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Mr. Davies: I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Clearly an apology of that kind, as I said, is not a deed or act of decommissioning, or the winding-up of the IRA. We need dramatic deeds from all concerned if we are to make a success of the peace process. Nevertheless, what has been said this evening should not be ignored—it would be irresponsible to do so. People who have lost family members to terrorism in the past 20 to 30 years will not be minded to take seriously any statement from that quarter—I thoroughly understand that. However, we have a responsibility to determine policy for the nation as a whole, and must do so on the basis that I have set out. We must respond positively when there is clearly a will on the other side to take a positive step forward.

The reason for the IRA's decision to make a statement is a matter of speculation, and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has given the House his interpretation. The fact that he and I in our different ways have been putting pressure on the Government to introduce more discipline in the process is probably not irrelevant to this evening's news. As for the timing, it looks as if the debate brought the statement forward. Clearly, however, there has been a careful rethink in the IRA, and we must think carefully about how to respond.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): Did my hon. Friend note with regret that the IRA statement fails to make any absolute commitment that there will be no more violence? The absence of that commitment must be treated cautiously.

Mr. Davies: I thoroughly agree. That must indeed be treated cautiously, as I have suggested. As my hon. Friend said, the statement is far from adequate but, nevertheless, it is a remarkable and striking document. We should therefore proceed on the basis that I have already set out.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) rose

Mr. Davies: I shall not take any more interventions at the moment, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later, if he wishes to persist.

The motion was deliberately drafted to avoid any overt criticism of the Government, although it may well be that not only ourselves but others in the House may have occasion to make such criticism in this debate. We have an opportunity this evening to make criticism when we believe that that is both necessary and constructive. The motion has been drafted in the hope that it could form a broad basis for agreement across the House on the peace process.

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I have discussed the motion with the Secretary of State. I understand that the Government do not feel able explicitly to support it, but the right hon. Gentleman and I have agreed that if the Government do not table an amendment to it, I will not press it to a Division, and on that basis it will, I hope, stand uncontested on the Order Paper. That agreement means that if there should nevertheless be votes at the end of the debate, I shall call on my right hon. and hon. Friends not to take part in them.

There are three reasons for holding the debate today. Each one forms a proper theme for the debate, and I shall deal with each in turn. First, the intention was to give Parliament a badly needed opportunity, which I fear would otherwise have been denied it, to discuss this vital issue. We shall listen open-mindedly to everything that is said from all parts of the House this evening, with particular attention to the views expressed by hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies. I hope that the Government will also listen open-mindedly to the points made by the official Opposition and Back Benchers on both sides.

Secondly, the purpose is to set out our own reading of events, and our own concerns, which remain considerable. Thirdly, since I fear that I have been, and continue to feel that I must often be, critical of the Government's tactics in handling the matter, although we are entirely united on the objective and on our commitment to the Belfast agreement, I think it right to set out in a little detail this evening our alternative view of the right tactics, and to try to influence the decisions that the Prime Minister this morning recommitted himself to take by the time the House rises for the summer recess.

On the need for the debate, I do not feel it necessary to apologise for that. One of the criticisms of the Stormont period that is often made in Northern Ireland—very legitimately, in my view, and it applies as much, I fear, to the period of the MacDonald or the Attlee Administrations as it does to times when the Conservative party had a majority in the House—is that we consistently ignored Northern Ireland. I am afraid that that mistake is in danger of being repeated.

The Government have not given us any opportunity for a debate this Session. They did not offer a statement on the Weston Park decisions last year, which went quite outside the Belfast agreement and considerably changed the agenda of the peace process—in my view, they unbalanced it. Our own attempts over the past two weeks to secure the promise of a debate or even a statement on the Hillsborough meeting and on the decisions that the Government have promised to take before the House rises have failed, although we have tried on many occasions.

Whether that reluctance to account to Parliament and to discuss the issue in the Chamber is a reflection of the Government's own unease with their policy on Northern Ireland, or whether it is simply a manifestation of their general attitude to Parliament, I do not know. In either case, it is regrettable.

On the situation in Northern Ireland as we see it, the Government like to repeat that everything is far, far better than it was during the 30 years of the troubles before 1998. That is most certainly correct, and a very welcome change it is. The institutions are undoubtedly working well, and there is far less violence than there was 10 or 20 years ago. However, there are dangers in reciting that

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mantra too often, even if it is followed, as it usually is, by the statement that of course the Government are not complacent.

The fact that the situation is better does not mean that it is satisfactory. There have been 13 sectarian murders over the past year in Northern Ireland, instead of more than 100 a year, as was typical during the 1970s and 1980s, but that is still a hideous state of affairs. As the latest excellent Select Committee report makes clear, there is a terrorist beating almost every day; and we ought to be concerned with the direction of events, as well as with the present state of affairs. Although things are far better than 10 or 20 years ago, the Government's mantra tends to ignore the fact that things are a good deal worse than we were entitled to believe they would be at the time of the Belfast agreement four years ago. Very little progress has been made with IRA decommissioning, and none at all with loyalist decommissioning, though decommissioning was supposed to be completed two years ago.

No progress has been made at all in dismantling paramilitary organisations. The recent Select Committee report suggests that many of them have been considerably strengthened. Last month, for the first time in four years, there was shooting in the streets after vicious rioting in east Belfast, and five people were wounded. I dread to think what would have happened had one of them been killed.

I suppose that one good measure of progress—or perhaps I should say one bad measure of regress—is the walls. They are such an obvious, hideous symptom of the abnormality of life in Belfast and Londonderry. Since 1998, they have been considerably extended. The Government are extending them in east Belfast as this debate proceeds. I hardly think that anyone in the House would regard that as a measure of positive progress.

The truth is that confidence in the peace process in Northern Ireland, especially but not only in the Unionist community, is at an all-time low since the establishment of the process itself. That has many consequences. One is that the political parties that have invested most in the process—I pay tribute to their political courage in doing so—by accepting the agreement wholeheartedly and by implementing it, the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party, are currently on the defensive.

Given the recent course of events, there is every reason to suppose that after the Assembly elections next May, the two largest parties will be one that rejects the agreement in principle, and another which, while saying that it accepts the agreement, continues to fail to implement it, does not recognise the police force and continues to maintain a paramilitary organisation on an active footing, and cannot bring itself to condemn terrorist murder—a disgraceful failure by the chairman of Sinn Fein-IRA, to which we refer in our motion.

As I said earlier, we shall give full credit where credit is due for positive statements or positive moves, but we shall be ruthless in meeting statements and above all moves away from the agreement or breaches of it, of which there have been far too many.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Will the hon. Gentleman keep in mind that the man responsible for the

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Abercorn bombing was Mr. Gerry Adams? He was in charge of the IRA at that time. Is it not interesting that in the document that has been issued, the IRA offers apology to non-combatant families? Thus the police are viewed as a legitimate target, and those serving in all the forces of the Crown and in the other back-ups are looked upon as legitimate targets. Surely, in the light of that, the letter prompts the people of Northern Ireland to ask, "What will be the pay-off for the letter?"

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