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5.50 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) suggested, the debate has two broad strands—the rights of Members who stood for election on the basis of not taking their seat in this place, and the Northern Ireland peace process. Although I regard the first factor as important and deserving of careful debate and scrutiny, the second overrides it by far. On that basis, I shall urge all my hon. Friends to vote for the motion.

There is a long history to the debate into which, obviously, it would not be appropriate to go, but I say to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that the fundamental flaw at the heart of his argument is one that the Conservative party has made a number of times, and it concerns the political judgment to be made. That judgment is about whether we want the peace process to go forward. The flaw in his argument led him into difficulty when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland asked him about the principle versus the money. The Conservative party has at times taken a view of the whole problem instead of a single part of it. Every now and then, it lurches back into looking at a small part, which is what it is doing today.

I remember my earliest involvement in Northern Ireland issues in the House in the early 1980s, after the horrors of the dirty protest and the hunger strike. Jim Prior, now Lord Prior, was in my judgment probably the best Secretary of State that Northern Ireland had under that Government, or indeed under previous Governments. He made dramatic progress because he recognised, as a number of us had been arguing for many years, that neither the Unionists nor the republicans could overturn what was desired by both the British and Irish Governments acting in union, and that what was required to sort out the complex problems of Northern Ireland was a joint agreement between Ireland and Britain.

It was Lord Prior who achieved that agreement. He sat on the Government Front Bench, and I on the Opposition Front Bench, late into the night, night after night, and he

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was being driven to the wall by the late Enoch Powell and all the Unionists. I would rally what few troops I had—there were usually only one or two of us about at 3 o'clock in the morning—to support the Conservative Government when it came to a vote. We did that because we knew that the process was going in the right direction, even though we might have had individual disagreements about the way in which it was achieved.

I knew early on that, quite apart from the horrors of the hunger strike and the dirty protest, not only would those events be a publicity disaster for Britain but they would not help Sinn Fein in the long run. The way out of the trap was to achieve the classic British fudge, which I and others had been suggesting for some time, of refusing to give the prisoners political status, which would have been utterly wrong, while making certain concessions, such as allowing them to wear civilian clothes, which we had already given prisoners on this side of the water regardless of why they had committed their offence.

We might describe the proposal tonight as a British fudge—I do not care whether we do or not. The principle that we are concerned with here, of sorting out the nightmarish problems of Northern Ireland, is more important than whether there are slight inconsistencies in the use of the allowances paid to Members of the House.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Why, then, does not the motion make it clear that we are talking not about the House of Commons but about a concession for the House that has political implications way beyond our shores, and which should be regarded not as something that affects the House but as a matter relating to Irish politics? There is no indication of that anywhere on the Order Paper.

Mr. Soley: My hon. Friend is right, but as I said at the beginning of my remarks, there are two strands to this matter. I shall turn in a moment to the second strand, which might satisfy her, but only to a limited extent. We cannot approach the motion without bearing in mind the overall political context. I make to my hon. Friend the same point that I made to the Conservative party: if we make that mistake again, we will lurch back into the problems that the Conservative Government got into several times when dealing with Northern Ireland. They got stuck on a detail, instead of looking to the long term.

Some of those problems have been referred to already. I remember the Conservative Government having secret talks with the IRA, never mind Sinn Fein. I supported them in that because in my view the talks were necessary and a good idea. The Government were in difficulty with their own side partly because they were reliant for their survival, at that stage, on Unionist votes, and because they could not themselves, as a party, face the difficulty of crossing that bridge. It was a difficult bridge to cross, just as the release of prisoners was difficult. No one should doubt the difficulty of these issues.

There is something else that we in this House, rather than people in Northern Ireland, need to remember: that both Unionists and republicans have made incredible concessions. We ought to respect that. The concessions that they have made could not have been predicted 20 years ago. They became a little more predictable recently. I turn now to some of those concessions because they return us to the core of the motion.

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There is a process whereby Sinn Fein, in particular, and some Unionist paramilitary groups, are moving, hesitantly and at times in contradictory ways, towards accepting the democratic process and rejecting violence. There are very few examples in history of such organisations renouncing violence overnight and sticking with that promise. It is almost always a messy, unpleasant, inconsistent and dishonest process, but it is a process, and that is why the phrase "peace process" is so important and why I tell people to keep that in mind.

Mr. Stunell: I am following what the hon. Gentleman says, and I agree with him very much. Does he agree, however, that the peace process can go forward or backward, but that it cannot remain stationary, which is one good reason for moving it forward tonight?

Mr. Soley: I was going to say that the one thing that Northern Ireland cannot afford to do is to stand still. It stood still for hundreds of years, which did it nothing but damage. At times, we all look across the water at Northern Ireland and think, "This couldn't possibly be Britain." As I used to point out to Sinn Fein, 10 or 15 years ago, nor could it be southern Ireland, because southern Ireland had changed. Britain had changed too, but the idea that Northern Ireland, whether Unionist or republican, was like Britain or Ireland was becoming a nonsense. The more that Northern Ireland dug itself into the violence and hatred, the more different it got. One of the core problems was that we had to pull Northern Ireland out of that process.

I turn now to the second strand of the issue, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred. If I were pushed, I would say that there is a difficulty about how far we make concessions about the facilities that MPs can use, even if they got themselves elected on the basis of not taking their seats. There is no great point of principle. This is an argument about where the line should be drawn. More importantly, rather than getting bogged down on the question of whether Members are representing their constituents—a fair point made in an intervention—we should address a different argument that links the matter straight back into the peace process. That argument is that Sinn Fein will move.

In the past, I have made certain predictions about where the Unionists will end up and where the republicans will end up. I have been wrong on both scores at times, but I have also been right on several occasions. I make another prediction tonight: that within about four years, Sinn Fein Members will be taking their seats on those Benches. [Interruption.] Let me tell the House why I say that. I have seen statements from Sinn Fein saying that its Members will not take their seats even if we change the Oath, and I shall return to the Oath. When members of Sinn Fein told me that, they did so with the same intensity that they told me they would never take seats in the Stormont Assembly—that they would never accept the idea of a united Ireland by consent because that would mean a Unionist veto. They said that they would stay with the bullet and the ballot box, or the Armalite and the ballot box, until the British were driven out of Ireland. That did not happen and they accepted the present situation.

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In saying all those things, I do not wish to underestimate or understate the concessions made by the Unionists. I recognise how far they have moved, especially in recent years. People on the ground in Northern Ireland—the Unionist population—are changing. Seeing them used to make me sad because they seemed to be trapped in the past. Now, however, they are emerging from that and, although their progress is slow and painful, they are moving, and we must help them with that.

The issue of the Oath is important. When I served on the Modernisation Committee three or four years ago, I put it to members of the Committee that we ought to change the Oath. I proposed not that we get rid of the existing one, but that alongside it should run an oath that would enable Members to swear allegiance to the democratic process of Parliament.

Many countries have accepted such an oath. In fact, we have drawn up such oaths for them—it is not the first example of our writing other constitutions rather better than we wrote our own. People ought to have a choice. When I served on the Modernisation Committee I made the point—I think that Baroness Boothroyd refers to it in her book—that such an oath would assist in getting Sinn Fein into the House. I said so because wider issues were involved; it was daft that people such as the late Willie Hamilton should come to the House, take an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen, then stand up in the Chamber and denounce every aspect of the British royal family. That is a contradiction for many Scottish nationalists; it is anomalous that many Members on both sides of the House should have to take the Oath in that way.

Although my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was right to separate the issue of the Oath from today's debate and vote, it would be a mistake to lose sight of the underlying argument.

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