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28 Oct 2002 : Column 562—continued

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): If the rules of the House were changed so that the oath of allegiance was made, say, to our constituents, so IRA Members—or rather, Sinn Fein Members—said that they would be prepared to sit in the House, would the hon. Gentleman object to their having offices in the House of Commons then?

Mr. Davies: Of course we would not object to Sinn Fein members taking their seats on the same basis as everyone else. If for some reason the rules of the House were changed—indeed, we are to discuss certain changes in those rules tomorrow night—the changes should apply to everybody. Whatever the rules happened to be at any time, we would expect all Members who wished to take their seats, and get offices and public money, to abide by them. I should have thought that that was a pretty simple idea.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Does the hon. Gentleman nevertheless accept that those of us who take the oath do so in the belief that we come here to serve not only our constituents, but the state as well? That is the very basis on which we serve here.

Mr. Davies: Indeed. I echo entirely the hon. Lady's words, and I do not think that any difference exists

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between us in that regard. She is a very distinguished parliamentarian indeed, and she must have been as offended and concerned as the rest of us were when the Government suggested creating special status for some in this place. I should make it plain that we would not expect special status for ourselves, and we would oppose giving it to the Scottish nationalists, the Liberal Democrats or anybody else.

We hope that, in due time, Sinn Fein MPs will, just like other hon. Members, take the seats in this House for which they were duly elected. I remind the House that, for a long time, Sinn Fein had a policy of abstentionism from all democratic assemblies. In the case of the Dail in Dublin, it has overcome that inhibition; its representatives take their seats there and they play a normal part in the democratic life of the Republic of Ireland, which is how it should be. Sinn Fein also overcame that difficulty in the case of Stormont, and before the Assembly's recent suspension its representatives took their places in it. I hope that, in due time, it will overcome the problem here and Sinn Fein MPs will take their seats. But whether or not they do so, the same rules must apply at all times to all duly elected Members of this House, and on the same common basis.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman in hoping that Sinn Fein MPs will one day take their seats in this House, but how will excluding them from its facilities in the manner suggested in the motion encourage them along that path?

Mr. Davies: If I may say so, I think that the hon. Gentleman has got it precisely 180 degrees wrong. If Sinn Fein were considering overcoming its particular difficulty and changing the policy of abstentionism—as it has done in respect of the Dail and of Stormont—the Government have relieved it of that dilemma by introducing special status last December. They have made it unnecessary for Sinn Fein to take that third step.

Kevin Brennan rose—

Mr. Davies: I have just given way to the hon. Gentleman, and if he wants to intervene again he will have to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He will certainly not prevent me from finishing a point that I am glad to make, and which he has enabled me to make.

The fact is that the Government's ill-conceived decision to confer special status on Sinn Fein last December has actually released it from that dilemma; it has not had to take, or has at least been able to postpone, that decision. If we had gotten our way and that provision had not gone through, Sinn Fein would indeed have had to face that dilemma. It would have needed to decide whether there was any sincerity in its claim to want to represent its constituents' interests in this House, or in its signing of the Belfast agreement, which states explicitly that, until the matter is changed by majority opinion in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland remains a full part of the United Kingdom. Sinn Fein should therefore have no objection to taking its seats, even though, perfectly honourably and respectably, it wants—like the Social Democratic and

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Labour party—to change the position in due time. Of course, the SDLP has always pursued that objective by entirely constitutional and democratic means.

I hope that I have made it clear to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), to whom I am grateful for his intervention, that the Government have got the matter precisely 180 degrees wrong.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Can my hon. Friend confirm that one Sinn Fein MP went to the heart of the issue in pointing out that one reason why he has not taken the oath and sat as a full Member is that he regards this as Xa foreign Parliament"?

Mr. Davies: Yes, I remember that clearly, and that has been Sinn Fein's position for a very long time. If we are democrats, we have to accept a majority decision that goes against us. One would hope that, if there is any sincerity in Sinn Fein's signing up to the Belfast agreement, its representatives would accept that, for the time being and under the terms of the agreement, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and that this Parliament is not, therefore, a foreign Parliament.

They can come and take their seats here without in any way weakening that desire ultimately to change Northern Ireland's status. In that event, Northern Ireland would be part of a different country. There is no contradiction between Sinn Fein saying that its aim is to have a reunited Ireland and a separate Parliament and, in the meantime, its representatives taking their seats here. Until such time as Sinn Fein is able to persuade a majority of people in Northern Ireland, in accordance with the Belfast agreement, to vote to change Northern Ireland's status, there would be no contradiction in taking those seats, as long as Sinn Fein is prepared to abide by democratic rules and live up to the promises made in the agreement. Those two conditions go to the heart of the quandary about Sinn Fein's behaviour.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I agreed so much with what the hon. Gentleman said about terrorism a moment ago that I shall give way to him.

Mike Gapes: I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend—I call him that because we have similar views on Europe—but does he accept that the logic of his position would be much stronger if the Northern Ireland Assembly had voted to exclude Sinn Fein? His argument does not take account of the fact that the Sinn Fein members are in the same position regarding the suspension of the Assembly and, therefore—although there are reasons why it was suspended, which we can doubtless debate later—his position is premature.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman's point is slightly convoluted, but I think that I followed it. He has not followed what I have said. We have never suggested that anybody should be excluded from the Assembly in Northern Ireland; we say that they should be excluded from the Executive, and that is a different matter. The power-sharing Executive is an artificial construct—the Unionists sometimes call it an involuntary coalition—

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and people sit on it not by virtue of having received a majority of the votes in Northern Ireland but by virtue of the Belfast agreement. Therefore, if they cease to comply with the Belfast agreement, they lose that entitlement to sit on the Executive. On that basis, the exclusion of Sinn Fein would be justified by its bad behaviour, as I have outlined.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Does my hon. Friend accept that the only person being premature in this debate is the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), because his argument would mean that we would have to wait to catch Sinn Fein-IRA spying on us in this place before we could exclude them?

Mr. Davies: The evidence for the breaches that I have listed is overwhelming. The Florida gun-running episode, for example, was the subject of a determination by an American court—in other words, a legal process in a country with a recognised judicial system. Moreover, it is a country that is not known for a bias against Irish nationalism or republicanism—far from it. It is difficult to think of a more objective validation of an accusation. Similarly, the Colombian situation was the subject of a report by the international affairs committee of the House of Representatives, so it was also objectively validated. The other breaches that I listed have been subject to a determination by the Chief Constable, and all parties have accepted that.

Of course, the guilt or innocence of individuals must be determined by a court, but whether a crime has been committed is normally determined by the police. If someone burgles my house, I may have to wait some months before it is decided whether the suspect whom the police have arrested is guilty, but the fact that a burglary took place can be determined on the spot by the police. I have been rigorous when I have talked about the breaches. They happened and that cannot be denied. I would be sorry indeed if the Government were in denial about those breaches, because that would be very alarming. They are such grievous breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement that the Government should have done something about them. It was indefensible that they did not.

We lost the vote last December, but it was passed on the basis of assumptions by the Government that have proved excessively optimistic. It has now become clear that the hope of better behaviour from Irish republicanism, on which the Government were counting, has simply not materialised. We have seen all the breaches that I mentioned and we have also seen very little progress in decommissioning. However, the Leader of the House expressly said last December that we would be Xmore likely" to see more decommissioning if we granted the special status.

Of course, there has been no progress on other implementation issues in the Belfast agreement, such as Sinn Fein accepting the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The expectations that the Government were counting on—some would say naively—which the Leader of the House made explicit when he was trying to justify the unjustifiable last December, have been shown to be

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false. The Government made a major miscalculation and, in my view and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, the position should be rectified.

The motion represents a sanction, and a sanction is badly required, but the motion itself is conditional. That is a vital point. I have said that special status is not viable or acceptable in the long term, but we have a choice about when and how we end it. Under our motion, it would still be open to Sinn Fein to keep its special status for the time being—pending a global solution, when I hope that its members take up their seats in full—if it unequivocally renounces violence. That must of course mean a commitment to disband the IRA, renounce the armed struggle definitively, abolish its military structures and complete decommissioning in accordance with the agreement to the satisfaction of General de Chastelain. In other words, we have lived up to the tactics that we have consistently urged on the Government. Our sanctions are contingent and balanced, as our concessions would be. They are not unilateral and unreciprocated.

What has happened over the weekend further vindicates our approach. When we called the debate in July to press for the power of exclusion from the Executive, on the very hour of the very day that that debate was timed to start—5 o'clock in the afternoon—we had the IRA apology. This time, within 36 hours of our putting down a relatively robust motion, Gerry Adams has made his most encouraging statement yet—not excluding disbandment. [Laughter.] Perhaps it is all coincidence, or perhaps we should initiate debates on Northern Ireland more frequently, and put the matter to the test.

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