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28 Oct 2002 : Column 566continued
Mr. Davies: It was an extraordinary coincidence, was it not? The Opposition debate in July, which had the clear and announced aim of introducing a motion to enable the Secretary of State to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive, coincided with the IRA apology. It was timed for that very moment. It could, of course, be coincidence, as could the link between this motion and the statement made by Gerry Adams over the weekend. I merely say that perhaps we should initiate more debates and put the matter to the test. Presumably, in good scientific fashion, when the correlation recurs after a certain number of experiments have been conducted, we shall be able to draw a conclusion.
We have been urging another issue on the Government for more than year. We first asked them last October to attempt to negotiate a global and comprehensive accord that is multilateral, interlinked and timetabled, which I have called a programmed process, covering the implementation of the Belfast agreement and the resolution of all other outstanding matters, including the Weston Park matters. I urge the Government once again to take on board, as they sadly have not done yet, what I said over and over again and at great length in our debate in July. No party in Northern Ireland will make a significant move unless it knows in advance what proportion of the total price to be paid that move represents, what it will get in return,
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Is my hon. Friend satisfied that even if the Government set down such a timetable they will adhere to it? He will recall that the Government said that the release of convicted prisoners from the Maze would be phased with decommissioning. They made that clear but, at the end of the day, every convicted terrorist was released before any decommissioning took place.
Mr. Davies: My hon. Friend is right. I made that point myself and we should make it over and again. The Government should never be allowed to forget it. The Belfast agreement provided that decommissioning should be completed within two years and that prisoner releases should be completed within two years. It is hard to believe that anybody could be so naive as to have delivered 100 per cent. of their side of the bargain while nothing whatever on the other side was delivered. That was not merely an error, but a fundamental error which set the Government on the wrong course, and they have been following that course ever since. Through this debate, I am trying to ensure that they get back on the right course and go forward in the right direction.
I hope that the Government have learned that their policy of unilateral concessions and turning a blind eye, or even their attempts to reach piecemeal agreements or understandings with one party or another individuallya course that immediately arouses the suspicions or opposition of otherssimply will not work.
My hon. Friend asked what guarantees there would be that, if we set a deadline, Sinn Fein or others would meet it. I have not suggested that anybody should set a unilateral deadline; I have been putting forward a multilateral and comprehensive concept. It is extremely important that everything in the package is interlinked and that everybody knows precisely who has to do what and by when.
I hope that I have made it clear that there is a fundamental conceptual difference between us and the Government on the right tactics to be pursued. Their tactics have not worked and we are in a terrible mess, so I hope that they will pay serious attention to good advice from the Opposition.
Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his argument? I thought that he was arguing that giving special status to Sinn Fein MPs was unacceptable and unsavoury, and wrong in principle. However, he also seems to be arguing that the Government's tactics of negotiating and horse trading are not being followed perfectly. The process that he describes is one of horse trading, negotiation and concession, inducements and rewards to Sinn Fein. Can he confirm that that is his argument and that there would thus be nothing wrong in principle with agreeing to what he describes as an amnesty for on-the-run
Mr. Davies: As always, I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's intervention. He is known for both his experience of Northern Ireland and his mental agility, so if anyone were able to defend the Government from the Back Benches it would be the right hon. Gentleman. I notice that the Leader of the House has been remarkably silent during all my strictures against the Government.
The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) is wrong, however. He is right to the extent that the type of comprehensive solution that I have set out involves incentives and deterrents. I am happy to agree that those concepts are involved.
The right hon. Gentleman probably knows the Belfast agreement backwardsI have tried to learn it at least forwards if not backwards during the past few monthsand there was no suggestion of special status. It was wrong to offer it because it was wrong in itself. First, it is obnoxious in principle, as I have already said, and, secondly, it was perverse. I have already explained why it was perverse: it prevented Sinn Fein from grappling with the real issue of whether it would end up taking its seats here properly.
Mr. Davies: I shall have to wind up my speech in a moment. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if he wishes to do so later, and I look forward to his contribution. He is right to say that a package approach is required, but introducing into the package an element that was not required under the agreement, such as special status, seems to have been extremely damaging from every possible point of view.
The new Labour Government have a vast majority and are protected by their army of spin doctors[Interruption.] Of course, that is the case, and the whole country knows it now. However, I am particularly sad that they chose to play fast and loose with the honour of Parliament, with the procedures of the House and with the fundamental equity that ought to exist between all Members who are elected to take their seats.
I shall end on a positive note. The Government are now embarking on at least a change of personnel, and I have sincerely welcomed the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) to the Front Bench. If, in the light of the disappointments of the past four yearsthey must be extremely disappointing to the Government privatelyand the failure of their tactics, they are prepared to reconsider and to go forward on a more realistic and robust basis, we shall be delighted to support them, and I mean that very sincerely.
I am very conscious of the accomplished act that I have to follow: my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) led Northern Ireland affairs with a very sure touch. I have admiredI am sure that many others have done so, toohis commitment, toughness and breadth of thinking, and Northern Ireland will miss the unique contribution that he was able to make. The nature of his new role as Minister without Portfolio means that the House may hear less of him for a while, although those listening to the XToday" programme may well be more fortunate.
Despite my sadness at leaving my previous job as Secretary of State for Wales, it is very good to be back among so many people in Northern Ireland's political life with whom I worked closely when the Belfast agreement was prepared. I still believe that that agreement was one of the greatest achievements of statesmanship anywhere in the world in recent years. That is not just, or even mainly, to the credit of the British and Irish Governments: the main contribution came from those in political life in Northern Ireland who worked on it, and often took great risks for it, and they deserve our admiration. Some of those people are Members of the Housethe right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). Some are members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which I profoundly hope we shall see up and running again before long. However, many in both of the governing parties in the House have also shown great breadth of vision and willingness to take risks. Without those qualities on the part of the last Prime Minister, as well as the present one, and on the part of my predecessors before and after 1997, we should not have made the strides that we have. We should have in mind their insight and their courage as we consider the motion this evening.
Of course, some political parties in Northern Ireland disagree fundamentally with aspects of that agreement. I respect their convictions, too, and I believe that they are driven by a commitment to advance Northern
I have happy memories of my encounters with those in Northern Ireland politics. I am therefore very sorry, in many ways, that on my first appearance in the House as Secretary of State the motion obliges me to disagree with a number of hon. Members, including some who would support the Belfast agreement. As the motion refers to larger questions about the circumstances that have led to the suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland, I hope that I may set out some of my impressions of those matters, of how we might move forward and of how the issue of facilities here may impact on that.
Four and a half years on from the conclusion of the agreement on Good Friday 1998, I still believe that it offers the only way forward for Northern Ireland. I believe that Northern Ireland has benefited substantially from it, and many of those benefits were delivered through the mechanism of devolved government. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford referred to the fact that mistakes have been made over the last few yearsmistakes by Governments, perhaps mistakes by the Assembly, and mistakes by politicians. The thing that I remember most vividly about Good Friday 1998probably no one in the House this afternoon was present for those negotiationswas that, when the business was concluded in the late afternoon, George Mitchell, who chaired the talks, said that the agreement had been signed but that the difficulties lay ahead, and that, inevitably, the road would be bumpy in the years following the agreement.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford also said that, in his view, the Government could have done certain things during the past four years to improve the situation. I am not saying for one minute that this Government or any Government do everything right, but I know that governing with a big majority in the House of Commonsthe biggest for many yearswas not the answer to the problems of Northern Ireland. It helped, of course, but, as far as Northern Ireland was concerned, if the agreement was to be successfulas I believe that it will bemajorities in the House of Commons did not matter. Ultimately, it does not matter what a British or Irish Government can do. With a majority of 100, or whatever it was, of course we could have passed the Belfast agreement, perhaps in a matter of weeks. We could have imposed an agreement on the people of Northern Ireland, but it would have failed miserably, as we know, and an agreement is only possible if it has support among all political parties in Northern Ireland, as far as that can be ensured.
Of course, not every party in Northern Ireland agreed with the agreement. Those who did agree, however, knew full well that, without each other, it would surely fail. That is the fundamental error in the remarks of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. He thinks that the Government or Governments can achieve that end, but we cannot. It can only be achieved through the parties, and, of course, through the endorsement of that agreement by the people of Northern Ireland in the referendum.