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Mr. Ross: The hon. Gentleman often takes part in such debates.

Mr. Howarth: He is quite entitled to do so, although he was not here on Second Reading yesterday. On listening to and then reading the speech that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department made yesterday, I realised that he had made the fatal mistake--at least so far as the hon. Member for Stone is concerned, of mentioning the word "Europe". I suspect that that may have played some part in tempting the hon. Gentleman into the Chamber.

The hon. Gentleman tabled amendment No. 32. If it were passed, someone elected to the House of Commons who was also a Member of the Irish Parliament, had also been a paramilitary and had not disavowed terrorism would be disqualified. The difficulty is that it would not apply to someone elected to the House of Commons who was not a Member of the Irish Parliament, so it would set a different standard for different people.

The other difficulty that arises from amendment No. 32 is that there would have to be some means of deciding who had or had not been a paramilitary. In some cases, by virtue of the fact that the person had been convicted of something, that might be obvious, but we do not have an exhaustive list of everyone who may have been a paramilitary at some time in the past.

Mr. MacKay: I thank the Under-Secretary, who, with characteristic courtesy, has given way whenever requested. He and I strongly support the setting up of the Assembly. He and I know that we both supported in the House the legislation that set up the Assembly. He may correct me if I am wrong, but my memory of that legislation was that everyone elected to the Assembly had to swear an oath that they had given up violence for good--not just members of Sinn Fein but members of the SDLP, the Alliance party and the Ulster Unionist party. That seems an interesting precedent. Whereas, as

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currently drafted, amendment No. 32 may not be acceptable, it has interesting implications and possibilities for the House.

Mr. Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and if the precedent that he referred to existed, he might have a stronger case. Unfortunately, he is wrong. The pledge that he referred to is required only of Northern Ireland Ministers. No such oath or declaration is required on the part of Assembly Members, so I rather think that his--

Mr. MacKay: Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Howarth: If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish dealing with the intervention that he has already made, I will allow him the opportunity to come back. It is an interesting point, but he is simply referring to a precedent that does not exist. However--

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) rose--

Mr. Duncan Smith: Give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Howarth: It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, to instruct me.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that every hon. Member who takes the Oath by implication denounces terrorism?

Mr. Howarth: So why--[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who came into the debate rather belatedly and contributed to it briefly from the Back Benches, would bear with me, I was dealing specifically with the arguments made by the hon. Member for Stone. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Stone was speaking, so he will forgive me if I do not take any more sedentary interventions from him.

The group of amendments before us effectively seeks to put on the face of the Bill a direct linkage between the lifting of disqualification and decommissioning. I can see why the Opposition might want to make that linkage but, as I argued on Second Reading, it would be wrong to make that direct linkage between the Bill and that issue. I shall explain why.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) supported the Government's position on that matter; and, from a slightly different angle, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made a similar point.

Let me make the Government's position as clear as I can. We entirely share the view of the Opposition, and of the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, that decommissioning is an essential part of the process--not an option; a part of the process. The process of decommissioning is being overseen by General de Chastelain's commission.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell paid proper tribute to General de Chastelain and the other distinguished members of the commission for their independence and professionalism. I hope that the whole House would accept also that the commission brings good faith to its work. For those reasons, a great deal of trust

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is put in the hands of the commission. For that reason, when the commission makes its report on progress--as it will by the end of the month--it will be a document of authority. The hon. Members for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) seem to believe that some other kind of process is involved. However, that is the process.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made it clear that decommissioning is an essential part of the process. If it is clear from General de Chastelain's report that the paramilitaries are in default on decommissioning, there will be serious consequences. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that in circumstances where the commission has reported that there has not been proper progress, the operation of the various political institutions--the Assembly, the Executive, the north-south bodies and the British-Irish Council--will cease immediately. I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend, who is sitting alongside me, stands entirely by what he has said on this issue, and that he takes the matter seriously indeed.

Mr. Field: Is not it true that when the Good Friday accord was debated here, it was generally accepted with considerable enthusiasm and many of us did not look carefully enough at the details? We thought that as concessions were made, there would be clear concessions on decommissioning. Although there was a timetable for decommissioning, it was not linked specifically to some of the concessions that some in this House have found so difficult to accept. Therefore, my hon. Friend the Minister was right to emphasise what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said from the Dispatch Box about those actions that will follow if the decommissioning report is given to the House and the progress that we expect has not been not made. Surely it is at that point that the House should make its view felt about what next should happen, and we should not try retrospectively--

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. I am sorry to have to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but his intervention is far too long.

Mr. George Howarth: I thank my right hon. Friend for what I think was intended to be a helpful intervention. I hope that we can all agree on the fundamental importance of decommissioning.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): I hope that the Minister understands the importance of what he has said--especially in Northern Ireland. If the Government are saying that if the IRA is in default on decommissioning by the end of the month when General de Chastelain reports, the Government will suspend the institutions, that is a significant statement. The Minister says that the general must report that there has been proper progress. Would he care to define proper progress in terms of decommissioning, as that is important?

Mr. Howarth: Let me make it absolutely clear what I said. I stand entirely by that. In the case of clear default, that which I have described will be the case. The hon.

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Gentleman knows full well--I made the point earlier--that the Decommissioning Commission under General de Chastelain has that responsibility. We recognise its independence, its skill and experience and we also recognise its good faith. We shall have to judge on the basis of what it says not only about what has happened, but about what the intentions for the future are. In those circumstances, I think that it is entirely appropriate that that should be the case.

9.45 pm

Mr. William Ross: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth: Let me make a little more progress and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already been at pains to make clear. In the event of clear default, Unionists will not find that they are on their own.

Mr. Ross: Does the Minister realise that the people of Northern Ireland will judge the outcome of the commission's report not on what it says but on the weapons that they see surrendered and destroyed?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman, I know, makes a serious point. Everybody, in the end, will judge the success of the process not only on the establishment of institutions, the Executive and the Assembly, but on the extent to which it genuinely leads to decommissioning. There is no difference between us on that point. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand just how seriously my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my colleagues take the matter.

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