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28 Oct 2002 : Column 574—continued

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Members to whom the hon. Gentleman refers made it clear in their election campaigns that they would not take up their seats. Under our constitution, the way in which we elect Members to the House means that they were elected by a majority of the people in their constituencies. There is still an onus on them to represent not only those who voted for them, but those who did not vote for them. My right hon. Friend the Leader will return to that.

As the Prime Minister made crystal clear in Belfast earlier this month, nothing other than what I have described can work. The essential trust underpinning the agreement cannot be restored unless it is clear to everyone that debate and peaceful resolution of differences is the only track being followed. With that exclusive commitment, we can make very rapid progress. Without it, the Government will do all they can to secure the continuing benefits of the agreement, but the future of the devolved institutions, and of Northern Ireland more generally, is inevitably cast into doubt.

There is of course a need for commitment. Everyone must be assured that there is a willingness to work in the institutions on a genuinely inclusive basis. Again, all parties in Northern Ireland—and all parties in this place—must leave that in no doubt. It is highly relevant to the motion that we are discussing tonight.

As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, the question of violence, and preparations for violence, is crucial. The Prime Minister has said that he believes that the leaders of Sinn Fein, who are Members of this House but have not taken their seats, want the agreement to work. From what I knew of them in the past, I am also convinced of their commitment. I believe that they have brought their movement a very long way in the cause of peace. I believe that they are dedicated to making the agreement work on a constitutional basis.

Let us not forget how far the republican movement has come in its record in making constitutional politics work in Northern Ireland. The conscientious and industrious participation of Sinn Fein Members in the Assembly and Executive in recent years could not have been imagined a few years ago, and I interpret the remarks of the president of Sinn Fein at the weekend as continuing in the same direction. It was a thoughtful and detailed speech, which merits careful consideration. I hope to discuss it with him shortly when I meet all the parties in Northern Ireland this week.

However, much that has happened in Northern Ireland in recent months has led to doubts—doubts that I entirely understand—about the commitment to exclusively peaceful means, in line with the Mitchell principles, on the part of the republican movement as a whole. There has been deplorable violence on the part of loyalist paramilitaries as well. It is one of the most acutely painful reminders of the past that we had hoped that Northern Ireland had left behind. We will make every effort to deal firmly with that violence, as we will with violence and criminality from any quarter.

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My predecessor took resolute steps, as has the new Chief Constable. That work will go on with vigour while I am Secretary of State. But there is a difference, in that the loyalist parties have not formed part of the Administration in Northern Ireland, whereas Sinn Fein has.

Activity appearing to be the work of parts of the IRA has had a profoundly destabilising effect, and we must tackle it. However, we must be clear about the extent of that activity. The context of the motion would have been different had that activity been considered a breach of the ceasefire. Both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my predecessor set out how they would deal with the question of ceasefires in their statements on 24 July. I, of course, stand behind that approach, and I will act with no less resolution.

There has been much to cause worry, and entirely understandable worry. My right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio expressed concerns about violence from paramilitary groups on all sides in Northern Ireland. He had not reached the conclusion that there had been a breach of the IRA ceasefire of 1997. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in his recent speech, we need to move beyond ceasefires to acts of completion.

The challenge that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has laid before the republican movement is to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful means. I believe that all who uphold the agreement should do all that they can now to help the republican movement to do so. I do not believe that the motion would help lead the republican movement to that further transformation.

We are asking that those within the movement who still believe that violence, or the implicit threat of violence, still has a place in the advancement of their legitimate political aims should change that position. I do not see how the withdrawal of office facilities and other associated entitlements in this place could realistically influence the paramilitaries to abandon the course of violence. I cannot for one second agree that the debate has led to what the president of Sinn Fein said during the weekend. I am sure that that is not so.

Withdrawal of the facilities that were accorded at the end of last year would give only further grounds for saying that both Parliament and the Government are unreliable, and that their word to nationalism can never be relied on. Whatever we may think of the merits of that view, it is a widespread one. [Interruption.] I shall repeat that because those who know Northern Ireland will understand that whatever we may think of its merits, it is a widespread view there. We must do all that we possibly can to neutralise such suspicions and make it clear that legitimate nationalist aspirations, like legitimate Unionist aspirations, will be allowed the fullest opportunity to advance by consent within an exclusively non-violent and democratic process.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I too welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his post as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I am interested in hearing his argument about not applying sanctions to IRA-Sinn Fein. Why did the Government take sanctions against

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the Ulster Defence Association and why did they not believe in that instance that that would not help to bring the UDA into a democratic process?

Mr. Murphy: The sanctions to which the hon. Gentleman is referring would have had an entirely different impact from the sanction that the motion would introduce. The motion would not move Sinn Fein in the direction that we want it to move. If the motion were passed, it would have exactly the opposite effect. That is my fear. In my mind, we have been left in no doubt that that would happen. That was the central thrust of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week. That is central to the full implementation of the agreement. Indeed, on entering the political talks in 1997, it committed itself to the Mitchell principles. One of Martin McGuinness's concerns was to subscribe to a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, as one of the elements derived from the Mitchell principles, in the pledge of office when he took the post of Minister of Education in Northern Ireland.

David Burnside (South Antrim): I also congratulate the Secretary of State on his new position. We have had Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen, and I look forward to the day when we will have an Ulsterman as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Then we will truly be British.

Before the right hon. Gentleman concludes his remarks, will he define what a ceasefire is? We still await the resolute action from his predecessor on defining the term. The present definition, from the Provisional IRA, is that it does not kill British soldiers or shoot members of the police force. Everything else, both nationally and internationally, is allowable. Does he accept that definition?

Mr. Murphy: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the terms were laid out in the conditions of 24 July and have been repeated over a number of years. The Secretary of State has to take into account all the difficulties that he or she might have, consider the circumstances in the round and take a decision on whether the ceasefire has been breached. The hon. Gentleman knows the conditions that must be met. My predecessor took the view that they did not apply and that the ceasefire had not been broken. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman inasmuch as I, too, look forward to the day when an Ulsterman is in charge of devolution and the Northern Ireland Assembly—the day when the right hon. Member for Upper Bann returns as First Minister.

All those who know Northern Ireland politics, including, I suspect, the authors of the motion, know how a condition of the sort that is proposed would be seen. It would be taken as a clear snub to people whom the Prime Minister and I believe are sincere in trying to bring the necessary transition to a conclusion. The fact that that transition has been too slow is not a reason for making it more difficult for the journey to be concluded. Hon. Members may protest that that is not their intention, but in the light of recent history, that is how it would appear. Both the Prime Minister and the

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Taoiseach have made it clear what steps are needed. I do not believe that the proposed declaration adds anything to them.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): The Secretary of State is arguing that it is generally right to exert pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA to observe peaceful and democratic means. In that case, why is it wrong specifically to exert pressure on them as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) proposed, by denying them facilities in this place? Why would that not exert pressure on them to use peaceful and democratic means?

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