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Mr. McCabe: The evidence of the past few years is that we have been engaged in a stop-go process with regard to the whole Good Friday agreement. Sometimes we have had the Executive and the Assembly, sometimes there have been deadlines and sometimes we have moved away from them. However, despite all those difficulties, we have seen two significant acts of decommissioning. We should now be doing everything we can to encourage further such acts. There is nothing wrong with the proposals in the Bill, which contains no provision saying that a further five years are necessary. It states that a further 12 months are necessary and that, beyond that time, the Secretary of State can extend the time scale by 12-month periods, if necessary, for up to five years.

Given where we were when Lord Mayhew made the original proposals, it is clear that we have moved forward. An agreement is in place and various acts are occurring, many of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. Any reasonable individual would regard them as progress. Not enough progress has been made, there is anxiety about the future and concerns have been expressed about how quickly we move forward; none the less, progress has been made that was inconceivable 10 years ago.

At the very point when we could be in a position to generate further and, I hope, much more rapid progress, the official Opposition claim that they want to defeat the Bill that would allow an extension for the minimum period required to complete the job. That is not bipartisanship, and the Opposition's actions are not those of people who believe in the peace process or have decommissioning at the top of their agenda. For that reason, they are wrong. We should therefore reject the amendment and get on with removing the bombs and guns from Northern Ireland.

6.20 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): We need to discuss the Bill in the context of what all parties, including the former Conservative Government, have created. To some extent, the process is an act of faith, but we can also examine the evidence when we determine the Bill's merit.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) presented a fluent and logically argued case for the Conservative party. He made two core points. First, he said that the Bill weakened the bargaining hand of the Government to speed decommissioning. Secondly, he claimed that the Bill extends to five years the minimum period that the people of Northern Ireland have to wait for significant decommissioning. Those points lie at the heart of whether we support the Bill.

It is a contradiction for the Conservatives to argue that the Bill weakens the Government's bargaining ability. As the hon. Gentleman correctly pointed out, the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 came into force on 22 February 1997, during John Major's

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Administration, before Conservative Members lost their hold on the Government Benches. Clearly, if the Bill weakens the Government's hand, the 1997 Act must have weakened that of the previous Government, especially as we did not even have the structure of the Good Friday agreement for pursuing lasting peace and normalisation in the Province.

If the hon. Gentleman's logic holds true, it was a worse mistake for Conservatives to argue in favour of the amnesty in 1997.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): The hon. Gentleman is missing an important distinction. Because of the Belfast agreement, no decommissioning now means leaving in government the chief of staff of the Provisional IRA with an army at his beck and call that is totally armed.

Lembit Öpik: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will attempt to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to expand on that. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford implied the same. It is a legitimate position, but to take it, one must argue primarily from principle rather than from judging the best way forward to normalisation in Northern Ireland. It may be such a controlling principle for the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) that the gentleman to whom he referred is in power in Northern Ireland that any softening of the position on decommissioning is unacceptable. That is not where I stand.

In my view, the fundamental principle is finding the best way forward to normalising life in the Province. The evidence of 1997 suggests that the argument for repeating the gesture in 2001 for another five years is compelling. It is up to hon. Members to decide whether to adopt the position of the hon. Member for Belfast, East—I believe that it is a position of principle—or that of the Liberal Democrats. An amnesty was set previously, and we believe that nothing suggests that we should go back on it.

The earlier amnesty was established in a political vacuum when there was no process. The Bill re-establishes the amnesty after the Good Friday agreement has provided an imperfect but nevertheless tangible structure for us to compare the performance of the organisations involved in decommissioning. If the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford condemns the timetable, he must condemn what happened under Lord Mayhew in 1997 even more. I did not hear him make such a condemnation. He implied that I had praised Lord Mayhew and the former Conservative Government for their actions. He is right.

I have previously praised John Major for his visionary and courageous decisions when he was effectively forced to deal with terrorists who were bombing our security forces. I also praise Lord Mayhew, who made a courageous decision that could have backfired, but was one of the necessary if insufficient conditions for the subsequent success of the Good Friday agreement and the ceasefire.

Chris Grayling: Surely the difference between 1997 and today is that actions in 1997 were a genuine attempt to open a door to the process. Today, an agreement is in place, the British Government and the Irish Government have made concessions, but Sinn Fein-IRA has not yet

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fulfilled the decommissioning terms in the Belfast agreement. Extending the time for five years does not apply the thumbscrews to make it deliver.

Lembit Öpik: That is a good link to my second point. The hon. Gentleman asked the right question. Is there a difference in 2001? Could we achieve a stronger position by not renewing the amnesty? Tonight's debate is not about creating pressure to ensure that the paramilitaries decommission, but about whether we want to close a door on them. It is about whether we want to provide a gateway through which they can decommission.

In 1997, the amnesty was a necessary but insufficient condition to achieve decommissioning. In the same way, the Bill is a necessary but insufficient condition. It makes it legally possible for paramilitary organisations to decommission, but I do not believe that that is an incentive to doing it. However, I sure as hell am convinced that if we make it illegal and create the possibility of prosecuting for decommissioning, it will be harder to find mechanisms to provide the political pressure for it.

As the hon. Gentleman suggested, some hon. Members may believe that the debate is about applying positive pressure by making it illegal to decommission. On the other hand, some of us believe that the Bill keeps a door open so that we can move on through dialogue and other means to find pressure points that will cause the IRA and others to decommission. I suspect that the Secretary of State was also arguing that.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford claimed that the measure would extend the process by another five years. Again, I take a different view. Paramilitary organisations have been bombing, killing, maiming and destroying property for decades. I do not believe that they will be persuaded to decommission by 26 February 2002 simply because we tell them that we will prosecute them if they do not. That is not real-life politics. Such people do not worry about not owning gun licences, but they probably worry about the political implications of making it difficult for linked organisations such as Sinn Fein to achieve the sort of concessions for their communities for which they allegedly got involved in the troubles. I therefore take issue with the hon. Gentleman, not because he did not argue cogently but because my premise is different. I believe that the Bill is a gateway measure rather than a pressure.

The evidence suggests that the Liberal Democrats and the Government are correct. As I said earlier, I genuinely believe that the roots of the successes lie in the former Conservative Administration's decisions. There is all the more pressure now, therefore, for the current Conservative Opposition not to impugn one of the few great triumphs for which they can justly take credit. A few individuals such as the former Prime Minister and Lord Mayhew are worthy of special mention in that context.

Let us be honest, the driver behind the first limited act of decommissioning in October was not the amnesty. The key driver was probably 11 September, in that the IRA—and perhaps Sinn Fein as well—could foresee its funding from the United States drying up, as well as an unquantifiable military response being made against it in the post-11 September environment. In addition, the IRA scored a tremendous political own goal in Colombia, where it was found to be carrying out activities wholly in

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contravention of the alliance against terrorism that was being established across the world. The drivers were, therefore, external to Northern Ireland.

I suspect that it would have been somewhat more difficult for the IRA—and those Sinn Fein politicians who, I am pretty sure, have sway over it—to meet its goals and to achieve the first act of decommissioning if the de Chastelain process had not been in place. Let us not pretend that that process could continue after 26 February if the Bill were not passed. There would be no structure within which to achieve a logical de Chastelain-type procedure to manage decommissioning if we did not pass the Bill. I have not heard what alternative proposals the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford would put forward if he were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and did not allow the Bill to go through.

I have some questions for the Minister on the mechanics of the Bill, and I hope that she will be able to answer them in her summation. I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that we need clarification on certain questions, one of which concerns the degree of contact between the IRA and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning since October. After the IRA's symbolic gesture, everything seems to have gone rather quiet. It has always been recognised that decommissioning is a process, but it is not a one-incident process. Pressure must be brought to bear on the IRA to do more than simply make a gesture to cover its own financial backside one day when it was clearly under the hammer to do so. We need to know what has happened since October. That was an important step, but is the Minister aware of any further steps that we can expect from the paramilitaries? Secondly, to what extent has the IRA met de Chastelain since October? Have there been any bilateral meetings, and has any pressure been brought to bear by Ministers to achieve that?

Thirdly, to what extent have loyalist paramilitaries been in contact with the IICD? The incidence of loyalist attacks is increasing, and steps must be taken to reduce them. As hon. Members, including Unionist and Conservative Members, have rightly pointed out, there is an underlying level of violence in Northern Ireland that is unknown on the mainland of the United Kingdom. For many people in Northern Ireland, the peace is not a peace. They are still living under paramilitary regimes that are far from our concept of peace. Will the Minister enlighten us as to whether we can expect a statement from the loyalist paramilitaries as well? We cannot expect a real dialogue on decommissioning by the loyalists while such violence is continuing, but the aim must be to achieve a total decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons. Strategically speaking, we have to recognise, while focusing primarily on the IRA for obvious reasons, that there is a pressure elsewhere too.

I would like to make a suggestion as to how we should generate the kind of pressure that could create genuine decommissioning. Clearly, the Bill is part of that process, in that it will leave the door open for that pressure to be applied. Secondly, it is necessary now to start moving in the direction that we all hoped that we could, and to make it clear to the paramilitaries that they will maximise the benefit to their communities and achieve the goals that they have been bombing and shooting for only through their political representatives.

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As the hon. Member for Belfast, East rightly pointed out, there are some very senior members of the republican movement who have, at the very least, formerly served time on account of being actively involved in a paramilitary operation and who now enjoy a great deal more power than they could ever have dreamed possible when they were operating in a paramilitary environment. So long as the success of the Stormont Assembly in giving power on a genuinely bipartisan basis is sustained, and so long as the Stormont Assembly really means something to the people of Northern Ireland, we can be confident that it is the right vehicle to show those paramilitaries who are serious about their communities that they should move forward in that way.

There has to be balance in these matters. Unionists and loyalists can rightly be nervous about what they perceive to be an endless series of concessions to the republican and nationalist communities. I agree with what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said about that. Whatever my personal views on the degree of balance, perception is everything. The current perception is that the Unionists have given too much, and that the republicans have given too little back. Does the Minister agree with the concern that I am raising now, which has already been raised by Conservative Members? Is there anything strategic that the Government can do to ensure that both sides feel fairly treated?

It is also necessary to remember that there is public pressure in Northern Ireland to eliminate the maiming and killing. As we have said so many times before, the overwhelming majority of the people in Northern Ireland oppose violence. They have got used to peace, although it has been more successfully achieved in some areas than in others. Will the Minister tell us how we can harness the increasing intolerance of violence among the large sections of the public who have benefited from the peace, to make it clear to the paramilitaries—and those politicians involved with them—that violence will no longer be tolerated and, more to the point, that if the violence restarted, there would be a tremendous political price to be paid, which would have a direct consequence on the communities allegedly being protected by the paramilitaries?

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