the Belfast Agreement and the ceasefire, which have been recognised by the Government in the decision to suspend the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland;
believes that good faith has not been observed by Sinn Fein/IRA;
and, unless Sinn Fein honourable Members commit themselves to a public statement that all terrorist organisations, including the IRA, should rescind violence, resolves to rescind the resolution of 18th December 2001 granting facilities and other support to Sinn Fein honourable Members who have chosen not to take their seats.
I should like to take this opportunity to welcome, very sincerely, the Secretary of State to his new responsibilities. He comes to this delicate task with a distinguished record of service in Northern Ireland and knows the position well, which is encouraging for all of us.
Although we shall no doubt disagree from time to time, I hope that I shall be able to co-operate constructively with him in tackling an issue that both our parties agree is of great importance.
Let me try to dispose of a rather unattractive, although I fear all too characteristic, piece of cant and spin doctoring that this issue has suffered from over the past couple of weeks. The Government know perfectly well that the special status conferred on Sinn Fein Members last December has not worked. They know that it was a mistake: a part of at least four sets of crucial mistakes in their Northern Ireland policy. They know that we were right to oppose it, and they are now trying surreptitiously to distance themselves from it and imply that the resolution last December was not their fault. They want to make it sound as though the House spontaneously decided that the creation of a special status—what Baroness Boothroyd called an associate status—would in itself be a desirable reform, and that if it was a mistake, that is nothing to do with them.
When questioned on the special status by my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, the former Secretary of State said:
Xthat is a matter for the House."—[Hansard, 15 October 2002; Vol. 390, c. 204.]
Xthat office facilities are a matter for the House, not me."—[Hansard, 23 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 272.]
In fact, that is mere eyewash—I might have been tempted to use a less parliamentary expression. The decision to confer the special status and override Baroness Boothroyd's ruling in 1997, as well as the ruling in 1924, was taken solely and exclusively at the Government's behest, purely and simply as part and parcel of their misconceived Northern Ireland policy. Before it was even revealed to, or discussed in, the House, it had been discussed with, and offered to, Sinn Fein. I do not say that the changing of our parliamentary rules was bartered or sold to Sinn Fein, as that would hardly be the appropriate word, given that nothing was received in return, but it was secretly and squalidly promised to them by the Government, who must take full responsibility for that act, about which they now evidently feel guilty enough to wish to dissociate themselves from it.
I said that the decision was part of four grave sets of errors in the Government's Northern Ireland policy. The first mistake was the decision to release all the terrorist prisoners without any decommissioning having occurred. That was a fundamental error—I should perhaps say a foundational error, as it is the origin of the other mistakes. It sent the wrong signal from the start about how the Government intended to manage the peace process and may well have sacrificed the best opportunity that we had to get decommissioning concluded within the time scale set out in the Belfast agreement.
The second mistake was not to respond at all to successive Sinn Fein-IRA breaches of the agreement and the ceasefire. We all know what they were: Florida; Colombia; the evidence of active targeting in March this year; the Castlereagh break-in in April; and the spy ring in the Northern Ireland Office, which the Government have apparently known about for some time. In short, we are talking about the Government's whole policy of turning a blind eye. No wonder those in the republican movement who are least committed to the peace process were encouraged to believe that they could get away with almost anything. The Government had given them an irresistible argument to use against their colleagues in the army council who might genuinely have wanted to take their obligations seriously and move towards adopting an exclusively democratic and peaceful course.
The third error—an egregious and unpardonable one—was not merely to fail to respond with any sanction or penalty to those breaches, but to offer new concessions, going beyond the agreement, to Sinn Fein-IRA during that period. There were several such concessions, but the worst were the promise to give an amnesty to on-the-run terrorists—so far we have succeeded in resisting the implementation of that—and the special status for Sinn Fein MPs, which unfortunately we did not succeed in resisting.
The fourth error was the suspension of devolution, rather than the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive, as a result of the latest crisis. That was an error in two senses: it was a moral and political error because it penalised the innocent—indeed, the whole peace process—rather than the guilty alone; and it was a pragmatic error because, although it is easy to suspend institutions, it is very much less easy to envisage, still less to bring about, the circumstances in which they can be restored. It is generally a mistake, in politics as elsewhere, to walk into a problematic situation when one cannot see the exit on the other side.
There was another way; we spelt it out for the Government in the debate in Opposition time last July. It was not to propose an exclusion motion in the Assembly—although that is what the previous Secretary of State promised, but failed, to do. We explained in July why that procedure would not work. We said that it was unfair and unreasonable to expect one party in the nationalist camp to bear the main onus of the exclusion of the other. We therefore offered to support the Government in taking the powers here in Westminster, and permitting the Secretary of State to exclude from the power-sharing Executive any party in breach, or associated with persons in breach, of the ceasefire or the agreement.
Of course the Government, with their vast majority, did not take the slightest notice and, when the crisis came, that power was not even in the Government's armoury; that option was not available to be considered. Government policy has now brought us to this regrettable and worrying impasse. However, the Opposition do not intend to satisfy ourselves simply by pointing out the Government's errors. We have an obligation to say what we would do if we had those responsibilities now.
We would do two things. First, we would pass the Opposition motion tonight. Let me make our position on special status clear. In case anyone needs reminding, let me repeat that we wholeheartedly support the Belfast agreement—[Interruption.] We support the Belfast agreement, and that concession was never required by the agreement—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Leader of the House wishes to quarrel with that idea, but the concession never had anything to do with the agreement itself.
Secondly, we find special status obnoxious in principle, and I am surprised that the Leader of the House and the rest of the Labour party do not feel the same. Anyone elected to a democratic Assembly or Parliament should take his or her seat on the same basis as everybody else who has been duly elected, or not at all.
Of course we would not object to Sinn Fein members taking their seats on the same basis as everyone else. If for some reason the rules of the House were changed—indeed, we are to discuss certain changes in those rules tomorrow night—the changes should apply to everybody. Whatever the rules happened to be at any time, we would expect all Members who wished to take their seats, and get offices and public money, to abide by them. I should have thought that that was a pretty simple idea.
Does the hon. Gentleman nevertheless accept that those of us who take the oath do so in the belief that we come here to serve not only our constituents, but the state as well? That is the very basis on which we serve here.
Indeed. I echo entirely the hon. Lady's words, and I do not think that any difference exists between us in that regard. She is a very distinguished parliamentarian indeed, and she must have been as offended and concerned as the rest of us were when the Government suggested creating special status for some in this place. I should make it plain that we would not expect special status for ourselves, and we would oppose giving it to the Scottish nationalists, the Liberal Democrats or anybody else.
We hope that, in due time, Sinn Fein MPs will, just like other hon. Members, take the seats in this House for which they were duly elected. I remind the House that, for a long time, Sinn Fein had a policy of abstentionism from all democratic assemblies. In the case of the Dail in Dublin, it has overcome that inhibition; its representatives take their seats there and they play a normal part in the democratic life of the Republic of Ireland, which is how it should be. Sinn Fein also overcame that difficulty in the case of Stormont, and before the Assembly's recent suspension its representatives took their places in it. I hope that, in due time, it will overcome the problem here and Sinn Fein MPs will take their seats. But whether or not they do so, the same rules must apply at all times to all duly elected Members of this House, and on the same common basis.
If I may say so, I think that the hon. Gentleman has got it precisely 180 degrees wrong. If Sinn Fein were considering overcoming its particular difficulty and changing the policy of abstentionism—as it has done in respect of the Dail and of Stormont—the Government have relieved it of that dilemma by introducing special status last December. They have made it unnecessary for Sinn Fein to take that third step.
I have just given way to the hon. Gentleman, and if he wants to intervene again he will have to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He will certainly not prevent me from finishing a point that I am glad to make, and which he has enabled me to make.
The fact is that the Government's ill-conceived decision to confer special status on Sinn Fein last December has actually released it from that dilemma; it has not had to take, or has at least been able to postpone, that decision. If we had gotten our way and that provision had not gone through, Sinn Fein would indeed have had to face that dilemma. It would have needed to decide whether there was any sincerity in its claim to want to represent its constituents' interests in this House, or in its signing of the Belfast agreement, which states explicitly that, until the matter is changed by majority opinion in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland remains a full part of the United Kingdom. Sinn Fein should therefore have no objection to taking its seats, even though, perfectly honourably and respectably, it wants—like the Social Democratic and Labour party—to change the position in due time. Of course, the SDLP has always pursued that objective by entirely constitutional and democratic means.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that one Sinn Fein MP went to the heart of the issue in pointing out that one reason why he has not taken the oath and sat as a full Member is that he regards this as Xa foreign Parliament"?
Yes, I remember that clearly, and that has been Sinn Fein's position for a very long time. If we are democrats, we have to accept a majority decision that goes against us. One would hope that, if there is any sincerity in Sinn Fein's signing up to the Belfast agreement, its representatives would accept that, for the time being and under the terms of the agreement, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and that this Parliament is not, therefore, a foreign Parliament.
They can come and take their seats here without in any way weakening that desire ultimately to change Northern Ireland's status. In that event, Northern Ireland would be part of a different country. There is no contradiction between Sinn Fein saying that its aim is to have a reunited Ireland and a separate Parliament and, in the meantime, its representatives taking their seats here. Until such time as Sinn Fein is able to persuade a majority of people in Northern Ireland, in accordance with the Belfast agreement, to vote to change Northern Ireland's status, there would be no contradiction in taking those seats, as long as Sinn Fein is prepared to abide by democratic rules and live up to the promises made in the agreement. Those two conditions go to the heart of the quandary about Sinn Fein's behaviour.
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend—I call him that because we have similar views on Europe—but does he accept that the logic of his position would be much stronger if the Northern Ireland Assembly had voted to exclude Sinn Fein? His argument does not take account of the fact that the Sinn Fein members are in the same position regarding the suspension of the Assembly and, therefore—although there are reasons why it was suspended, which we can doubtless debate later—his position is premature.
The hon. Gentleman's point is slightly convoluted, but I think that I followed it. He has not followed what I have said. We have never suggested that anybody should be excluded from the Assembly in Northern Ireland; we say that they should be excluded from the Executive, and that is a different matter. The power-sharing Executive is an artificial construct—the Unionists sometimes call it an involuntary coalition—and people sit on it not by virtue of having received a majority of the votes in Northern Ireland but by virtue of the Belfast agreement. Therefore, if they cease to comply with the Belfast agreement, they lose that entitlement to sit on the Executive. On that basis, the exclusion of Sinn Fein would be justified by its bad behaviour, as I have outlined.
The evidence for the breaches that I have listed is overwhelming. The Florida gun-running episode, for example, was the subject of a determination by an American court—in other words, a legal process in a country with a recognised judicial system. Moreover, it is a country that is not known for a bias against Irish nationalism or republicanism—far from it. It is difficult to think of a more objective validation of an accusation. Similarly, the Colombian situation was the subject of a report by the international affairs committee of the House of Representatives, so it was also objectively validated. The other breaches that I listed have been subject to a determination by the Chief Constable, and all parties have accepted that.
Of course, the guilt or innocence of individuals must be determined by a court, but whether a crime has been committed is normally determined by the police. If someone burgles my house, I may have to wait some months before it is decided whether the suspect whom the police have arrested is guilty, but the fact that a burglary took place can be determined on the spot by the police. I have been rigorous when I have talked about the breaches. They happened and that cannot be denied. I would be sorry indeed if the Government were in denial about those breaches, because that would be very alarming. They are such grievous breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement that the Government should have done something about them. It was indefensible that they did not.
We lost the vote last December, but it was passed on the basis of assumptions by the Government that have proved excessively optimistic. It has now become clear that the hope of better behaviour from Irish republicanism, on which the Government were counting, has simply not materialised. We have seen all the breaches that I mentioned and we have also seen very little progress in decommissioning. However, the Leader of the House expressly said last December that we would be Xmore likely" to see more decommissioning if we granted the special status.
Of course, there has been no progress on other implementation issues in the Belfast agreement, such as Sinn Fein accepting the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The expectations that the Government were counting on—some would say naively—which the Leader of the House made explicit when he was trying to justify the unjustifiable last December, have been shown to be false. The Government made a major miscalculation and, in my view and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, the position should be rectified.
The motion represents a sanction, and a sanction is badly required, but the motion itself is conditional. That is a vital point. I have said that special status is not viable or acceptable in the long term, but we have a choice about when and how we end it. Under our motion, it would still be open to Sinn Fein to keep its special status for the time being—pending a global solution, when I hope that its members take up their seats in full—if it unequivocally renounces violence. That must of course mean a commitment to disband the IRA, renounce the armed struggle definitively, abolish its military structures and complete decommissioning in accordance with the agreement to the satisfaction of General de Chastelain. In other words, we have lived up to the tactics that we have consistently urged on the Government. Our sanctions are contingent and balanced, as our concessions would be. They are not unilateral and unreciprocated.
What has happened over the weekend further vindicates our approach. When we called the debate in July to press for the power of exclusion from the Executive, on the very hour of the very day that that debate was timed to start—5 o'clock in the afternoon—we had the IRA apology. This time, within 36 hours of our putting down a relatively robust motion, Gerry Adams has made his most encouraging statement yet—not excluding disbandment. [Laughter.] Perhaps it is all coincidence, or perhaps we should initiate debates on Northern Ireland more frequently, and put the matter to the test.
It was an extraordinary coincidence, was it not? The Opposition debate in July, which had the clear and announced aim of introducing a motion to enable the Secretary of State to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive, coincided with the IRA apology. It was timed for that very moment. It could, of course, be coincidence, as could the link between this motion and the statement made by Gerry Adams over the weekend. I merely say that perhaps we should initiate more debates and put the matter to the test. Presumably, in good scientific fashion, when the correlation recurs after a certain number of experiments have been conducted, we shall be able to draw a conclusion.
We have been urging another issue on the Government for more than year. We first asked them last October to attempt to negotiate a global and comprehensive accord that is multilateral, interlinked and timetabled, which I have called a programmed process, covering the implementation of the Belfast agreement and the resolution of all other outstanding matters, including the Weston Park matters. I urge the Government once again to take on board, as they sadly have not done yet, what I said over and over again and at great length in our debate in July. No party in Northern Ireland will make a significant move unless it knows in advance what proportion of the total price to be paid that move represents, what it will get in return, and when, so timetables must be involved as well. Everyone needs to see the end game and to know the details and timing of each step towards it. There must be clear provision for what happens if there is non-compliance along the way. All the concepts that, until now, the Government have resisted—linkage, penalties for non-performance, timetables—will be essential if real progress is finally to be made.
Is my hon. Friend satisfied that even if the Government set down such a timetable they will adhere to it? He will recall that the Government said that the release of convicted prisoners from the Maze would be phased with decommissioning. They made that clear but, at the end of the day, every convicted terrorist was released before any decommissioning took place.
My hon. Friend is right. I made that point myself and we should make it over and again. The Government should never be allowed to forget it. The Belfast agreement provided that decommissioning should be completed within two years and that prisoner releases should be completed within two years. It is hard to believe that anybody could be so naive as to have delivered 100 per cent. of their side of the bargain while nothing whatever on the other side was delivered. That was not merely an error, but a fundamental error which set the Government on the wrong course, and they have been following that course ever since. Through this debate, I am trying to ensure that they get back on the right course and go forward in the right direction.
I hope that the Government have learned that their policy of unilateral concessions and turning a blind eye, or even their attempts to reach piecemeal agreements or understandings with one party or another individually—a course that immediately arouses the suspicions or opposition of others—simply will not work.
My hon. Friend asked what guarantees there would be that, if we set a deadline, Sinn Fein or others would meet it. I have not suggested that anybody should set a unilateral deadline; I have been putting forward a multilateral and comprehensive concept. It is extremely important that everything in the package is interlinked and that everybody knows precisely who has to do what and by when.
I hope that I have made it clear that there is a fundamental conceptual difference between us and the Government on the right tactics to be pursued. Their tactics have not worked and we are in a terrible mess, so I hope that they will pay serious attention to good advice from the Opposition.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his argument? I thought that he was arguing that giving special status to Sinn Fein MPs was unacceptable and unsavoury, and wrong in principle. However, he also seems to be arguing that the Government's tactics of negotiating and horse trading are not being followed perfectly. The process that he describes is one of horse trading, negotiation and concession, inducements and rewards to Sinn Fein. Can he confirm that that is his argument and that there would thus be nothing wrong in principle with agreeing to what he describes as an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists, to changes to the policing legislation or to giving access to facilities in this place, but merely that he wants the horse trading to be done more perfectly? Is that right?
As always, I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's intervention. He is known for both his experience of Northern Ireland and his mental agility, so if anyone were able to defend the Government from the Back Benches it would be the right hon. Gentleman. I notice that the Leader of the House has been remarkably silent during all my strictures against the Government.
Mr. Mandelson is wrong, however. He is right to the extent that the type of comprehensive solution that I have set out involves incentives and deterrents. I am happy to agree that those concepts are involved.
However, introducing the whole issue of special status was the Government's doing, and it was quite otiose, gratuitous and extremely foolish; it was never in the Belfast agreement.
The right hon. Gentleman probably knows the Belfast agreement backwards—I have tried to learn it at least forwards if not backwards during the past few months—and there was no suggestion of special status. It was wrong to offer it because it was wrong in itself. First, it is obnoxious in principle, as I have already said, and, secondly, it was perverse. I have already explained why it was perverse: it prevented Sinn Fein from grappling with the real issue of whether it would end up taking its seats here properly.
I shall have to wind up my speech in a moment. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if he wishes to do so later, and I look forward to his contribution. He is right to say that a package approach is required, but introducing into the package an element that was not required under the agreement, such as special status, seems to have been extremely damaging from every possible point of view.
The new Labour Government have a vast majority and are protected by their army of spin doctors—[Interruption.] Of course, that is the case, and the whole country knows it now. However, I am particularly sad that they chose to play fast and loose with the honour of Parliament, with the procedures of the House and with the fundamental equity that ought to exist between all Members who are elected to take their seats.
I shall end on a positive note. The Government are now embarking on at least a change of personnel, and I have sincerely welcomed Mr. Murphy to the Front Bench. If, in the light of the disappointments of the past four years—they must be extremely disappointing to the Government privately—and the failure of their tactics, they are prepared to reconsider and to go forward on a more realistic and robust basis, we shall be delighted to support them, and I mean that very sincerely.
However, we can make a good start tonight by making it clear that, if there is no movement and no compliance, we must have the courage to withdraw concessions as well as to make them, and that the concession of special status for Sinn Fein cannot stand if there is no countervailing and appropriate response from those who have benefited from it. I hope that the House will think that a reasonable and sensible signal to send to all concerned in Belfast, and I look forward to hearing the Government's response.
I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
Xrecognises the fundamental need for the affairs of Northern Ireland to be settled on an exclusively peaceful, democratic and inclusive basis;
and does not believe that expelling any party to the peace process from the parliamentary precincts is likely to encourage them to renounce violence and to pursue a political settlement within that process."
I am grateful to Mr. Davies for his kind words of welcome, and I look forward to working with him and other Conservative Members who are interested in Northern Ireland.
I am very conscious of the accomplished act that I have to follow: my right hon. Friend Dr. Reid led Northern Ireland affairs with a very sure touch. I have admired—I am sure that many others have done so, too—his commitment, toughness and breadth of thinking, and Northern Ireland will miss the unique contribution that he was able to make. The nature of his new role as Minister without Portfolio means that the House may hear less of him for a while, although those listening to the XToday" programme may well be more fortunate.
Despite my sadness at leaving my previous job as Secretary of State for Wales, it is very good to be back among so many people in Northern Ireland's political life with whom I worked closely when the Belfast agreement was prepared. I still believe that that agreement was one of the greatest achievements of statesmanship anywhere in the world in recent years. That is not just, or even mainly, to the credit of the British and Irish Governments: the main contribution came from those in political life in Northern Ireland who worked on it, and often took great risks for it, and they deserve our admiration. Some of those people are Members of the House—Mr. Trimble and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). Some are members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which I profoundly hope we shall see up and running again before long. However, many in both of the governing parties in the House have also shown great breadth of vision and willingness to take risks. Without those qualities on the part of the last Prime Minister, as well as the present one, and on the part of my predecessors before and after 1997, we should not have made the strides that we have. We should have in mind their insight and their courage as we consider the motion this evening.
Of course, some political parties in Northern Ireland disagree fundamentally with aspects of that agreement. I respect their convictions, too, and I believe that they are driven by a commitment to advance Northern Ireland towards a happier and more peaceful future. I look forward to discussing those matters with them in the coming days.
I have happy memories of my encounters with those in Northern Ireland politics. I am therefore very sorry, in many ways, that on my first appearance in the House as Secretary of State the motion obliges me to disagree with a number of hon. Members, including some who would support the Belfast agreement. As the motion refers to larger questions about the circumstances that have led to the suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland, I hope that I may set out some of my impressions of those matters, of how we might move forward and of how the issue of facilities here may impact on that.
Four and a half years on from the conclusion of the agreement on Good Friday 1998, I still believe that it offers the only way forward for Northern Ireland. I believe that Northern Ireland has benefited substantially from it, and many of those benefits were delivered through the mechanism of devolved government. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford referred to the fact that mistakes have been made over the last few years—mistakes by Governments, perhaps mistakes by the Assembly, and mistakes by politicians. The thing that I remember most vividly about Good Friday 1998—probably no one in the House this afternoon was present for those negotiations—was that, when the business was concluded in the late afternoon, George Mitchell, who chaired the talks, said that the agreement had been signed but that the difficulties lay ahead, and that, inevitably, the road would be bumpy in the years following the agreement.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford also said that, in his view, the Government could have done certain things during the past four years to improve the situation. I am not saying for one minute that this Government or any Government do everything right, but I know that governing with a big majority in the House of Commons—the biggest for many years—was not the answer to the problems of Northern Ireland. It helped, of course, but, as far as Northern Ireland was concerned, if the agreement was to be successful—as I believe that it will be—majorities in the House of Commons did not matter. Ultimately, it does not matter what a British or Irish Government can do. With a majority of 100, or whatever it was, of course we could have passed the Belfast agreement, perhaps in a matter of weeks. We could have imposed an agreement on the people of Northern Ireland, but it would have failed miserably, as we know, and an agreement is only possible if it has support among all political parties in Northern Ireland, as far as that can be ensured.
Of course, not every party in Northern Ireland agreed with the agreement. Those who did agree, however, knew full well that, without each other, it would surely fail. That is the fundamental error in the remarks of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. He thinks that the Government or Governments can achieve that end, but we cannot. It can only be achieved through the parties, and, of course, through the endorsement of that agreement by the people of Northern Ireland in the referendum.
I welcome my right hon. Friend as Secretary of State. I know of the great work that he did in the lead-up to the Good Friday agreement. He will make mistakes in the future, because the political situation is imperfect, but he will listen to the politicians and, more than anything, he will listen to people in the community.
Will my right hon. Friend keep the headline issue in mind as he undertakes his privileged job? Since 1994, when the IRA ceasefire began, many families have been able to stay intact because fewer people are in their graves as a result of the disorder. That is the success of the Northern Ireland peace process. The aim of ensuring that there is safety and peace in those communities should keep my right hon. Friend and others going.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who was a Minister in Northern Ireland for some years and played his part in the development of the process. Anyone who returns to Northern Ireland and reflects on what it was like before the agreement will understand that irrespective of what problems we face now and have faced since the agreement was signed, the world has changed in a remarkable way. I started to take an interest in Northern Ireland when on the Opposition Front Bench in the mid-1990s. Anyone who compares the earlier Belfast, or any other town or village in Northern Ireland, with the city now will see the difference not simply in the number of people who have died, which is the most important consideration, but in the quality of life.
As Secretary of State for Wales, I worked with a successful Assembly in Cardiff and I know that the benefits of a devolved Assembly are enormous, as are the benefits of the agreement. It is not just what the Assembly has done in Northern Ireland, but the fact that people from Northern Ireland run their own affairs.
Of course, and we aim to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly is up and running as soon as possible.
Real achievements have been made and there is greater potential in the devolved government system. Northern Ireland has been changing rapidly and for the better. For example, there have been new policy initiatives on travel for old people, the organisation of industrial development promotion and the better performance of services for agriculture and health. The physical fabric has been improved with, for instance, the building of the Odyssey centre, which is new since I last worked in Belfast. I believe that people in Northern Ireland want devolution back and I shall apply all my efforts to securing that at the earliest opportunity. I am glad that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and I have at least that much in common.
The Minister must realise that the fundamental problem is the lack of trust in Sinn Fein-IRA. Mr. McFall highlighted the improvements in Northern Ireland, but there have been increased terrorist activities in Colombia as a result of Sinn Fein-IRA's activities. Sinn Fein-IRA could not be trusted in Stormont. Can they be trusted here?
Trust is important, but it has to be between all parties. Everything that might go wrong, everything that has gone wrong now and again and everything that went wrong before the agreement was signed stems from the lack of trust. That is not confined to one side, however. Both sides have a problem with trust, which has been the case traditionally and historically. Trust cannot happen overnight.
The hon. Gentleman is right to tell the House that events in the past months and years have caused trust to evaporate. The suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a direct result of a lack of trust between political parties there. It is the job of the Government and Members of the House of Commons to ensure that that trust is restored. The motion does not help to achieve that end and trust between parties in Northern Ireland will not be helped one jot if the House agrees to it. I am not suggesting that hon. Members who believe that the motion is right are insincere, but it will not do the trick.
Will my right hon. Friend address the fundamental problem that there are two classes of Members in the House of Commons? There are some who accept responsibility to the United Kingdom and their constituents and some who do not. The Leader of the House may shake his head, but that is the case.
Does the Secretary of State accept that situation, because it is not only fundamental but extremely dangerous?
My hon. Friend raised those issues in a previous debate, and of course she is entirely right to say what she thinks. However, the motion that we are debating would perpetuate the situation, because if Sinn Fein agreed with the conditions that it sets down, there would continue to be two classes of Member in this House. The Leader of the House will deal with the matters specifically related to the House when he winds up the debate. He will have heard what my hon. Friend said. My interest in all this, which I am sure is the same as that of most Members, concerns the fact that if there is any action that the House can take to improve the chances of peace in Northern Ireland, we should take it—it is as simple as that.
I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of trust. He said that passing this motion would not enhance trust in Northern Ireland, but when trust has been given, as it was given by the Government last December, and abused, should nothing be done about that?
I add my voice to those that have congratulated my right hon. Friend on his new appointment. I had the pleasure of serving as his Parliamentary Private Secretary when, as Minister of State, he played such a vital role in negotiating the Good Friday agreement, and his appointment is well deserved.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the agreement is not the property of any of the eight parties who signed it or of the two Governments but remains the property of the people of Northern Ireland because of the referendum in which they endorsed it? It is therefore foolish for people to try to play games with issues surrounding the agreement which could undermine it and reverse the progress that my right hon. Friend so excellently negotiated.
As the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach jointly emphasised when devolved government was suspended, an inclusive Executive built on trust, along with the other related institutions established by the agreement, offer the only means whereby Northern Ireland can be governed in the best interests of the community. They offer a sustainable basis for fair and honourable accommodation between Unionists and nationalists.
In a moment.
As the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach also stressed, it is essential that concerns about the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means are removed. The time has come for people clearly to choose one track or the other. I know that Mr. Robathan will agree with every word of that.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I genuinely wish him well in his new appointment.
On the question of trust, is it the case that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have been not only inextricably linked to the IRA but heavily involved in the IRA for several years, and they are probably still on the army council? Is it the case that Sinn Fein-IRA were plotting and spying in the Stormont Administration with a view to possibly using the information later in terrorist activities? What leads the Secretary of State to believe that Sinn Fein and the IRA are not using the facilities in the House of Commons to plot and to spy on Members here, including himself, with a view to possibly using the information later in terrorist activities?
I echo the words of congratulation to my right hon. Friend. I have known him for some years so I will not go into detail, as others have.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be equally, if not more, dangerous to deny normal facilities to Members of this House, even if they have not taken the Oath, when they have been democratically elected in their own constituency by people who may not believe that they should be part of the United Kingdom?
The answer is yes. It would be wrong to deny the constituents of those constituency MPs the right that every one of us shares. I will touch on that matter in a moment.
The motion seeks to deny access to this place not to the electorate in Northern Ireland, but to the people who were elected to it and who will not take their seats. If they do not take their seats, they cannot participate in the House. What, therefore, does the Secretary of State imagine their allowances are being used for?
The hon. Members to whom the hon. Gentleman refers made it clear in their election campaigns that they would not take up their seats. Under our constitution, the way in which we elect Members to the House means that they were elected by a majority of the people in their constituencies. There is still an onus on them to represent not only those who voted for them, but those who did not vote for them. My right hon. Friend the Leader will return to that.
As the Prime Minister made crystal clear in Belfast earlier this month, nothing other than what I have described can work. The essential trust underpinning the agreement cannot be restored unless it is clear to everyone that debate and peaceful resolution of differences is the only track being followed. With that exclusive commitment, we can make very rapid progress. Without it, the Government will do all they can to secure the continuing benefits of the agreement, but the future of the devolved institutions, and of Northern Ireland more generally, is inevitably cast into doubt.
There is of course a need for commitment. Everyone must be assured that there is a willingness to work in the institutions on a genuinely inclusive basis. Again, all parties in Northern Ireland—and all parties in this place—must leave that in no doubt. It is highly relevant to the motion that we are discussing tonight.
As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, the question of violence, and preparations for violence, is crucial. The Prime Minister has said that he believes that the leaders of Sinn Fein, who are Members of this House but have not taken their seats, want the agreement to work. From what I knew of them in the past, I am also convinced of their commitment. I believe that they have brought their movement a very long way in the cause of peace. I believe that they are dedicated to making the agreement work on a constitutional basis.
Let us not forget how far the republican movement has come in its record in making constitutional politics work in Northern Ireland. The conscientious and industrious participation of Sinn Fein Members in the Assembly and Executive in recent years could not have been imagined a few years ago, and I interpret the remarks of the president of Sinn Fein at the weekend as continuing in the same direction. It was a thoughtful and detailed speech, which merits careful consideration. I hope to discuss it with him shortly when I meet all the parties in Northern Ireland this week.
However, much that has happened in Northern Ireland in recent months has led to doubts—doubts that I entirely understand—about the commitment to exclusively peaceful means, in line with the Mitchell principles, on the part of the republican movement as a whole. There has been deplorable violence on the part of loyalist paramilitaries as well. It is one of the most acutely painful reminders of the past that we had hoped that Northern Ireland had left behind. We will make every effort to deal firmly with that violence, as we will with violence and criminality from any quarter. My predecessor took resolute steps, as has the new Chief Constable. That work will go on with vigour while I am Secretary of State. But there is a difference, in that the loyalist parties have not formed part of the Administration in Northern Ireland, whereas Sinn Fein has.
Activity appearing to be the work of parts of the IRA has had a profoundly destabilising effect, and we must tackle it. However, we must be clear about the extent of that activity. The context of the motion would have been different had that activity been considered a breach of the ceasefire. Both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my predecessor set out how they would deal with the question of ceasefires in their statements on
There has been much to cause worry, and entirely understandable worry. My right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio expressed concerns about violence from paramilitary groups on all sides in Northern Ireland. He had not reached the conclusion that there had been a breach of the IRA ceasefire of 1997. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in his recent speech, we need to move beyond ceasefires to acts of completion.
The challenge that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has laid before the republican movement is to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful means. I believe that all who uphold the agreement should do all that they can now to help the republican movement to do so. I do not believe that the motion would help lead the republican movement to that further transformation.
We are asking that those within the movement who still believe that violence, or the implicit threat of violence, still has a place in the advancement of their legitimate political aims should change that position. I do not see how the withdrawal of office facilities and other associated entitlements in this place could realistically influence the paramilitaries to abandon the course of violence. I cannot for one second agree that the debate has led to what the president of Sinn Fein said during the weekend. I am sure that that is not so.
Withdrawal of the facilities that were accorded at the end of last year would give only further grounds for saying that both Parliament and the Government are unreliable, and that their word to nationalism can never be relied on. Whatever we may think of the merits of that view, it is a widespread one. [Interruption.] I shall repeat that because those who know Northern Ireland will understand that whatever we may think of its merits, it is a widespread view there. We must do all that we possibly can to neutralise such suspicions and make it clear that legitimate nationalist aspirations, like legitimate Unionist aspirations, will be allowed the fullest opportunity to advance by consent within an exclusively non-violent and democratic process.
I too welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his post as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I am interested in hearing his argument about not applying sanctions to IRA-Sinn Fein. Why did the Government take sanctions against the Ulster Defence Association and why did they not believe in that instance that that would not help to bring the UDA into a democratic process?
The sanctions to which the hon. Gentleman is referring would have had an entirely different impact from the sanction that the motion would introduce. The motion would not move Sinn Fein in the direction that we want it to move. If the motion were passed, it would have exactly the opposite effect. That is my fear. In my mind, we have been left in no doubt that that would happen. That was the central thrust of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week. That is central to the full implementation of the agreement. Indeed, on entering the political talks in 1997, it committed itself to the Mitchell principles. One of Martin McGuinness's concerns was to subscribe to a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, as one of the elements derived from the Mitchell principles, in the pledge of office when he took the post of Minister of Education in Northern Ireland.
I also congratulate the Secretary of State on his new position. We have had Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen, and I look forward to the day when we will have an Ulsterman as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Then we will truly be British.
Before the right hon. Gentleman concludes his remarks, will he define what a ceasefire is? We still await the resolute action from his predecessor on defining the term. The present definition, from the Provisional IRA, is that it does not kill British soldiers or shoot members of the police force. Everything else, both nationally and internationally, is allowable. Does he accept that definition?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the terms were laid out in the conditions of
All those who know Northern Ireland politics, including, I suspect, the authors of the motion, know how a condition of the sort that is proposed would be seen. It would be taken as a clear snub to people whom the Prime Minister and I believe are sincere in trying to bring the necessary transition to a conclusion. The fact that that transition has been too slow is not a reason for making it more difficult for the journey to be concluded. Hon. Members may protest that that is not their intention, but in the light of recent history, that is how it would appear. Both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have made it clear what steps are needed. I do not believe that the proposed declaration adds anything to them.
The Secretary of State is arguing that it is generally right to exert pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA to observe peaceful and democratic means. In that case, why is it wrong specifically to exert pressure on them as my hon. Friend Mr. Davies proposed, by denying them facilities in this place? Why would that not exert pressure on them to use peaceful and democratic means?
Negotiations are dealt with and pressure—if that is the right term—is applied to everybody in the process in the proper way, within the terms of the process. It strikes me that the tabling of Opposition motions on the Floor of the House is not the right way of developing a peace process in Northern Ireland or anywhere else. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is the case. At the end of the day, as one of his colleagues said, for the people of Northern Ireland, the question is one of trust. How should trust be restored? I do not think that one restores trust by supporting Opposition motions in the House of Commons. The points that have been made in the debate should certainly be made, but deciding unilaterally to take a course of action outside the proper process will not necessarily mean that we arrive at the desired outcome that all of us want—the restoration not only of trust between the parties in Northern Ireland, but of peace. The combination of the two is very important.
The message that all of us who wish Northern Ireland well and want to see it advance politically need to send out is that Sinn Fein and its associates must pursue their objectives in purely constitutional ways. The resolution on facilities was passed last December as a further opportunity for them to proceed down that constitutional path. It was not an endorsement of their abstentionist policy. It would be much more satisfactory if Sinn Fein Members took a full part in the proceedings of the House, but for the present, they decline to do so. Their attitude is regrettable, but a very curious message, liable to be interpreted in a very negative sense, would be sent out if we agreed to the motion at a time when we are pressing Sinn Fein more intensely than ever before to follow constitutional ways. The motion would at least conditionally cut off an avenue to constitutional activity. I do not believe that that makes sense.
I agree that everybody in Northern Ireland wants peace and prosperity whether or not they agree with the Belfast agreement and that, of course, everybody's views must be taken into account. We must understand that. However, I return to the central point: if we want Sinn Fein and the republican movement to take a certain route, I do not believe for one second that we would improve prospects in that regard by taking away what this House granted some months ago. There are other ways in which pressure should rightly be exerted on everybody who is involved in violence in Northern Ireland, but we delude ourselves by thinking that people will look at this debate and say that taking away facilities will somehow completely change the atmosphere in Northern Ireland. Of course that will not happen.
Instead, it will send the signal that we in the House of Commons have unilaterally used the motion to go down this path when everyone knows that the only way to bring back the Assembly and to get Sinn Fein and the republican movement into the process is to go through the process that was set up by the Belfast agreement. The agreement was not formed after a couple of debates in the House of Commons or anywhere else. It happened because people in Northern Ireland voted for it and because there had been months and years of negotiations involving my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the previous Prime Minister and previous Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland of both parties. The only way to proceed is by continuing that process, not by having debates every now and again and hoping that they will change the world. It will not work like that. The only way that the process will develop is by sticking to what we have already done in the agreement and ensuring that we implement it in the fullest possible form.
The Secretary of State appears to be arguing that allowing Sinn Fein-IRA to have facilities in the House of Commons is integral to the Belfast agreement. That is his argument and the whole tenor of his speech. Will he therefore tell the House, on his first outing in his new role, which particular sections and paragraphs of the agreement state that that is the case?
That is not my argument. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would not have said what he has just said. I am saying that the only way that we can move forward in Northern Ireland is to ensure that we implement the agreement in all its forms and ensure that there are proper discussions, negotiations and talks with all the parties in Northern Ireland—and between Governments as well—so that we arrive at a settlement that would satisfy all sides. That is the only way to proceed.
The House decided some months ago to give these privileges to the Members concerned, and I do not believe that taking those privileges away today would help the peace process at all. In fact, I think that it would probably hinder it. However, this debate is not central to the peace process—far from it—and that is why I am saying what I am saying.
The Secretary of State may be right that the debate will make not a jot of difference to what happens in Northern Ireland. However, does he not think that there is a hint of irony in the fact that one reason why it may not is that those hon. Members who might have something to contribute to the debate from their side of the argument may be in their offices watching it on television without the slightest intention of coming to the Chamber to participate?
I do not know whether those hon. Members are watching the debate on television. However, if they are, I hope that they will take the main message in my remarks. If they commit themselves to exclusively peaceful and non-violent means and people in the republican movement understand that they have to earn the trust of those in the Unionist community—and vice versa—we will have an Assembly back in Belfast working for the benefit of all the people in Northern Ireland. That is what we want. To repeat what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we have reached the stage when we must address such issues. We cannot carry on in the way that we did in the past. What the president of Sinn Fein said at the weekend was a move in that direction, but I wait with interest to hear what he will say to me later this week.
As my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan said, we should bear in mind another important interest group—the constituents of hon. Members who follow the policy that I have described. There are about 250,000 of them and some will have voted for Members who sit for their constituencies, and others will not have done. They should all be entitled to a proper constituency service. That was another reason why we provided last year for these facilities to be made available in the House. That reason remains as valid as ever.
I also know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House had serious concerns last December about the resolution that was approved. It was a departure for the House, and I understand why they hesitated over it. I nevertheless believe that it was the right thing to do. In my view, it has led Sinn Fein Members to more engagement with other hon. Members, and that is wholly beneficial. I am aware that a number of Members have attended open sessions that Sinn Fein Members have organised. That kind of opportunity for dialogue should not be lost.
I welcome my right hon. Friend back to the Northern Ireland Office team. Does he acknowledge that during last December's debate the point was made, and accepted by the Leader of the House and by the House itself, that any facilities that the House offered should be offered to Sinn Fein Members on exactly the same conditions—in terms of constituency work and the purposes for which office costs allowance was used—as exist for any Member of Parliament; and that, in addition, Sinn Fein Members were equally required to fulfil the obligations of the Register of Members' Interests and so on?
I understand my hon. Friend's points. I am told that those requirements have been met.
Much though the position in Northern Ireland has improved over the years, everyone who has spoken today, whatever their point of view, understands that we are at a sensitive juncture. On the question of those who are involved in government being committed to exclusively peaceful means, we have come to what the Prime Minister described as a crunch. Unless we have such a demonstrable commitment, we risk all the progress that we have made being stalled.
I come back to the Northern Ireland Office after an interval and with a determination to see the process brought to a conclusion. The Prime Minister has made clear his view about what is now needed. My first step will be to listen carefully to what all the parties have to say about the way forward. It will be very important for us to work in close consultation and partnership with the Irish Government to ensure that the implementation of the agreement continues and that the obstacles to an early restoration of the devolved institutions are removed.
The motion before us is not likely to speed us towards that objective. Indeed, I think that it would take us in the opposite direction. I believe, therefore, that the House should reject it.
I welcome Mr. Murphy to his new appointment. As I am the longest-serving Northern Ireland spokesperson in the House, I was hoping to get the job myself and thus fulfil the dream of David Burnside that an Ulsterman would finally be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, I bear the right hon. Gentleman no malice and look forward to continuing the close and constructive working relationship that he and I enjoyed when he was Secretary of State for Wales.
I congratulate Dr. Reid, who is now Minister without Portfolio and chairman of the Labour party. No doubt, his experiences in conflict resolution as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be barely adequate to the task he faces in his new role.
It is clear both from this afternoon's debate and from previous debates that Sinn Fein having access to the facilities of the House is a highly sensitive question and one that has caused division in all the major parties represented here today. It is easy to understand why the pressures have grown recently, given the dramatic television pictures of the police raids on Sinn Fein's offices in the Assembly and the subsequent suspension of the devolved institutions. The arrest of a Sinn Fein member of staff at the Assembly and the accusations of an informer in the Northern Ireland Office have brought the process, which was already under massive strain, to near breaking point. However, I remind the House that those pressures have been building for 12 months and that they have always been present. To draw short-term conclusions from what is simply another step in a long-term process is therefore rather inappropriate.
Little more than a month ago, some two weeks prior to the police raids on Sinn Fein's offices in Stormont, the collapse of the Assembly appeared to be inevitable because the First Minister, Mr. Trimble, had already promised his party's ruling council that he would pull Ulster Unionist Ministers out of the Executive if the IRA had not disbanded by January. Now let us be clear about this. It is inappropriate for the Conservatives to suggest in their motion regarding Sinn Fein Members' access to the facilities of the House that the recent activities of Sinn Fein—or a breach by it of the ceasefire—have directly, specifically and unilaterally led to the suspension.
This is not the first time that we have discussed these matters, nor is it the first time that some parties have sought to gain political capital out of a difficult situation. Last November, after much negotiation, the Assembly met to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister. More than 70 per cent. of MLAs voted for the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and Mark Durkan but, because of the divisive voting system in the Assembly, they were not elected. A few days later, the vote was repeated, with a similar number of MLAs voting as they had done before. This time, the vote was carried because some members of the anti-sectarian Alliance party pretended to be sectarian to maintain a framework within which everyone has declared that we hope to build a non-sectarian society.
So we are discussing today a series of difficulties that are not that different from what we have observed before. It comes as little surprise to me that the strains have come to the fore, but it is somewhat disappointing that the question of access to facilities in this House is being tied into a strategy for long-term gain when what is under discussion today is a tactical question.
The political crisis in Stormont has been brewing against a backdrop of continuing violence across Northern Ireland. There is no question about that, and I agree with what Mr. Davies said. He is right to suggest that a number of people in Northern Ireland have not experienced a peace dividend and still suffer punishment beatings and the underlying levels of violence that they would have expected or hoped to cease by now on account of the Good Friday agreement four years ago. Ordinary and decent citizens who support the agreement are fed up with the daily toll of stone throwing, graffiti painting, sectarian intimidation and pipe bombs.
However, in considering the access to facilities and how to move forward, we must remember that various parts of the community that have been involved in violence in the past are still involved in violence. There are loyalist elements in Northern Ireland who are doing every bit as much to destabilise parts of Northern Ireland as republican paramilitaries.
It is in that context that I want to focus on what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said in moving the motion. It is rare that I find myself so much at variance with the hon. Gentleman. Although I will seek to disagree with much of his argument, he is perfectly entitled to take that position, as is the Conservative party.
I am pleased to hear how heartened and relieved Conservative Members are that the effective Opposition in this Chamber have granted them the right to be wrong.
The argument of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford gives us the opportunity to take a cool-headed and deeper look at the true dynamics of the question of how we move forward. He suggested that, a mere 48 hours after the Conservative party had tabled the motion, the IRA had acted accordingly to move forward. That is fantastic and if, on that basis, 48 hours from now, similar progress can be made, a tremendous service will have been provided to the peace process. If, as the motion says,
XSinn Fein honourable Members commit themselves to a public statement that all terrorist organisations, including the IRA, should rescind violence" within 48 hours, I might be tempted to join the Conservative party myself, and I have little doubt that the Secretary of State will do the same. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Perhaps that is a bridge too far in the world of hope. If it were that simple, we would have made more progress in the past.
I am concerned about the four fatal errors that the Conservative party believes the Government have made. The first is the decision to release all prisoners without conditions at the time. The second is the policy of turning a blind eye to transgressions; presumably primarily on the republican rather than the loyalist side. The third is to offer new concessions on what, by implication, was a unilateral basis. The fourth is the suspension of the Assembly, instead of the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive. I want to examine those criticisms and compare them with what the Conservatives themselves had to do in government to move forward.
Let us examine the real world of Northern Ireland politics, and the dealing, bartering and pragmatic decision making in which any Prime Minister of any party and any Northern Ireland Secretary must engage to make progress in Northern Ireland. There are four things for which the Conservatives could have been criticised up to 1997: first, the squandering of an opportunity by having talks with the IRA at a time when the IRA had not even declared a ceasefire; secondly, turning a blind eye to all the carnage of the bombing, which, thankfully, has ceased in large part, but which was going on when discussions were held at the top level of a Conservative Government with people who had in no sense renounced violence; thirdly, giving concessions to terrorists—and let us remember that the whole debate about amnesties was commissioned by a Conservative Government, not by a Labour or a Liberal Democrat one; and, fourthly, failing to suspend those talks when some particular atrocities took place and before the discussions came to public light.
Unsurprisingly, other parties who understand the need to interact responsibly in this Chamber did not condemn John Major when he took a risk by having background talks at a time when the level of violence was significantly higher than it is today in England and Northern Ireland. It is to the credit of John Major, and not his damnation, that he was willing to do that.
I find it disingenuous in the extreme that the Conservative party in 2002 is willing to condemn a Government who are making rather less dangerous decisions on negotiations with former and allegedly current paramilitaries than it did when in government six or seven years ago. My counsel to the Conservatives would be that hypocrisy is the most dangerous strategy of all to pursue in Northern Ireland. Even though the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is being perfectly sincere in what he says, the mere semblance of hypocrisy is dangerous. As the Secretary of State implied, what is said here can on occasion be interpreted in a damaging way among those who take a moderate line on both the Unionist and nationalist side in the discussions.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned hypocrisy several times and connected me with it, implying that I am speaking or behaving hypocritically. In other words, he assumes that I do not believe what I am saying. He knows that I have said consistently exactly the same thing about Northern Ireland and delivered exactly the same analysis and recommendations since I assumed these responsibilities. On what possible basis does he think that I do not believe what I am saying?
As the record will show, not 30 seconds before the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, I was very careful to say that I did not question his sincerity. It is not my style to seek to gain political points against individuals by personalising attacks. I shall underline again the point that I am making, which is an important one. The semblance of hypocrisy, or the appearance of a contradiction between what the Conservative party says in opposition and what it did in government, right up to the Prime Minister himself, is what can cause damage to those, particularly on the Unionist side, who seek to take a moderate course, because we all know that there are significant elements that are seeking to move the Ulster Unionist party in particular in a more hard-line direction. I have absolutely no axe to grind about the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman speaks.
I often disagree with his analysis, but he is perfectly entitled to his view. I am not denigrating him but simply suggesting that the Conservatives have some explaining to do—perhaps they will take this opportunity to do it—about why their policy is so different now from what it was six years ago.
In the pushmi-pullyu world of Liberal Democrat thinking, can the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he is castigating the Conservative Government for talking to the IRA or congratulating them on getting the peace process rolling?
The great thing about being a Liberal Democrat is that we tell the truth, so we do not have to remember what we said. I think that I have made it pretty clear today, and in other debates that the hon. Gentleman may or may not have attended, that I do indeed congratulate John Major and Conservative Secretaries of State on having initiated the very process that the current Government are seeking to proceed with. I would like to think that there is not a soul in the House who would detract from that achievement. Indeed, I have said that it was the one enduring contribution that John Major made to British politics. I hope that I do not have to spell it out any more clearly than that. It is disappointing that that achievement is apparently being fogged by the party's current move away from his strategy.
A cool analysis of the motion reveals an inference that the ceasefire has been breached. Individuals may believe that, but as the Secretary of State clearly stated, there has been no determination that the IRA has breached the ceasefire and it is not helpful to suggest otherwise. [Interruption.] No, there is a clear process to determine whether the ceasefire has been breached, and we could have a separate debate on that.
Let me emphasise again that the trigger for the suspension was quite evidently a judgment call that this was the best way to continue the peace process. Allowing the institutions to collapse by the walk-out of loyalist politicians would have been much more destabilising than the current situation. The motion does not appropriately reflect what is going on in the real world of Northern Ireland politics. That may be a drafting issue, but the record does not make allowance for that, so we should not approve it simply on the grounds that it makes the erroneous inference that the ceasefire has been breached, quite apart from the question of facilities.
The subject of facilities is one on which I would be less inclined to take strong issue with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and his party. Different views are taken on it, even within my party. My hon. Friend Mrs. Calton and I take the view that it would be inappropriate to take away the facilities, as Sinn Fein moderates have done a lot to try to convince their hardliners that political dialogue is the most effective way of achieving their objectives. To his credit, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford often visits the Province, as I do. I have been left in absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of Sinn Fein activists and officers now recognise that peaceful dialogue is the best way forward. Let us not pretend or suggest that Sinn Fein or the IRA now actively desire violence as an outcome. However despicable or unforgivable it may be, it was always regarded as a process.
There are divisions between hardliners and moderates on both the loyalist and the republican side. In my judgment, allowing access to facilities in the House has considerably helped the republican moderates in trying to persuade their sceptics—those who would be more inclined to revert to violence—that peace can work and political dialogue can be effective, and that the republican cause is best served by moving away from the damaging approaches of the past.
Those who take a different view should consider that not as a profound matter of principle—although some have expressed it in those terms—but as a judgment about the best way of strengthening the hand of the moderates in the republican community, whom we desperately need to support, allowing them to point to what is going on in Westminster and show what will be destroyed by reverting to violence. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, it depends whether we take a carrot or a stick approach. By and large, I believe that in this situation the carrot will work better than the stick.
If we take away the facilities, it will be a gift to the hardliners and those who would say that we were never sincere about giving them the chance to participate actively in Westminster. Still worse, there could be a change in the power arrangements on the republican side, simply because the promises that had to be made from the inside to maintain what has been largely an effective ceasefire would have been broken.
There is an even more fundamental reason why I believe that the access to facilities should continue. In truth, all the major parties have taken advantage of the fact that they can now have direct dialogue with individuals from Sinn Fein. Only a few days ago, I witnessed a heated discussion between Mitchel McLaughlin and a Conservative spokesperson. There was no love lost in that discussion, but I was pleased to see the dialogue, because dialogue has probably been the single most important key to unlock progress on peace.
Continuing to allow access is a relatively modest measure. Access has afforded us much better opportunities to talk to Sinn Fein and understand its perspective, and it further ties the party into the democratic process. I have been grateful for the opportunity to speak informally to Sinn Fein Members in the Corridors, just as I talk to colleagues from other political parties. That is where much of the work gets done in Northern Ireland politics.
This is a free vote for the Liberal Democrats, but I advise my colleagues not to support the motion. Those who seek to deny Sinn Fein access to facilities should tell us the answer to this question: why would the removal of the opportunity to be at the heart of the democratic process in the United Kingdom make republicans more likely to want to participate?
I share hon. Members' profound sense of disappointment about the suspension of the devolved institutions. Surely we all agree that the sooner they are back up and running the better. The motion, which stems from that suspension, represents yet another departure from the bipartisan consensus that used to exist on Northern Ireland affairs, but seems to have disappeared along with Conservative Members' ministerial cars and red boxes. That seems an irresponsible approach to Northern Ireland affairs, which I have criticised in the House before, as I did in the July debate. It is symptomatic of the Tory party's failure not only to act as an Opposition, but to emulate a Government in waiting.
Let us compare the Tory's stance with the stance taken by the Labour party in the 1992–97 Parliament. At every opportunity, those on the Labour Front Bench avoided trying to score political points off the Government, not only because we agreed with the general thrust of the Conservative Government's policy in Northern Ireland, but because we understood that scoring political points not only undermined political reputations but risked people's lives. We also understood that if we were to form a Government, which we fully intended to, we would have to live with the consequences of all our pronouncements on Northern Ireland policy. Because the Labour party took a responsible approach to Northern Ireland, it could build cross-community support for the Good Friday agreement when it came to power.
The current Conservative policy and approach to Northern Ireland can only mean one of two things. Either the Conservatives do not believe that they will be in Government any time soon—that is the explanation that many of my hon. Friends think is true—or they would like to sound the death knell of the Northern Ireland peace process if they were in government. Does anyone seriously believe that if Mr. Davies became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the peace process could continue for five minutes after his appointment? It would be dead and buried, and all the effort that has gone into securing the peace in Northern Ireland would be behind us.
I must conclude that the Conservative motion is nothing but a red herring and an excuse for the Conservative party to attack the Good Friday agreement and the Government's policy of implementing it. It does not deal with the substantive issues that led to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is opportunistic, partisan and cynical, and does nothing to address the real issues facing the people of Northern Ireland.
I ask the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen to tell me, given what they know about Northern Ireland's history and the personalities and parties involved today, in what way the motion, if carried, would benefit the peace process? What would be achieved for the people of Northern Ireland, not least for the constituents of the four Members of whom we are talking, if we returned to the situation that prevailed before? Nothing. The motion is simply an excuse to kick the Government and the Good Friday agreement—and, consequently, the people of Northern Ireland.
Last time the Opposition arranged a half-day debate on Northern Ireland, I said that when I voted to allow Sinn Fein office accommodation in the House, I did not do so with joy in my heart or a spring in my step. However, I can honestly say that I am glad that the Members for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) and for West Tyrone (Mr. Doherty) now use the facilities here.
I remember how, when members of the IRA were invited to come to Westminster during the 1980s, often at the invitation of Ken Livingstone, they would set up their soapboxes with slogans such as XTroops out" or something similarly sophisticated. However, now Sinn Fein has office accommodation in the House, when its Members come into the Palace they are confronted by other MPs who want the Good Friday agreement to succeed, and they have to justify their position. Because that courageous step was taken, we now have the opportunity to challenge Sinn Fein Members on the real issues, instead of their surreal sloganising of 10 or 20 years ago.
It should be remembered that, whatever the wording of the motion, the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Dr. Reid, did not cite the activities of Sinn Fein when, on
Xthe recent difficulties in Northern Ireland stemmed from a loss of trust on both sides of the community."—[Hansard, 15 October 2002; Vol. 390, c. 191.]
I will not say that it is dishonest, but it is certainly misleading for the Conservative party to suggest that anything that has happened in the past month should change the decision of this House to allow Sinn Fein office accommodation. Surely the question that we must now ask is not whether we should take away Sinn Fein's right to accommodation, but what we can do to foster trust between the different parts of the community in Northern Ireland.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's loyalty in being here for his Front-Bench colleagues today, but can he ever foresee a situation in which it would be appropriate for a Labour Government to withdraw those facilities?
The hon. Gentleman makes a salient point, but I have to remind him that it was not the Government's decision to allow Sinn Fein office accommodation in the House of Commons. If Sinn Fein—or rather, the IRA—were to stop the ceasefire and return to violence, I would certainly consider voting to take away Sinn Fein's right to offices in the Palace—but the decision was made by the House of Commons, not the Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Sinn Fein-IRA have been involved in breaches of the ceasefire? What positive action would he recommend the Government to follow to try to stop those breaches of the ceasefire?
The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. There is an accepted process for deciding whether any party to the agreement has broken the ceasefire, and that has not happened. Under the agreement, the IRA has maintained its ceasefire. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the three years leading up the signing of the Good Friday agreement 343 people lost their lives in Northern Ireland, whereas in the three years following the signing 53 people lost their lives? That was 53 too many, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks that that reduction is not a prize worth holding, I have to doubt the priorities of his party's policy on Northern Ireland.
I accept that, as the hon. Gentleman says, there have been tremendous advances over the past decade—advances started by John Major. However, does he accept that there is not a perfect peace in Northern Ireland now, and that we need positive action to try to return Northern Ireland to peace?
I find the whole basis of the hon. Gentleman's argument spurious. I believe that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford was a member of the Conservative Government, although I am not sure; I could be wrong, and the hon. Gentleman can correct me if he wants to. I echo the comments of Lembit Öpik when I say that that Conservative Government conducted negotiations with the IRA before a ceasefire was even—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall conclude now, because I realise that some of my hon. Friends would like to speak.
I would welcome the day when the Conservative party decided to contribute positively to the debate on Northern Ireland—but the motion before us makes no positive contribution, and in the meantime I deeply resent having to waste precious House of Commons time debating an utterly pointless and cynical motion that adds nothing to the debate and provides nothing—not even a glimmer of hope—for the people of Northern Ireland, whom the Conservative party claims to want to represent.
The best news in last week's Government reshuffle was the news for Northern Ireland, and I am genuinely delighted to see the new Secretary of State take his place. Those of us who have been involved in Northern Ireland matters for some years warmly recall the immense amount of work that he did as a Northern Ireland Minister of State—work that often went unsung, and was not often in the headlines or the publicity. The right hon. Gentleman will have the confidence of all parties in the Province in what will clearly be a difficult job in the months ahead, with direct rule. Naturally, like my Front-Bench colleagues, I wish him well.
I must point something out to Mr. Harris, although I shall do so gently because he is a new Member of the House and was not present when there was a Conservative Government and, as he said, a so-called bipartisan policy with the Labour Opposition. We immensely resent the suggestion that there has been a breakdown in the bipartisan policy now, whereas it was sacrosanct when there was a Labour Opposition.
I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that year after year, when we renewed the prevention of terrorism orders—[Interruption.] If he thinks that they have nothing to do with Northern Ireland, he should not be representing Glasgow, Cathcart. Time and again, the then Labour Opposition voted against the renewal of those orders. When the Prime Minister became leader of the Labour party, new Labour was gradually introduced and the attitude changed: it went so far as to abstain, although no further than that. So we need no lessons in bipartisanship.
As the Secretary of State, who was actively involved in the events surrounding the agreement, and Lembit Öpik have rightly and kindly said, the original architects of the agreement were the then Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, and Lord Mayhew. That work was continued by a new Administration, a new Prime Minister and a new Secretary of State. Since then, we have strongly supported the Belfast agreement, which we consider the right—and, indeed, the only—way forward for lasting peace in Northern Ireland. What upsets us immensely is that not everybody has stuck by the agreement. Let me be blunt. The British Government, the Irish Government, the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party have stuck by the agreement; it is Sinn Fein-IRA that, from time to time, in a significant sense, has not.
I shall not rehearse the arguments that were put so well today by my hon. Friend Mr. Davies. We all know about the failure to decommission illegally held arms and explosives, the terrorist activity in Florida and in Colombia, and, most recently, the very serious incidents that caused the then Secretary of State to suspend the Executive and the Assembly and to return to direct rule.
The concession to allow Sinn Fein MPs to have office facilities and special status, as Mrs. Dunwoody described it, forms no part of the Belfast agreement. It is separate from it—a point on which there seems to be some confusion in the House. I should just about have been prepared to make that concession if Sinn Fein-IRA had fulfilled everything that it signed up to in the Belfast agreement: if it had renounced violence for good and if there was no terrorist activity, intimidation, extortion, or any of the other problems to which the Secretary of State rightly alluded, and which gave rise to the suspension. To have offered that concession in the prevailing circumstances was a serious error of judgment, which has since been underlined by events. Since last December, matters have got worse rather than better; otherwise, the Executive and the Assembly would not now be suspended and the Secretary of State would not have made the robust remarks that he rightly made today about the problems of Sinn Fein-IRA.
I find it extraordinary that the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Glasgow, Cathcart should imply that my colleagues on the Front Bench are somehow wrong to table this motion for the first half of our Supply day. This is a serious issue on two counts. First, should we give concessions to people who have let us down? Surely, the answer is no. If a concession is given in the hope of receiving more, and less is received, in most normal circumstances that concession would be withdrawn. That would be the reasonable, straightforward thing to do. Secondly, there is the question—raised by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and others—of the principle of having two classes of MPs with differing status. I am extremely worried about having two such classes. I believe that every Member should take the oath and, having done so, enjoy the full facilities.
The circumstances must be very special indeed to warrant allowing two separate tiers of Members. The Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP have the perfectly legitimate policy of not wishing their respective parts of the United Kingdom to remain part of it. Nevertheless, as non-violent parties, their representatives swear the oath, take part in the proceedings of this House and have full facilities. The provision is a huge slap in the face to them. It is almost saying to them, XYou might as well be violent." The message that it sends in Northern Ireland is particularly bad. The Secretary of State will share my view—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to take interventions, may I ask whether it is in order for him simply to rehearse the arguments of last December's debate, rather than discussing the motion before us?
That might have been a better point of order if Mr. McCabe had bothered to turn up for most of the debate.
The key point of the motion is that, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, the matter is one of judgment. We believe that the judgment was wrong last December, and that it is doubly wrong now in the light of events. We also think that only in the most exceptional circumstances should two tiers of Members be allowed, and that such circumstances are not apparent at the moment. I therefore urge my right hon. and hon. Friends and other Members—I know that some Labour Members will be voting with us tonight—to vote for this motion and reverse the decision that was wrongly taken last December.
I shall try to be as brief as possible, as I know that my hon. Friend Mike Gapes wishes to speak as well.
The peace process is one of the greatest things that Labour has achieved since we came to power in 1997. I have a personal perspective on this issue. In 1916, my taid—my Welsh grandfather—Ned Roberts was in the trenches of the Somme, and my Irish grandfather, Tom Ruane, was imprisoned in Frongoch, in Wales, for his part in the uprising. When I talk to my cousins in Ireland, they agree that the peace process is the greatest thing that we have achieved. We need to keep a sense of history and a perspective on where we are today. We are looking at the potential solving of a 900-year-old problem, and that is the way in which to pursue it. We must not behave like political pigmies who try to score cheap party political points on this issue. We must retain a sense of the moment, and of the magnitude of our achievement, in the context of the past 900 years. As far as I am concerned, the progress that we have made is as great as the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and, from a UK security sense, as the collapse of the Berlin wall.
It was Winston Churchill, a previous Conservative leader, who said:
XTo jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."
This issue is about opening dialogue at all levels: in Northern Ireland, in the voluntary sector, in the Churches, and in the trade unions. It is also about opening dialogue between politicians who have not talked to each other, and whose main means of communication for 50 years has been the bomb and the bullet. Channels of communication have indeed been opened by Lord Temple-Morris—again, a former Conservative—who set up the excellent British-Irish inter-parliamentary group. I recently joined that group, which includes representatives from Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, from the Assemblies of Northern Ireland and of Wales, and from the Parliaments of Scotland, southern Ireland and the UK. Indeed, all political parties are represented—except the Unionists. I urge them to join the British-Irish inter-parliamentary group.
Indeed. I should at this point pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend David Winnick on behalf of that organisation.
When I go to those meetings, I am impressed by the contributions of Conservative members of the council. They seem to lose their party political bias—
Conservative Members speak on that council with a clarity that is missing in the Chamber today.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out that opening the facilities of the House to Sinn Fein has led to that party holding open sessions here, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House have attended those. I attended one last week, with Mitchel McLaughlin, and I made several points to him, the key one of which was the need to look after the working class Protestant vote in Northern Ireland. Everybody else appears to have benefited from the peace process, except that group. They have lost trust, and that was the message that I—as the Catholic grandson of a 1916 man—took to Sinn Fein. Without the Palace being open to Sinn Fein, I would not have been able to pass that message on. Sinn Fein is realising that more needs to be done for working class Protestants and understands that trust needs to be earned. It is not present at the moment and we all need to do as much as we can to foster it.
We have seen what can be achieved through dialogue. The abstentionism that we used to see in southern Ireland is now gone. Sinn Fein is in the Dail. It is part of an effective partnership in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Its representatives do not talk about bullets there, but about bed spaces and the educational curriculum—the bread and butter of ordinary politics in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein representatives sit on committees and act as Ministers. That is the way forward—opening dialogue and building peace and trust, through forums, groups and elected bodies.
We have seen the benefits of the peace process: no members of the police or Army have been shot. As my hon. Friend Mr. Harris pointed out, 353 members of the public were shot in the three years before the peace process started, but only 53—still 53 too many—in the years after. Unemployment has fallen dramatically; house prices are up; the café culture is back and people can go to nightclubs. A sense of normality is now present.
There has been some progress—Sinn Fein members in the Dail and the Northern Ireland Assembly have been talking to British Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Movement has taken place on decommissioning. We have also seen an apology—although some people view it as only weasel words—from Sinn Fein for the deaths on all sides over the past 30 years. This weekend, Gerry Adams even said that he could foresee a day on which the IRA would disband.
If I were not an Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament, I would still vote the same way tonight because of my concern about the double standards being set for Members of this House. If I had never been to Northern Ireland or known anything about it, I would still recognise the double standard that has been set, with two classes of MP. Because Sinn Fein threatens violence, it gets something special that would not have been allowed to a Scottish nationalist or a Welsh nationalist. That is a double standard. It demeans this House to grant facilities to that organisation,
I am slightly concerned by the suggestion in the motion that Sinn Fein should say something and then everything will be all right. The issue is larger and it is a matter of principle. When I came to the House for the first time, I swore my allegiance—some choose to affirm theirs. I then had the responsibilities of a Member of this House and can be called to account by it. I can be disciplined by this House. Can Sinn Fein Members be disciplined by the House? Of course not, but they can take #400,000 out of the generous office costs allowance to help the campaign of a political and terrorist organisation.
I do not know what dream world Chris Ruane lives in—somewhere near Hollywood, I think, and I do not mean Hollywood in Northern Ireland—but the proof has been seen in the last four and half years. It includes international terrorism in Colombia, which saw drug money from FARC going into Sinn Fein-IRA's coffers. That needs to be investigated. We have seen violence on the streets with Sinn Fein-IRA involved. It is one unitary organisation. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are on the army council. Decommissioning is a joke and the 2008 deadline is meaningless. The importing of arms from Florida was a major crime.
What took place while we were fighting an election? The #5 million robbery of spirits and cigarettes from the docks in Belfast was by Sinn Fein-IRA—one organisation. The Secretary of State should ask his security advisers who carried out that robbery. He should also ask his security advisers about the events at Castlereagh and Mr. Bobby Storey, who reports to the army council and is on the general headquarters staff, Belfast, which reports to Adams and McGuinness. Is that a ceasefire? We are not fools in Northern Ireland.
We have seen spying at the heart of Government in the Northern Ireland Office. The Secretary of State's predecessor, Dr. Reid, was supposed to be tough. He was not very tough when the NIO was infiltrated. If the Home Office or the Foreign Office had been infiltrated, would those responsible be granted concessions in this House? Of course not, and that is double standards. We await the report on that spying at the heart of Government, but we know what will happen. It will be put behind us and we will hear nice words from Sinn Fein-IRA. Those nice words will be more lies. After all, an organisation based on revolutionary terrorism—Sinn Fein-IRA—has no problem with telling lies to the Secretary of State's face, in 10 Downing street or in the White House.
Sinn Fein representatives should not have been granted the facilities in this House. We welcome the opportunity that the Conservatives have provided for this debate. All the democratic politicians—which excludes Sinn Fein—in Northern Ireland, certainly all Unionists, feel distaste that while we spend some #100,000 on constituency offices to provide a service as Members of Parliament, Sinn Fein-IRA is granted a special class of membership of this House. Sinn Fein-IRA is an illegal terrorist organisation that has not given up violence, does not adhere to the Mitchell principles and is involved in international crime and terrorism. That special treatment is what used to be called appeasement. There has been nothing but appeasement of Sinn Fein-IRA from the time that the agreement was signed four and a half years ago.
I hope that the motion and debate tonight will put even a little bit of pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA to make progress. I do not trust them. I do not believe that they are committed to going the full way to become fully democratic politicians. The evidence of the past four and a half years suggests that they are still playing the double game of the Armalite and the ballot box. They talk about their mandate, but they are involved in national and international crime and terrorism. The Unionists will support the official Opposition tonight and we thank them for giving time for this debate, which is necessary because the Government continue to refuse to face up to Sinn Fein-IRA as a terrorist organisation with a political front.
This debate is not about the facilities for four Members of Parliament or the two researchers who they employ and the cost to the public purse. This is a debate about symbolism. Unfortunately, many debates about Northern Ireland, as I learned in my two years as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office, are about symbolism rather than reality. This is a debate to make certain people feel good: if the motion is passed, they will feel that they are not tainted by the fact that in day-to-day politics they have to deal with matters that they find unpleasant.
The debate is also symbolic because if the motion is passed, that could be interpreted to mean that we reject the concept of parity of esteem. Those who vote for Sinn Fein—many of them young people who do not support the IRA but support a political party because of its work within the communities on issues of social and economic concern—would regard it as a rejection of them.
No, I have only four minutes.
I have no remit and am not an apologist for terrorist organisations of any kind. I was in the Standing Committee that considered the Terrorism Act 2000. I have denounced terrorism whether it comes from Hamas, loyalists or the IRA. However, we must think about the political significance of the motion. Are we saying, in effect, that the Belfast agreement is dead and that next year's Assembly elections will not take place? Are we putting up the ramparts and telling Sinn Fein that it is out of the system because it has inched grudgingly towards the political process, rejected a partitionist solution and then taken part in partitionist institutions? Are we saying that it is out of the system because its members have rejected the concept of taking a place in the Executive but have then become Ministers with responsibility for health and education? Are we saying that it is out of the system because it has moved away from its paramilitary past insufficiently, sometimes incoherently, and often not in the best way? Nevertheless, surely all right hon. and hon. Members accept—or perhaps some will not—that there has been a significant change within republicanism over the past 10 years.
If we adopt the motion today, we are effectively putting an end to all that and saying to that large constituency in Northern Irish politics—some 20 per cent. of the people—that we are no longer interested in the process of moving from violence to democracy. I believe that that would be foolish and the wrong thing to do at this time. I am not saying that the House might not change its mind, but this is not that occasion. To take such a decision would be premature; it would be subject to wrong interpretations and would set back the peace process. I hope that the House will reject the motion resoundingly.
This has been an important debate; it has been as much about signals, responses and judgments as about the precise nature of the agreement that the House made last December regarding access to the facilities here. I think that that is right, because the specifics of Westminster must be set within a much broader context, as all the speakers in the debate have done.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend Mr. Davies was at pains to stress that we are talking about nothing more nor less than the judgment about how one responds to developing circumstances and, more specifically, to the situation in which concessions or gestures are made repeatedly as part of the process yet find no response. Whether it is the release of prisoners, turning a blind eye to breaches of the agreement or, as we argue in the motion, the needless offering of House space to Sinn Fein-IRA, the judgment to be made is what is the correct response when concessions are made and nothing is given in return.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new responsibilities. Some years ago, he and I spent many hours together in Standing Committees considering education legislation, and I have the greatest respect for his abilities. We all look to him to carry his new onerous responsibilities with his typical style and integrity.
The Secretary of State admitted to doubts about the current circumstances. He said that recent events had had a profoundly destabilising effect. He then went on to quote the Prime Minister—he would, wouldn't he—but in this case it was the Prime Minister's challenge to Sinn Fein-IRA and the reference to Xthe crunch". Our complaint is that there are no crunches. That is the whole point of the debate—we want to highlight the fact that the Prime Minister wants to appear decisive, talking about forks in roads and crunches, yet none of that seems to appear in what his Ministers, in their various capacities, do. We are looking for an indication, whether it has to do with what happens in the Northern Ireland Office, as it is now reconstituted, or with what the Leader of the House says in a few minutes, that the Government are looking seriously at the subtle but important interplay between concessions that are made and expectations that are raised and constantly dashed—in this case, as so often, by Sinn Fein-IRA—when nothing happens.
There is no response by the Government to the actions or inactions of Sinn Fein-IRA, only an endless succession of concessions. The one about which we are most interested today is a matter for the House. I resent suggestions from Labour Members that to bring this matter to the House of Commons is frivolous, in breach of some bipartisan approach, unnecessary or irrelevant. If the House of Commons cannot debate its own aspect of the peace process, if we cannot have a debate about the facilities that we have offered—wrongly, as we thought at the time, and even more wrongly now—what on earth can we debate? For Labour Members to suggest, not once but several times, that there is something wrong-headed about bringing this matter to the House, is something that I cannot accept.
As my right hon. Friend Mr. Mackay pointed out, the sad reality is that since we made this concession to Sinn Fein-IRA in December of last year, the situation has become worse. We have here another example of how a concession has been made by the House of Commons to Sinn Fein-IRA and not only have we had nothing in return but there has been a material worsening of circumstances. We are not talking about giving in yet again, turning the other cheek or a blind eye and expecting that to induce Sinn Fein-IRA to behave better. That is what Labour Members have suggested throughout the debate. We do not believe that that approach has worked or will work, because there is no evidence that that is the case. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to come forward with a different approach. In his admirable opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford took care to suggest that there was an alternative approach, that we have given thought to it and that we have ideas on the matter. Ours is not simply a negative response, but it is one that we feel honour bound and duty bound to make. We ask the new Secretary of State to examine what his predecessors have done since he was last in the Northern Ireland Office and to make his own judgment, with the benefit of hindsight, on what response there has been to this seemingly endless series of concessions.
What kind of signal do we at Westminster want to give the electorate, the people of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein-IRA and the other political parties in Northern Ireland? That is what we are most concerned with today. As Her Majesty's Official Opposition, we have initiated this debate because we believe that it is the right thing to do. What response can we give? Do we turn yet another blind eye? Do we turn yet another other cheek? Will we give yet another concession to Sinn Fein-IRA, only to find that the situation gets worse and there is no response? Labour Members and the Government seem to be arguing that this is a one-way street.
That simply will not do. It is not good enough. It is not an appropriate response. We have run out of other cheeks—if I may put it in that way.
Our challenge to the Government, to Ministers and to the House is that we should ask ourselves whether that approach is honest and will work. Although we opposed access, if someone could have demonstrated that the concession the House made last December had brought positive effects, I have no doubt that we should have taken a very different attitude and I doubt that my hon. Friends would have felt the need to table the motion. However, sadly, one can only conclude and report that what the House did in what it—or rather Labour Members—saw at the time as a spirit of generosity has been met with repeated slaps in the face.
There has been a negative response to the concession that has been made, so for once it is time to say that we feel it right to withdraw that concession and to give a different signal. That is the proper response at this stage. I hope that when Members vote in a few minutes, they will reflect on that point and will be prepared to take that sort of attitude rather than merely continuing to take the same stance.
I hope that Labour Members, the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State will accept the motion in the spirit in which we offer it. I hope that we shall hear no more from Labour Members to the effect that we are wasting everybody's time, that to hold political debates in the House of Commons is inappropriate and that, for goodness sake, to be partisan is positively passé. A few us still like a bit of partisanship every now and then, but we did not table the motion in that spirit. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford set out the argument carefully and responsibly and I hope that, in that spirit, Labour Members will consider our comments and respond to them. I retain the forlorn hope that, even now, we may have persuaded the Government and the Leader of the House of our case. 6.52 pm
Let me begin by agreeing with all the contributors to the debate who have welcomed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to his new office and responsibilities. It is a privilege to support him in this debate.
The debate has been short. Its brevity has the advantage that we can still remember with clarity the remarkable opening speech of Mr. Davies. It contained an extended cadenza in which he condemned Government policy in Northern Ireland as squalid, egregious and mistaken—[Interruption.] It was fairly comprehensive.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, entitled to his view but I hoped that, having expressed it, he would have spared us the cant that he wholeheartedly supports the Belfast agreement, which is kept alive by those same policies. However, I found that passage of the hon. Gentleman's speech marginally more convincing than the subsequent section in which he told us that the speech made by Gerry Adams last week, in which he envisaged a future without the IRA, was entirely prompted because he was worried about what the hon. Gentleman might say in this Opposition day debate and had nothing whatever to do with the thoughtful speech made by the Prime Minister of Great Britain in the preceding week.
The hon. Gentleman's passion in denouncing our wickedness in granting Sinn Fein access to these precincts would have carried more conviction if the previous Conservative Government had done anything to deny Sinn Fein access to these precincts during the 1980s when no peace process was in being at all.
We are at a difficult moment in the peace process, when it is important that we all proceed with great care not to make worse the prospects for restoring momentum once again to the process started by the Belfast agreement. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spelt out the gravity of the situation in his speech earlier this month, when he stressed that the core of the Belfast agreement was that in return for political equality all parties committed themselves exclusively to peace. He spelt out to republicans that retaining the option of violence does not give them leverage but increases resistance to progress. It does not push us forward, but holds us back. As the Prime Minister said, the IRA cannot continue to be part in and part out of the peace process. If it wants the political benefits of a normalised Northern Ireland, it has to give up for all time the option of ever going back to the military struggle.
Equally, however, the House must not lose sight of how far we have come over the past five years. It is too easy to point to the faults in the peace process, as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford did, and never to recognise its strengths and its achievements.
Sectarian violence still claims too many lives, but each year they are numbered in tens, not in hundreds as they were at the height of violence. With peace has come new investment in the Province, which has the fastest growth in the UK. Tourism has risen and unemployment has come down. Those are the real gains of the peace process for the ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland. Those are the products of what the hon. Gentleman denounced as the Government's squalid, egregious and mistaken policies.
The rational course for reasonable people is to do all that we can to maintain the process of putting political dialogue in the place of military confrontation. My hon. Friend Mr. Harris pointedly and fairly asked how the motion would help us to talk to Sinn Fein. No one intervened during his speech to try to tell him how it would help.
I and my Front-Bench colleagues have said over and again with great emphasis that we are wholly committed to the Belfast agreement. Indeed, the agreement was a remarkable achievement for the Prime Minister, but what a pity that the mistaken and ill-conceived policies that he has adopted since have unfortunately recently taken us backwards so that we have a major reversal—the suspension of devolution in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman cannot say that he supports the Belfast agreement and yet fail to support any of the steps that are necessary to keep it in play and keep the dialogue going. He cannot expect the Belfast agreement to continue under its own steam with no offers of help, no progress, no debate and no negotiations, and without the compromise that inevitably comes from negotiations. That is, of necessity, what the process is about.
I have listened to the debate throughout and I have not heard one Opposition speaker explain how the motion will help us to make progress on the peace process or the Belfast agreement, or how expelling Sinn Fein from the precincts will encourage its members to choose political dialogue. From time to time, access has been helpful. Last week, Michelle Gildernew booked a room in the House where Mitchel McLaughlin debated current developments with MPs from all parties. That is the type of political dialogue and scrutiny that access to the precincts was intended to develop.
During the statement on the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, my hon. Friend Mr. Barnes pointed out that he had been able to arrange a meeting in the precincts between Gerry Adams and one of the exiles from Northern Ireland. I do not comprehend how those who propose to deny Gerry Adams and his colleagues access to the precincts imagine that it will help the task of reconciliation to make such meetings more difficult.
Last December, when I put the motion granting access before the House, I said that it was a modest contribution to the peace process. Opposition Members should not exaggerate the practical consequences of that motion, nor should they be under any illusion about the symbolic impact of withdrawing access. I expect that those who propose the current motion fully understand how seismic that impact would be.
Mr. Forth asked what signal would be sent if we passed the motion. It would be a loud signal that the British Parliament has withdrawn from a step that we took only last year. It would be held up as evidence that even when the republican movement seeks political progress, we refuse to have anything to do with it. If we were to pass the motion, we would strengthen not the moderates in the republican movement, but the extremists who have never believed that the political route would lead to progress.
Our strategic goal must be to draw Sinn Fein into political activities—the only legitimate way forward. No Opposition Member has told us how it will help that strategy to tell those in Sinn Fein that, even if elected, we in the House will shut the door in their face and that, even if they represent 250,000 electors, they will not be given access to the support or the offices that they need to work for their constituents. The reason why Opposition Members have not told us the answer to that question or said how the proposal would help is that there is no answer.
I have no problem with those who want to vote for the motion because they want to have nothing to do with Sinn Fein, but I ask them not to mislead themselves into imagining that, by excluding Sinn Fein from the House, they will somehow make it easier to include them in a political process.
Opposition days are a due part of the democratic procedures of the House. They help the Chamber to retain its role as the grand forum of the nation's political differences, and they give the Opposition and the Government the occasion to rehearse the political divisions. The process of peace in Northern Ireland should not be an issue on which the House is divided. I would acquit the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford of having proposed a frivolous motion; it is profoundly serious, and it is thoroughly partisan.
I asked for a trawl of the records, and it failed to discover a single example, in 18 long years of opposition, when we ever opposed the Conservative Government's policy on Northern Ireland on an Opposition day.
Hon. Members: XThe Prevention of Terrorism Acts."
We supported all the openings that they made to the IRA. We supported them when they talked to the IRA even in the middle of a bloody bombing campaign on the British mainland. We supported them when they had secret communications with the IRA. We supported them in all that because people do not make peace by talking to their friends; they make peace by talking to their enemies. We supported them because there was a better chance for peace if the IRA were confronted by a united Parliament, and, for that reason, we would have a better prospect of success if they gave us the same support now.
This is a sensitive moment in the long troubled history of Northern Ireland. It is a time when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State needs to speak with the authority and backing of the House. That is why I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to give him our full backing by rejecting a partisan motion that would take us further away from the political dialogue that is the only hope Northern Ireland has of a permanent peace.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House recognises the fundamental need for the affairs of Northern Ireland to be settled on an exclusively peaceful, democratic and inclusive basis; and does not believe that expelling any party to the peace process from the parliamentary precincts is likely to encourage them to renounce violence and to pursue a political settlement within that process.
Are you aware that at three minutes to seven o'clock, four Members of Parliament were seeking to access the car park but that the security barrier had not been raised, despite the imminence of the vote? Will you advise me what Standing Orders of the House require Members of Parliament to carry around green security passes? What advice would you give me on what to do with my car when a vote is imminent and I am not able to access the car park?
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I and a couple of other Members had trouble getting to the Lobby because on the passage between Portcullis House and Norman Shaw North there is a new security door where a pass is also now required. Your advice will be sufficient when we know exactly when votes will take place, but it will not be sufficient for a running Whip.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Due to the inordinate length of time taken by the Front-Bench spokespersons of the three main parties in the last debate, only five Back-Bench Members were able to contribute: three of them were from the Government side, one was from the official Opposition, and one was from Northern Ireland. Although we were here during the debate, no Member from my party was called, despite the fact that this matter is of intense interest to our constituents in Northern Ireland. Is there something that you can do to ensure that, in future, those of us who have something to contribute on behalf of our party and our constituents on a matter of relevance have the opportunity to do so?
I understand the frustration of the hon. Gentleman and others who would have wished to contribute to the previous debate, especially given their particular interest in it. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is an Opposition day and that, as the main Opposition party decided to have two debates today, a limited amount of time was available.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given the considerable concern that many Members expressed about the new security arrangements, which seem to impede without necessarily making things safer, are there any plans for someone to explain to the House why they have been put in place, how much they cost, and whether they will in any way enhance our security?