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Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman is getting into the area of difficulty. Will he tell us exactly what threshold he has in mind? Plainly, it is not acceptable—whatever democratic mandate the party may have—for a party that advocates the use of illegal violence to achieve its objective to be part of any Executive under any system. Where does he want the threshold to be drawn?

Lembit Öpik: Surely this is the problem. When I am the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I will have to make decisions with all the information available to me in 2006. At this point, however, we cannot pretend that there is a table of figures and conditions determining what is and is not acceptable. There are too many variables in the system. The hon. Gentleman knows well that previous Conservative Secretaries of States continually made course corrections to Northern Ireland policy because that was the only way that they could operate. In the same sense, if the solution now were as simple as describing the particular threshold, we would not spend so much time discussing it, and I am absolutely certain that the Conservatives would not have chosen to devote their Opposition day debate today to this matter. The reason it

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was helpful that this subject was chosen is that we must discuss these matters and accept that there are grey areas on which we can disagree but on which, nevertheless, a Government must make decisions.

Were I to attempt to give a more specific answer to the hon. Gentleman, I would say that I would probably set the threshold rather higher than him. I would therefore guess that if, or when, the Liberal Democrats run Northern Ireland policy we will set the threshold in a slightly more flexible way than the Conservatives will do in 2090—[Interruption.] I shall leave it to the listening public to determine whether that is an optimistic or pessimistic assessment. We may be hit by an asteroid before then anyway.

Mr. Dodds: The Irish Prime Minister, Mr. Ahern, has made it clear—as did all the parties in the Republic during the recent general election—that the presence of Sinn Fein in their Government cannot be contemplated. Why is it so difficult for the hon. Gentleman to set a threshold in terms of part of the United Kingdom?

Lembit Öpik: I observed Sinn Fein's performance in the south of Ireland election with great interest. It is not for me to tell the Irish Government what to do.

Let me answer the hon. Gentleman's question. The reason why it is so difficult for me to set a threshold is that we have a peace process which is in part implementation and in part negotiation between the parties in Northern Ireland, and which takes place at the same time as interaction with Dublin and with Westminster. In my judgment—this is a crucial point—the process seems to be working: it seems to be taking us to a place where we have not been for three decades. I mean that in a positive sense. As I have said, the organised campaign of terrorism against the state has been, if not entirely removed, massively reduced. The troubles in the communities themselves—the levels of community violence—remain, but I think that on balance we are making progress.

I say this to the hon. Gentleman. If a process is to be judged on the basis of outcomes, it seems reasonable—to the Liberal Democrats, anyway—to say that the outcomes delivered justify the approach taken. I accept that others have different views—we have already heard them—but the Government are reasonable at least in making that calculation. Then we enter the grey area of thresholds, which we have now probably covered adequately.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I accept that the only outcomes the hon. Gentleman or anyone else can consider on the basis of knowledge are those that we have experienced already. Surely the problem here is considering future outcomes of which we are not certain.

Lembit Öpik: If that were not the challenge, and if there were not such difficult questions to answer, we would not have jobs, because there would be no such thing as politics. Essentially we are sharing our predictions of what we think we can achieve, probably agreeing by and large on the desired outcome of peace and normality in Northern Ireland, but differing in our identifications of the best way forward. That is the point made by the hon. Gentleman. This is a debate about process rather than outcomes, and I think the differences between the parties are based on our assessments of what is most likely to work.

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What the Liberal Democrats still think is most likely to work is the Good Friday agreement. It contains the conditions for power-sharing and devolution, for human rights legislation and for many other developments—including, obviously, decommissioning and reform of the police service. In itself it cannot deliver peace, but it provides the preconditions for the achievement of peace. It basically constitutes conflict management, but if the conflict is to be resolved it is necessary to address the underlying institutionalised sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

We agree, then, with the Good Friday agreement. My suggestions and observations relate partly to it, and partly to other ideas that we would like the Government to take seriously. First, let me point out that the Good Friday agreement itself institutionalises sectarianism. By referring repeatedly to two communities, it implies that the objective is to get those two communities to live in peace. I suggest that the objective is actually to get Northern Ireland to regard itself as one diverse community living in peace. That would be more productive—quite apart from the fact that talk of two communities tends to exclude those who do not see themselves as naturally falling into one camp or the other. There is certainly an opportunity for reform in that context, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government will consider seriously how to take sectarianism out of the agreement.

Secondly, there is a great need for symmetry. The Government have sometimes been shaky on that. For democrats here who take the process seriously, one of the greatest strains is imposed when they feel that there has been a unilateral agreement with one side or the other. I would cite what looks like a unilateral agreement involving "on-the-runs" as a rather badly managed example. As far as I can tell, the Prime Minister probably exceeded his brief in terms of maintaining symmetry, thus creating a poisoned chalice that has been bouncing around in our debates over since word came out from Weston Park that there seemed to be some kind of agreement.

Symmetry works, but the apparent absence of symmetry does not and that simply makes it more difficult for those who feel hard done by to maintain support within their communities. That is one of the great strains on the Unionist side at the moment.

Transparency is important. When people say that there is no plan B, no one believes them. There is always a plan B in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dodds: There is always an alternative.

Lembit Öpik: There is always an alternative. Although we may disagree about the alternatives, it is naive of the Government to say that there is only one route forward, not least because that disfranchises those who, for perfectly respectable reasons, take a different view. The Government are more likely to include all sides if they acknowledge that there is more than one way forward and that we are discussing which is the best. Transparency will come if the Government acknowledge that and are willing to open the door even to those groups and individuals with whom they disagree. That takes place much of the time, but some groups, particularly those who are sceptical about the agreement, have been excluded. That has not helped the process as whole.

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Decommissioning needs to occur, but the issue must be kept in context. It is easy to use decommissioning as a means of barring progress. Let us remember the symbolic importance of decommissioning and recognise that what has already happened is quite significant. To that extent, it is disingenuous for us always to call for full decommissioning as the precondition for progress. Full decommissioning must occur, but it is likely to take place in parallel with progress.

It is important that there is a greater flexibility in the Government's handling of legislation when everyone but a Minister agrees on something. On more than one occasion, time has been wasted in the House because the Government have not shown flexibility in a debate or taken on ideas that are evidently common sense and shared by a cross-section, from nationalist through to loyalist representatives.

I am an optimist with regard to Northern Ireland. The Orange Order deserves nothing but the highest praise for its handling of Drumcree this year. That is an example of responsible management in what could have been a very difficult and fractious occasion. By the same token, today's statement by the IRA is strategically important. It does not go all the way to saying that the war is over, but it goes a long way towards having the kind of tone that we need to hear from the IRA if people are to become more confident about its true intent.

It takes courage, cool judgment, symmetry and time to achieve peace in a region that has been troubled not for 30 but for hundreds of years. All of us want the same peace, but we argue about the process. Although I have criticisms of the Conservatives' position, I do not question the sincerity of their commitment to the peace process as a whole. I am glad that they have chosen to allocate their time to this debate, because all views need to be heard. We leave it to the public to draw conclusions about with whom they agree.

I pay credit to the many people on both sides of the House who take the peace process seriously. They have invested an enormous amount of time and resources and have taken personal risks. I would like to think that, in a couple of years, we will have a further debate in which we can celebrate the mutual contribution of all and move on to other matters with regard to Northern Ireland.

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