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Mr. Barnes: Sinn Fein should be here and should be held to account. On a past occasion, I acted on behalf of a constituent in Belfast, West. I finished up getting what seemed to be a letter of safe conduct from Gerry Adams in connection with that, saying that it was okay to go ahead. I argued about that because he should be here doing his work, and checking and responding to the Executive, but it is a matter of how we achieve that situation. It will not occur dramatically.

It is all right for people such as me. I have reservations about the Oath and about the religious prayers that take place here each day, but I involve myself in them. I am not one of those people who sits down during prayers to show that I have a principled position. I will be a hypocrite, pray and turn around with everyone else even though I might not share those views. The Oath to the Crown is perhaps like that, but there are far more important and significant things to do. I wish that Northern Ireland politics was not so hung up on ideas, views and strict principles that can never be invaded, even though those views are sometimes despicable.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the point that I made to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies)? Is there not a difference between holding republican or atheistic views, such as those that my hon. Friend expressed, and standing for election and being elected on them, and then being asked to deny them to take a seat in this House?

Mr. Barnes: My hon. Friend's point was well put, and that is a particular problem. If principles, whatever they are, are writ large, people have difficulty moving beyond them. I believe in many different principles that all rub up against each other. On some occasions, I have to make difficult choices between them. I wish that that were the case for Sinn Fein and many other politicians in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hogg: Building on the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), is not the way forward not to create two separate classes of Member, but to remove the Oath, either entirely or in the form in which it stands in the way of loyal, committed republicans honestly taking it? If we remove the Oath in its present form, Sinn Fein has no possible excuse for not sitting here, and its members can take up all their rights and obligations or none of them. What they cannot do is say that we are standing in their way.

Mr. Barnes: I have much sympathy for that point of view, because if not having the Oath made it easier for Members to take their seats, everybody would be on an equal footing. The argument of Sinn Fein Members would then be weakened. One could ask why they had taken their seats in the Republic of Ireland Parliament in a divided Ireland and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but refused to take their seats in the UK Parliament.

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They would, in time, take their seats here. If we accept the motion, we will make progress in that direction. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to press for that change, I would support it, but it could build on the motion before us today.

Mr. Frank Field: My hon. Friend said that we should make it easy for people to take an Oath and enter the Commons. Surely we should have an Oath that concentrates on the essentials, which concern the way in which political affairs should be conducted in this country. That might be difficult for some people to take, but it would be essential for us to hold to. We need to put aside some aspects of the Oath that are not essential but that may be barriers to people taking it, and concentrate on what is essential. We should not make the test one of whether it is easy for people to take the Oath, but of whether the Oath is meaningful and reflects the democratic way of life that this Chamber represents.

Mr. Barnes: Either we need an Oath that relates to democracy and parliamentary activities or, as suggested by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), no Oath at all. Why have an Oath if people have been elected to the House through due procedure? Such people would have been elected by the majority of the electorate in their constituencies, and we should proceed on that basis.

It would have been possible to make a speech even if I had had no notes, because I have taken so many interventions. They have carried me along and made me think on my feet.

In conclusion, I shall describe my general political position, as it affects my attitude to the motion. It is sometimes argued that people who adopt my position are really Orangemen or Unionists. That is not the case. I happen to believe that there are many honourable and decent Unionists. We should be very concerned about the Unionist working class, and we should not parody Unionists as people in bowler hats walking in parades. We should understand the reality of their culture.

However, I am not green either. In the long run, the commercial and economic links between the north and south of Ireland might grow and people might decide to change the constitutional arrangements. That is up to them. I have neither a green agenda, nor an orange one. I feel that all the stuff about the border is trivial, and has been blown up into a great issue. It prevents us from discussing the bread-and-butter political issues that affect people's lives in working-class areas.

In different territories of Belfast, the streets are either red, white and blue or green, orange and white. Yet the people in those areas have much more in common with each other than they have in opposition to each other. Therefore, my colour is red, not green or orange. My position is that of the traditional democrat socialist: I believe in the essential unity of people, and especially of working-class people. I believe that their position in society should be raised, and that working-class Catholics and Protestants should live together.

In 1906, the Labour party—formerly the Labour Representation Committee—held its first conference in Belfast. The problem is that the party does not even organise in the city now. That is something to which we should return.

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5.22 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): It is clear that the key question is whether it is acceptable to agree with the Government and provide office space and costs to Sinn Fein Members, or whether the idea is such a bad one that it justifies the Conservative party walking away from the bipartisan arrangement.

I and many other hon. Members accept that this is a vexed issue. Many hon. Members whom I respect—such as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and others among my hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches—have significant concerns about the principle involved in giving Sinn Fein Members these facilities when they are not required to take the Oath, and all that that entails.

The vote at the end of the debate will be free, and I suggest that the balance is in favour of approving the motion. The concerns about principle, valid though they may be, are outweighed by the benefit that would be done to the peace process. Crucially, they are outweighed by the fact that, at every stage in the negotiation of the normalisation of life in Northern Ireland, similar leaps of faith have had to be taken, and by parties of more than one colour.

Mr. Hawkins: Should not the hon. Gentleman be a little more realistic? He is the Liberal Democrat Front- Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland matters, and I am one of the security spokesmen for the Conservative party. We both know that the reality is that, even though tonight's vote may technically be described as free for members of other parties, the Government intend to insure that their payroll vote will force the matter through in a way that is wholly unconscionable. Will not the hon. Gentleman speak about the reality of the position in this House on this important matter?

Lembit Öpik: The reality is that it is not for me to pronounce on the internal organisation of the Labour party. I assure the hon. Gentleman that tonight's vote will be genuinely free for Liberal Democrat Members. I hope that my colleagues, when they make their decision, take into account my comments, as well as those of others. However, as an aside, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that it is curious that, although the motion is subject to a free vote among Conservative Members, it nevertheless has sufficient policy implications that the party feels able to walk away from the bipartisan agreement. I fail to understand how those two factors can coincide.

Mr. Salter: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the official Opposition—the Conservative and Unionist party—might demur from the bipartisan approach to the Northern Ireland peace process as a result of understandable principles on such issues as the release of prisoners or lack of progress on decommissioning? Does he accept how inexplicable people over here and in Northern Ireland will find the fact that 30 years of bipartisan work is being torn up over the principle of a desk, an office space and access to a photocopier?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman and I take the same position. There is a fundamental contradiction, however, in the Conservative spokespeople on Northern Ireland

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pretending that their party has a free vote and yet pronouncing, hours before the debate is even held and before they have seen how their colleagues vote, that they will walk away from the bipartisan agreement.

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