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8.35 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Secretary of State will be aware from the briefings that he received when he entered office that decommissioning has been a major item on the Northern Ireland political agenda for a number of years. I was involved in the negotiations that culminated in the Belfast agreement; decommissioning was discussed at length in those negotiations.

The Mitchell commission, which had the task of considering the decommissioning issue, drew up proposals for decommissioning to take place alongside those negotiations. As each party entered the negotiations, it committed itself to what became known as the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. It is worth recalling that one of the principles to which all the

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parties—including the Progressive Unionist party, linked to the UVF; the Ulster Democratic party, linked to the UDA; and Sinn Fein, linked to the Provisional IRA—committed themselves was the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. That commitment existed even before the agreement was concluded.

The agreement itself reiterates the commitment, albeit in language that I felt did not go far enough towards ensuring that decommissioning was not only a commitment made by parties and thus, in a sense, an aspiration, but that there were clear obligations on the parties linked to other aspects of the agreement.

The agreement has two essential characteristics, one of which deals with the constitutional and institutional arrangements for Northern Ireland. Within those arrangements, political compromises have been made between Unionism and nationalism. The other feature is the confidence-building measures, which were designed to run alongside the implementation of the institutional and constitutional arrangements. They were intended to give people confidence that we were making the transition from 30 years of violence to a new era of peace based on democracy and political stability.

The difficulty for Unionists, which the Secretary of State recognised, at least verbally, in his recent speech in Liverpool, is that the confidence-building measures specifically designed to build confidence in the community, particularly among Unionists, that those who had engaged in violence in the past had moved to democracy, have not been fulfilled to the extent that Unionist confidence has been built. The Secretary of State spoke about the "cold house effect", and it is true that, in respect of many of the proposals flowing from the agreement, Unionists have felt the breeze of change, which they considered unbalanced. In particular, their sense of British identity has been eroded in a way that has made them feel extremely uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, Unionists want the Assembly to provide good, stable government for Northern Ireland. Among Unionists right across the board, there is support for the Assembly. There is also support for the principle that parties should work together to achieve the objective of good government, but when we entered the negotiations it was clearly understood that parties that participated in the new institutions should commit themselves exclusively to peaceful and democratic means. It is clear that in respect of the republican movement, such a commitment has not yet been fulfilled to the extent that I, as a Unionist, feel comfortable with the idea that republicans are in the Government of the part of the United Kingdom in which I reside and which I represent.

I share the views expressed by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) about the difficulty for many in Northern Ireland of having Martin McGuinness as the Minister of Education, when that individual is still linked to an illegal terrorist organisation, as a member of that organisation and part of its leadership. That presents enormous difficulties for ordinary, decent people who want a better future and stability and peace for their children. I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State not only recognises but genuinely understands the discomfort that Unionists feel.

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That brings us to the nub of the issue. The Secretary of State will have heard the comments of the Conservative spokesman and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. We do not oppose in principle an amnesty for those who decommission their illegal weapons or extension of that amnesty, but we are against creating circumstances in which there is no deadline and no target date for the completion of the process of decommissioning, and in which the amnesty period is potentially extended until 2007. That sends completely the wrong signals to the Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries, as it suggests that they have bought themselves more time through their procrastination and delay, and also to the Unionist community, to which it says that the decommissioning process is becoming open ended, will never be completed and will continue to be a shadow that is cast over the political process. That does not engender stability and confidence.

We have recently seen some positive steps. The agreement of the Policing Board on a new police badge was significant. My preference would have been to retain the existing badge. I have argued in this House that it represented fairly both traditions in Northern Ireland with the harp, the crown and the shamrock. However, I believe that the new badge is a sincere attempt by representatives of both traditions to reach agreement on something that was controversial and shows what happens when democratic political representatives from different traditions come together to try to resolve a problem.

There was, however, a missing dimension in that decision: Sinn Fein-IRA. It is worth recalling that Sinn Fein-IRA has so far refused to support the new Police Service of Northern Ireland and to participate in the Policing Board. Thus, Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive are participating in the government of that part of the United Kingdom but refusing to support its police service. Surely, that is an absurdity in any democratic scenario. It demonstrates that Sinn Fein has not yet made the transition from a past in which it was engaged in violence—and, indeed, a present in which it is continuing to engage in unacceptable levels of violence—to a commitment to exclusively peaceful means.

Decommissioning is not only an end in itself, although the removal of the gun from our politics is important, but a means of building confidence in the political process in Northern Ireland. It was a confidence-building measure in the agreement, but the problem with such a measure is that if it is not delivered, it has the opposite effect and undermines confidence. That is precisely what has happened within Unionism. I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will understand that there is a wide degree of scepticism among Unionists, whether they support the agreement or are sceptical about it, about the speed with which the decommissioning process is being implemented. That is why, on this side of the House tonight, there are some hon. Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland who strongly support the agreement and some who strongly oppose it, but all of them will be supporting the Conservatives' reasoned amendment. We are dissatisfied with the Government's extension of the amnesty, potentially to 2007, when they have not clearly established a deadline or a target date for completing decommissioning.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) referred to the Government's responsibility for decommissioning. In the past, we have had to bear

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responsibility for applying pressure to the republican movement to decommission. We will not shirk that responsibility in future. If necessary, we will take action to bring pressure to bear on the republican movement and loyalist paramilitaries to decommission.

I do not agree with the Secretary of State that pressure does not work: it does and it has. I do not agree that deadlines do not work: they have worked in the past and they can work in future. If necessary, we will apply pressure through the political process and democratic methods on the republican movement and on loyalists to decommission.

We want loyalists to decommission. As Unionists from a Unionist tradition, we have always unequivocally opposed the violence of so-called loyalist paramilitaries. We want them to end the violence and decommission their weapons. The Secretary of State can apply pressure to those groups through the prisoner release scheme, under which individual prisoners are released on licence. If they breach it, they forfeit the right to freedom and have to return to prison.

The Secretary of State and his predecessor have so far twice returned people to jail. In view of continuing loyalist violence, surely there is a case for the Secretary of State to review the matter and make it clear that if the violence continues and organisations fail to decommission, he will return the released prisoners to prison. That will put pressure on the groups to end violence and enter meaningfully into the decommissioning process.

If we turn a blind eye to the violence, we breach the agreement and the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which clearly linked the ceasefires to the release of prisoners, albeit imperfectly.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman rightly says that deadlines sometimes work. What mechanism would make the deadline that we are considering work? The Bill is an enabling measure, which does not create pressure. If it is passed, we can provide meaningful deadlines and staging posts for decommissioning.

Mr. Donaldson: Several mechanisms might be used to bring pressure to bear. I have mentioned the prisoner release scheme; another possible mechanism is excluding from office those who have failed to fulfil specific decommissioning obligations. The Government could apply some pressure points if they have the will.

If the Secretary of State is trying to build confidence in the Unionist community and deal with the cold house effect, he is going the wrong way about it. Every time we make suggestions or proposals, they are rebuffed. Every time we make suggestions about how the Government should handle decommissioning, they are not backed. The Secretary of State expects the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to show leadership, make concessions and stick his neck out, yet he is not prepared to give us the means to apply the pressure on the republican movement and on loyalists to honour their commitments under the agreement. If he is not prepared to do it, we must do it, but that should not be the way. The Government are responsible for ensuring that decommissioning works.

My difficulty with the Bill is that it sends out the wrong signal to the paramilitary organisations. It says to the UDA and the UVF, "You've got until 2007 to do something." It says to the IRA, "Don't worry, boys—

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2007." That is the signal. It may not be the Government's intention, but that is how it will be read by the paramilitaries on the streets, and that is how it is being read by the communities in Northern Ireland, which see decommissioning becoming an open-ended process. That is not a recipe for creating political stability in Northern Ireland.

If the Secretary of State wants to address the confidence issue with regard to Unionists, he should understand that they want him to be more resolute in dealing with decommissioning. They want him to send out stronger signals to paramilitaries that their violence and their procrastination on decommissioning will not be tolerated, and that if they fail to deliver an end to the violence, and the decommissioning of their illegal weapons, there will be political consequences.

Some right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the process of concession—others have called it appeasement. Whatever it is, the reality is that on the ground among Unionists, it has sapped any confidence that they had, and the Government need to address that issue. They are not addressing it to the extent to which Unionists can feel that there is now a balanced approach.

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