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Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and the Minister would be advised to respond to it in his summation at the end of the debate. Some very important issues have been raised—for example, by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes)—and I shall say a few words about them in a little while.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said that there has been no reciprocation, but those three examples provide evidence to show that the risks that the Conservative Government took were paid back in clear and definitive results. I am sure that the Anglo-Irish agreement was the forerunner to the decision by the south of Ireland to abandon, eventually by referendum, its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. That momentous decision would not have been taken if the Conservative Government and Margaret Thatcher had not driven forward that decision at an earlier stage.

On the secret talks on terrorism, I am pretty certain that the Good Friday agreement would not have been reached if the former Conservative Government had not had the courage to make progress, first in secret and then in public. Once again, there is clear evidence—albeit circumstantial—that that was justified.

I am absolutely certain that the limited movement on arms in October 2001, which has led to the first important, albeit symbolic, act of decommissioning by the IRA would not have occurred without the amnesty which was launched in 1997. If the risk is tested against the result in each of those three examples, we can put a tick in the box and say that the risk was vindicated on all three occasions.

The process is not new. It is a little known fact that in 1972 Gerry Adams and other republican prisoners—

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Internees.

Lembit Öpik: I am sorry. Internees were flown to London for secret talks with Secretary of State Whitelaw to find out whether progress could be made. I hope that I have clearly shown that such precedents often produce results in Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) said that a strong stance leads to progress, but on what basis? Each of those three events was an act of good faith, and each produced howls of protest in the Chamber, uncertainty among Northern Ireland's politicians for very good reasons and discomfort within the Government, yet each event led to breakthroughs that have brought us very close to peace.

The issue is not whether this proposal is a precedent but whether this precedent conforms to the criteria that caused previous Governments to take comparable risks.

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I would argue that it does and that the points raised by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford do not stand up to scrutiny when they are compared with the earlier practical precedents. Furthermore, the claim that that view has a basis of principle was clearly undermined by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who pointed out that, in large part, we are returning to circumstances that prevailed for half the entire term of the previous Conservative Administrations—for nine years—without being amended. Therefore, in fairness to those on the Conservative Front Bench, I must assume that they are willing to listen to arguments about practicality.

To return to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), certain issues need to be resolved. There is confusion as to whether Elizabeth Filkin will have a binding power to scrutinise the new Members. Will the Minister respond on that point and, if she does not have that power, will he assure us that the position will be amended in due course? However, as Unionist Members have pointed out, some fear that Mrs. Filkin risks being put verifiably beyond use.

The issue of confidence-building measures on both sides came up in the debate last night. Those who have most justification for being deeply concerned by the proposal are those on the Unionist Benches. They are on the front-line of Northern Ireland politics and they—not us—have had to put up with many concessions, perceived concessions and reconciliation and so forth.

By taking some of the heat ourselves, we are, to some extent, making amends for the enormous pressures that we have put on Northern Ireland's politicians. This proposal is not a new concept for Northern Ireland or for Stormont and, if we feel some discomfort, it is only a fraction of that felt in Northern Ireland as we caused a political settlement to take place that mandatorily required cross-party support and cross-party alliance. It is telling that that cross-party alliance led 100 per cent. of the nationalists and republicans in Stormont to vote to maintain the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—a Unionist—in the post of First Minister. [Interruption.] I can hear the delight and joy as hon. Members behind me recall that wonderful occasion, but the achievement of Stormont is that it has achieved some form of reconciliation. I suggest that we are now taking on a small share of that process.

The amendments to the motion can be categorised in three classes: requirements about the Oath, requirements about renouncing violence and requirements about decommissioning. On the first class, Liberal Democrats feel that there is a strong case to move forward on the Oath, and I have heard other Members also express that view. I seek guidance from the Minister on what plans there might be to tackle that issue. However, I doubt whether simply changing the Oath will overcome the strong principled objection to the republicans sitting in the House. However, let us remember that history shows us that they have been here before.

On the second class of amendments, no one wants individuals who celebrate violence in this place. However, this proposal is hardly a green light for anyone coming here to use it as a base to promote violent activities. I doubt whether anyone in their right mind would

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seriously suggest that a terrorist organisation would have the audacity or even the stupidity to do that from within the curtilage of the House.

On the point about decommissioning, I believe that this proposal will be a driver to decommissioning. One of the tests of success is whether decommissioning proceeds, and we will be sorely let down by the republican movement if it fails to deliver arms on the basis of such concessions.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman mentions three classes of amendment, but is there not a fourth class? It tries, perhaps unsuccessfully, to make the important point that being a Member of Parliament is not just about doing the things that we all want to do, and care about doing, on behalf of our constituents as we look after their taxation needs and the like, but about playing a part in the House. The allowances are provided for both those activities. To apply them specifically to one activity makes a statement about the nature of the House that many of us, who are not known to be supporters of the extreme Unionist position, find distasteful.

Lembit Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly respect on many issues, rightly outlines the principal objection. If hon. Members believe that that objection is so great that they cannot go along with the motion, despite the perceived benefits that I suggest will accrue for the peace process, it would be principled for them to vote against it. I am simply saying that that is not where I stand, and I encourage my hon. Friends to take the same view. It is unarguable that the right hon. Gentleman raises an important consideration; if it were not, the debate would not be so charged.

If Sinn Fein Members were totally cynical, they could take the Oath now and receive all the benefits, together with the salary. The fact is that they have not. I believe that we are discussing a halfway house that might one day lead them to take their places here. More than anything, however, it will stitch them closely into the parliamentary procedures of the Chamber, which will cause them to moderate their behaviour and to recognise that any return to violence will be hugely damaging to their public image both on the mainland and among the electorate to whom they are attempting to appeal.

Let us also recognise that an enormous bitterness surrounds Northern Ireland politics. As human beings, we have human feelings about, for example, Airey Neave, the 300-plus police who have been killed in Northern Ireland and the thousands of casualties. The House would be a worse place if we did not have those feelings. However, we are at the juncture at which we should draw a line between the past and the future, and this measure is a watershed in that process. The emotional pressure that many people feel is understandable. The frustration about where we might be heading is genuine and we must make judgments accordingly. However, reconciliation is a "doing" word. It is a mutual act that is hard precisely because it begins with one side negotiating with those whom it hates and who, ultimately, have to reciprocate.

We could demonise Sinn Fein and the leaders of the republican movement, although every time that we have done so we have caused a retrenchment and sometimes a recruitment drive in those organisations. Alternatively, we could subjugate our feelings to our values and ask whether

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this is another opportunity to build on the precedents set by the Conservative Government and this Government. I do not suggest that the world will end if we do not do that; nor do I suggest that peace and decommissioning will be secured tomorrow if we do. However, I ask hon. Members to consider whether the principal objection that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) outlined is so great that it precludes us from taking a further risk. If hon. Members think that, there is not much more that I can say to them, because the alternative is to take that risk in this free vote.

Incidentally, unlike the Conservatives, we will not pull out of the agreement even if the Liberal Democrat vote goes against my recommendation. We will continue to play a positive and proactive part with all sides and all players, whatever the outcome tonight. Ironically, the debate has occurred simply because we have not had an opportunity to discuss the subject before, but it was inevitable that we would have to face it. This degree of cynicism is no longer appropriate.

That is all I want to say. I shall respect what my colleagues do, but I sincerely hope that we prove, in our vote tonight, that reconciliation is not something that we force on the politicians and people of Northern Ireland and then leave at the door of the House when we come here to debate the very same matters.


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