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6.49 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) touched on an important point when she gave one of her primary reasons for supporting the motion—loyalty to her party and her Front Benchers. In saying that, she uttered a truth about the nature of the debate and tonight's supposedly free vote in that the vote is not free and the debate is not what it should be—namely, a debate on a House of Commons matter treated seriously as such. I am afraid that the Government's approach from the outset showed a failure to engage with the seriousness of the issues and the occasion.

In drawing up the list of speakers, Mr. Speaker was wise to decide that the first Government Member to speak after the Leader of the House would be the hon. Member for North–East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). Members will have gathered from my comments last night that I have a high regard for him and he produced an argument for the motion, which the Leader of the House did not. The hon. Gentleman's argument, with which I shall engage in a few moments, was made at some length and with great seriousness. In an exchange with Members on both sides of the House, he set out his view sincerely and it deserves to be addressed.

When I came to the debate, I thought that we might hear the Leader of the House's explanation of why the motion has been introduced at this particular moment and the reasons for addressing the matter that were absent in 1997 and 1999, which, so far as we know, was the last time the Government considered it. We did not get that. Instead, the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State, who came to his rescue several times, produced a series of red herrings.

I hope that I have noted the first red herring correctly, but if I do not get the language precisely, we can always correct it later. The Leader of the House suggested that the former Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, made her ruling in 1997 partly because the ceasefire had collapsed, but that is unfair to Baroness Boothroyd and it is in no way accurate.

It is worth placing on record what Baroness Boothroyd said on the radio this morning when she discussed the issue and referred to her 1997 ruling. She said:

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I have no doubt that that is precisely what motivated Baroness Boothroyd in 1997 and the Leader of the House may regret his suggestion that other factors influenced her.

Mr. Hogg: Will the right hon. Gentleman address the question whether we should have an Oath that many hon. Members who are perfectly honourable about their republicanism—I am not referring to IRA members—cannot honestly take?

Mr. Trimble: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a point that he made earlier. I shall deal with it if I manage to get through all my notes, but I must describe some other red herrings that Ministers dragged across the debate at the outset.

The Leader of the House also said that the motion restores the position that pertained before the 1997 ruling. Of course, he had to withdraw that and acknowledge that it does not restore the pre-1997 status quo. It puts in place a completely different and novel regime, which, as a number of Members have said, would create two classes of Member of Parliament and, in so doing, open up important issues.

Mr. Frank Field: Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that point, an aspect of the briefing that we were given is that the move being made today is part of the agreement that led up to the Belfast agreement. Was he party to that aspect of the agreement? Are there other parts of the agreement that the House does not know about, but which he knows about, that we shall be asked to approve following an ambush at the end of the Session?

Mr. Trimble: The right hon. Gentleman repeats a point made during the debate, which I shall touch on again, but he is right to say that the matter is not in the agreement. People should realise that. It was never raised as an issue on any occasion during the negotiations leading up to the agreement. As far as I am aware, it never arose.

I shall repeat the point shortly, but to those who say that this step is necessary to promote or implement the agreement, I say sorry, but please read it. Occasionally, when people make comments, I have to re-read the agreement to try to find the basis for them and often I cannot find it. That is an important point.

Another red herring was introduced when the Secretary of State repeatedly asked what was the position before 1997. Of course, we should not forget that the issue simply did not arise before then. In two Parliaments, the person elected to represent West Belfast did not take his seat, did not come anywhere near the place and did not seek any facilities, and I dare say that most Members, whatever Bench they sat on, did not turn their mind to the issue, because it did not arise.

The issue arose after the 1997 general election, however, because the two Sinn Fein Members elected made it clear that they would come here and use the facility whereby people enter the Palace before taking their Oath. Necessarily we all do so, and they wanted to

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use that foothold as a basis to establish a substantial bridgehead and put themselves in a position to conduct God knows what operations, whether of a political or other nature. Of course the Speaker had to consider that matter according to the law and according to practice, and she produced the ruling. The question of what happened pre-1997 is irrelevant.

Another red herring, which is also irrelevant, is the fact that Sinn Fein Members sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They participate in the administration of Northern Ireland and do so alongside me and other Members who sit on this Bench. That happens, but again it is not relevant. That takes us to a key point: historically, Sinn Fein was an abstentionist party. It was abstentionist because it did not believe in politics. It was part of a republican movement that wanted to achieve its objectives not politically, but purely by violence.

Consequently, Sinn Fein did not participate in elected bodies and refused to take its seats either in elected bodies in Northern Ireland or in the Irish Parliament or this place, but over the past number of years the republican movement has retreated from abstentionism. Indeed, it has also retreated from republicanism. Although some Members have introduced republicanism to the debate, in no real sense is the modern Sinn Fein membership republican, but that is another issue. Whatever arguments there may be on that point, Sinn Fein has clearly shifted its position on abstentionism.

Jeremy Corbyn: The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting case. Surely the logic of it is that he should welcome the fact that Sinn Fein wants representation in the Palace of Westminster and therefore support the motion.

Mr. Trimble: I am well aware of the logic of that argument, and I will deal with it shortly—along with the points made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, who presented what I considered to be the only coherent case for the motion.

As I have said, Sinn Fein and the republican movement are clearly moving away from abstentionism. The Sinn Fein Members took their seats in the Dail, and also came into the Assembly, which was a very significant act. Coming in, and accepting partition and the consent principle, were massive concessions by republicans, when viewed from a republican position. That raises a question I touched on earlier—are they really republicans?—but it is a peripheral issue, floating around in the background.

The argument that can be presented in favour of the motion constituted the burden of the intervention by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the speech of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire. It is that we are dealing with a process of transition, and that it is therefore desirable to draw people who have hitherto been involved in violence but whom we hope and believe are now turning to the normal democratic political process into that process, and bind them into it. If that involves their coming into the Palace of Westminster, it is a good thing.

Members may have various views. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) said that violence was an undertone, and spoke of the difficulties that that presented to those who must deal with these arrangements. Again, however, I

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suggest that we consider the republican perspective. It is difficult for Sinn Fein Members to represent walking into this building as a step in the direction of a united Ireland; geographically, it is clearly a step in a different direction. In that sense, it could be argued that it is a good idea to involve them in the process—a point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough. The crucial question is this. If the Sinn Fein Members are to be involved in the process, on what terms do they enter it? Herein lies the flaw in the Government's approach. Like others who have spoken, I think it will be a good day when Sinn Fein representatives sit on these Benches and participate in debate. I dare say that if the motion is passed it will be only a short time before we see a certain bearded figure disporting himself on the Bench just beyond the Bar of the House, knowing that he can return to Belfast, West and tell people there that he is still abstaining; but I nevertheless think that it will be a good day when the republicans take their seats, thus involving themselves in an aspect of our British democratic process—as long as it is done on a proper, clear basis.

Let me now touch on not just the motion, but what could be described as the process generally. As was said last night during our debate on decommissioning, it is crucial for us to be clear about the principles on which we proceed. It is crucial for us to make it absolutely plain that there must be a demonstrated move away from violence, and an unequivocal commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. I know that this is a transition period, but we must be clear about the principles involved.

It would be fatal to our hopes of bringing about a peaceful and democratic future to allow those who have been involved in violence in the past to think that the rules will be waived or adjusted so that they need make no hard choices—to think that they can sneak into the process, and that no one will confront them with such choices. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough said, it would be very nice if questions were to be put to them about the use of their allowances and so forth; but will such questions be put? Will any rigour be exercised? Who can believe that it will, when the Government are bending the rules—distorting the rules—and taking unprecedented action in allowing these Members to enter the House? By all means let us make it clear that they are welcome to take their seats, but let us also make it clear that they must do so on a coherent basis.

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