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10.20 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): One thing achieved by the vote by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) to give Sinn Fein MPs their peculiar and unique status here was our ability to receive an e-mail from [email protected] containing an IRA statement 50 minutes before the embargo. That is at least one bonus.

I believe that the tone of the debate has entirely vindicated the Opposition's decision to devote our last Supply day before the recess to this important issue, and to a process that has now reached a serious stage. Let me briefly dispose of the least serious contribution, that of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). He failed to deal with any of the hard questions, and

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continued his efforts to be misleading about the Conservative position. He really must become serious, and his party must address the hard questions without seeking to avoid them as its members did in voting for Sinn Fein membership of the House, when there were 14 votes in favour, 14 against and 24 abstentions. I will remind the hon. Gentleman of that for as long as he continues to misrepresent the Conservative position.

The Secretary of State was right to draw attention to the contradictory signals that are emerging in regard to events in Northern Ireland—some good, some bad. He also told us, however, that the real test lay in the fact that the transition must continue. He mentioned the four elements identified by Richard Haass. I particularly endorse what he said about the requirement for leadership, strength and courage on the part of all involved in the process, to condition their own communities and help take them towards peace.

The Secretary of State spoke of risk aversion. All too often, the tactics of Her Majesty's Government have seemed to be risk aversion—doing whatever is necessary to keep the process going. Now, however, we are hearing much more robust language from both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, which I welcome. There should be no halfway house. The difficult questions must be faced now, and rights and responsibilities must be exercised in full.

Notwithstanding that language from the Secretary of State, there was equivocation when he hid behind the issue of devolved power. Ultimately, he cannot expect the SDLP to do the Government's work for them in delivering a cross-community vote—as the Assembly is currently made up—to take Sinn Fein out of the Executive, if that is what is required if Sinn Fein does not deliver on its obligations.

Both the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) quoted the Prime Minister. I think that we can be pleased with the words the Prime Minister used today when facing questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), a Select Committee Chairman. He said "I do accept that we've reached a point where we say these things are unacceptable—that it is the right moment to reflect on this—and I hope we can do this." I have relied on my own notes rather than producing a transcript of what the Prime Minister said, but I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that his language today seemed to be entirely in line with the language that he used in 1998 at the Balmoral showground and in the House—language that has been quoted extensively by Unionist Members. The tone of the Government's approach to the debate is now correct. The seriousness with which all Members have contributed to it reflects that.

I have to say to the Secretary of State that there is now a requirement to take risks. That does not mean taking risks to court unpopularity in making further concessions. The Government may have to take a risk with the process itself, and test what Richard Haass has identified. He said that the process must be robust and resilient enough to withstand setbacks, violence and its opponents. The Government may now have to take those risks and test the words of the IRA. To use the language of the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), the IRA statement is welcome as far as it goes. However, Sinn

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Fein and the IRA are two sides of precisely the same coin, and we must take them at their word to see what their commitment to wholly peaceful means really is.

10.26 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): In the best traditions of the House, we have had a useful, lively and good-humoured debate. Several points have emerged that would command the agreement of all, or almost all, Members on both sides of the House. Given the time that I have, I hope that hon. Members will accept that I will not take interventions in my short contribution.

The first point of agreement is that the carrying forward of the peace process under the Belfast agreement must be about exclusively peaceful means. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said—hon. Members have referred to this—there is no acceptable level of violence. Indeed, the street violence of recent days is not acceptable. It is wrong, futile and must not go on if those concerned have any interest in the development of a happy and prosperous future for Northern Ireland. We will not see the development of a normal society while people resort to violence. All those involved—the rioter, the paramilitary delivering beatings and shootings to teenagers, the racketeer feathering his nest while claiming to "protect" his community—ruin lives and destroy hope.

Paramilitary violence, anything that appears to constitute preparation for such violence or the keeping of a war machine in existence are also unacceptable. There must be clear signs that the process of transition to exclusively peaceful means is advancing and is, indeed, irreversible. Anything else would be inimical to confidence. That brings me to the second point of agreement. The process must command the confidence of both communities. It was the essence of the underlying bargain embodied in the Belfast agreement that all sides would put down arms, work exclusively peacefully and work together in co-operation. All those elements must be present.

The third point that would command general agreement is that the leaderships of both communities must work for confidence and to address the concerns of the other community. The Government, and I believe the Irish Government, will do what we can, but delivering confidence is essentially within the control of the parties and their associates. I believe that the leaderships are working in that direction, but that work must go on. Recent events have caused serious questioning of the basis of trust on which the agreement depends, but the great majority of hon. Members would agree that there is no way forward other than the agreement. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) acknowledged that.

The benefits that the agreement has brought to the people of Northern Ireland have been rehearsed here and in a debate in Westminster Hall last week. I will not reiterate them, but they are fundamental. The difficulties that we face, serious as they are, must not be allowed to mask the enormous advances that have been made. We were in a much more serious position a few years ago. All those advances are at risk if the present process is not carried forward. It must therefore be for all us of to work to ensure that that happens.

There has been talk of sanctions. That is understandable. The Government realise that there must be consequences if those involved in the process are not

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all clearly set on the democratic and exclusively peaceful path. I take issue with the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson). The debate should not be about exclusion. We will have failed if anyone is excluded. We are about ensuring that the agreement works properly and that people complete the necessary transition from violence to exclusively peaceful means.

However, that is not to say that there will be no sanctions. Our approach is not passive. If violence continues, there are bound to be consequences. That is what we will consider in the coming days, but there is no point in being punitive for the sake of it. Our purpose has to be to change behaviour, building on the great advances that have been made.

I am aware of the sense of hopelessness in some areas. I see it regularly when I receive deputations not just from the Unionist community, but from people on all sides, especially those who live with and experience the difficulties in Northern Ireland. I acknowledge that in some instances there are poor material prospects, and that some people feel that their identity and place in the UK are under threat, but those fears are unfounded. However, it behoves us—the Government, the devolved authorities, the police, local politicians and community leaders—to redouble our efforts to reduce tensions, to improve conditions and to invest in peace. When we do so, the dividend will be a more harmonious and prosperous society for all in Northern Ireland.

I wish to take issue with something that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) said. The Assets Recovery Agency will have the resources that it needs at the outset. His representation of my comments was inaccurate. Does he think that the amendments that his party supported in the House of Lords, which hamstring the Assets Recovery Agency—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings, the debate stood adjourned.


Mr. Speaker: With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

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