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7.49 pm

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): We on the Conservative Benches are grateful to the Minister for setting out the main provisions of the order. As he has made clear, the order is technical in nature. Despite that, in the grand scheme of things, it could have profound implications for the political process in Northern Ireland—and even for the survival of the Belfast agreement.

Under section 31(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the next elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are due on 1 May 2003. The order enables the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call fresh elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in the event of a failure to elect a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister by 12 August. The only alternative open to the Government in those circumstances would be an order to suspend the institutions, such as occurred in February last year. Of course, nobody knows what the outcome of such fresh elections might be. They could produce a fresh basis for progress in the political process in Northern Ireland. Alternatively, they could simply entrench the current impasse.

The Opposition do not necessarily oppose fresh elections, but before the option is triggered, the Government should be aware that it is far from risk-free. To borrow a phrase, such elections would be a leap in the dark. Whether they are held will be for the Government to decide in the light of what might happen in coming days and weeks, and in particular the response of parties to the document on which they are working with the Irish Government. Only then could a proper assessment be made of what is the best or, as the late Ian Gow would have put it, the least dangerous way forward.

The fact that we are forced to debate this order is of course deeply regrettable. Many of us had hoped that, by now, all elements of the Belfast agreement would have been implemented in full by all the parties. That, alas, has not been so, and why the order is before us.

It is important for the House to be aware of why the agreement has not been implemented in full. It is emphatically not the result of any failure to deliver on his commitments under the agreement by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—or, for that matter, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and his party. Responsibility for failing to implement the agreement—and as a result the current impasse—rests firmly with those paramilitary organisations that have failed to decommission a single gun or an ounce of Semtex.

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Decommissioning was a clear obligation under the agreement that was supposed to be completed within two years of the referendum. That was by 22 May last year. The date came and went; nothing happened. Then, also in May last year, the British and Irish Governments issued a statement setting out the steps that had to be taken to ensure full implementation of the agreement by the end of June this year. That was followed by an IRA commitment to begin a process of putting arms,

More than a year later, that has still not even begun, as the report of General de Chastelain's decommissioning commission confirmed a fortnight ago.

The failure to decommission is not all. As well as being fully armed, paramilitary organisations remain fully intact. The beatings, shootings, murders and the orchestrated violence that we saw last week continue—yet during the same period, Sinn Fein has had Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, 444 terrorists have been released early from prison and the morale of the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been seriously undermined.

It is no wonder that the confidence in the agreement of many moderate law-abiding Unionists has been stretched to the limit. They have seen a process that appears to be all take and no give by the paramilitaries and their political associates, who pocket gain after gain and give nothing in return. The people of Northern Ireland—in fact, the people of the island of Ireland—did not vote by an overwhelming majority in 1998 for what has been described as an armed peace. They voted to take the gun out of Irish politics for good and for a peaceful and democratic future underpinned by the principle of consent. The refusal of paramilitaries to decommission is the obstacle to all those things and—again—the reason why we are debating the order.

We wait to see whether the joint proposals of the British and Irish Governments are able to command the confidence and support of all pro-agreement parties, so that both options of suspension or elections can be avoided and the agreement fully implemented. We are told that those proposals will be forthcoming in the next week to 10 days. Given that the House rises for the summer recess at the end of this week, will the Minister say what opportunity there will be for Members of Parliament to examine and debate what the Governments come up with?

We are entering a critical period affecting the future of a part of the United Kingdom. Surely it is right and proper that this Parliament—which, after all, remains sovereign in Northern Ireland—should have the opportunity to debate the situation and have its views heard. We on the Conservative Benches, for example, would have serious concerns if anything were proposed that appears to reward those who have failed at every turn to fulfil their obligations, but punishes democrats such as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and members of his party, who have done everything that has been asked of them, and more. In particular, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear in the House a few days ago, it would be utterly wrong to give any further ground on security or policing reform before any decommissioning.

As the Irish Times put it in its editorial this morning:

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Decommissioning remains the key test of the seriousness of Sinn Fein-IRA intent. Is it committed to what the agreement describes as

or is its participation in the process simply what has been described as tactical use of the armed struggle? We on the Conservative Benches are in no doubt that responsibility for progress rests with Sinn Fein-IRA. The paramilitaries must deliver. In the event that that delivery is not forthcoming, the Government are right to retain the possibility of elections as an option, with the caveats that I mentioned at the outset. For that reason, we shall not oppose the order.

7.59 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said that we are entering a critical phase. I would say that we did so in the 1960s and that this order is simply another page in the current chapter of trying to find a solution.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Surely we did so in the 1690s?

Lembit Öpik: Some may say so; I would be digressing if I tried to give even a brief resume of the highlights of that time.

It is worth stepping back and recognising that we have made quite a lot of progress towards peace. The difficulty now is the end game. The order before us is another tool in attempting to close the deal and achieve normality in the long term. Although it is regrettable that we have to face that eventuality, it is probably necessary.

However, the timing of the order is unhelpful. According to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, if the office of the First or Deputy Minister becomes vacant, an election must be held within six weeks to fill it, so there does not have to be an election to fill the posts for another month or so. The political parties in Northern Ireland are engaged in intensive talks to resolve the crisis. If the worst comes to the worst and the Assembly is unable to elect the First Minister in August, other options can be explored before it is necessary to hold Assembly elections.

The order allows elections for the whole Assembly to occur prior to May 2003, as set out in legislation, and is being made prior to the outcome of the talks. I am slightly concerned that the Government are sending out mixed messages to all those involved in the current process. As the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said, there is no guarantee that elections will improve things. They may simply serve to polarise the positions in Northern Ireland and create a hardening and perhaps growing rift between the two key sides, as we saw about a month ago. Who knows whether the gamble will pay off? By tampering with the process to achieve an outcome, we are, to some extent, playing roulette because we cannot predict what will happen.

The process of having an election may necessitate a degree of entrenchment in the eyes of various Northern Ireland politicians, and that would mean that we have not made progress. I disagree with the Conservative party's implication that the republicans lack a commitment to

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show good faith to move forward. We can all agree that decommissioning has been a key sticking point. The paramilitaries—especially on the republican side, although individuals are culpable on both sides— have singularly failed to deliver that commitment. Nevertheless, the mood music has at times been more promising than the Conservatives make out. I hope that we will be careful not to hold back progress by making opportunistic comments in this place. We sometimes need to give the Government the space to have discrete conversations with those who can deliver the result.

That said, it is clear that even if the timing is regrettable, the order is a necessary tool in the range of devices that are available to the Government to make progress in what seems to be a stagnating process, and we will not oppose it tonight. However, there is no substitute for hardliners taking the opportunity not so much to be involved in elections, but to show more good faith than they have done to date. Whatever we do with the process here, it is their attitude and actions that will determine the outcome of events in the proceeding months.

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