Previous SectionIndexHome Page

28 Oct 2002 : Column 577—continued

Mr. Murphy: Negotiations are dealt with and pressure—if that is the right term—is applied to everybody in the process in the proper way, within the terms of the process. It strikes me that the tabling of Opposition motions on the Floor of the House is not the right way of developing a peace process in Northern Ireland or anywhere else. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is the case. At the end of the day, as one of his colleagues said, for the people of Northern Ireland, the question is one of trust. How should trust be restored? I do not think that one restores trust by supporting Opposition motions in the House of Commons. The points that have been made in the debate should certainly be made, but deciding unilaterally to take a course of action outside the proper process will not necessarily mean that we arrive at the desired outcome that all of us want—the restoration not only of trust between the parties in Northern Ireland, but of peace. The combination of the two is very important.

The message that all of us who wish Northern Ireland well and want to see it advance politically need to send out is that Sinn Fein and its associates must pursue their objectives in purely constitutional ways. The resolution on facilities was passed last December as a further opportunity for them to proceed down that constitutional path. It was not an endorsement of their abstentionist policy. It would be much more satisfactory if Sinn Fein Members took a full part in the proceedings of the House, but for the present, they decline to do so. Their attitude is regrettable, but a very curious message, liable to be interpreted in a very negative sense, would be sent out if we agreed to the motion at a time when we are pressing Sinn Fein more intensely than ever before to follow constitutional ways. The motion would at least conditionally cut off an avenue to constitutional activity. I do not believe that that makes sense.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): The Secretary of State said that the motion would send a very negative sign to the nationalist-republican community and especially to IRA-Sinn Fein. What sort of sign does he think it sends to ordinary, decent pro-Union people in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: I agree that everybody in Northern Ireland wants peace and prosperity whether or not they agree with the Belfast agreement and that, of course, everybody's views must be taken into account. We must understand that. However, I return to the central point: if we want Sinn Fein and the republican movement to

28 Oct 2002 : Column 578

take a certain route, I do not believe for one second that we would improve prospects in that regard by taking away what this House granted some months ago. There are other ways in which pressure should rightly be exerted on everybody who is involved in violence in Northern Ireland, but we delude ourselves by thinking that people will look at this debate and say that taking away facilities will somehow completely change the atmosphere in Northern Ireland. Of course that will not happen.

Instead, it will send the signal that we in the House of Commons have unilaterally used the motion to go down this path when everyone knows that the only way to bring back the Assembly and to get Sinn Fein and the republican movement into the process is to go through the process that was set up by the Belfast agreement. The agreement was not formed after a couple of debates in the House of Commons or anywhere else. It happened because people in Northern Ireland voted for it and because there had been months and years of negotiations involving my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the previous Prime Minister and previous Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland of both parties. The only way to proceed is by continuing that process, not by having debates every now and again and hoping that they will change the world. It will not work like that. The only way that the process will develop is by sticking to what we have already done in the agreement and ensuring that we implement it in the fullest possible form.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Secretary of State appears to be arguing that allowing Sinn Fein-IRA to have facilities in the House of Commons is integral to the Belfast agreement. That is his argument and the whole tenor of his speech. Will he therefore tell the House, on his first outing in his new role, which particular sections and paragraphs of the agreement state that that is the case?

Mr. Murphy: That is not my argument. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would not have said what he has just said. I am saying that the only way that we can move forward in Northern Ireland is to ensure that we implement the agreement in all its forms and ensure that there are proper discussions, negotiations and talks with all the parties in Northern Ireland—and between Governments as well—so that we arrive at a settlement that would satisfy all sides. That is the only way to proceed.

The House decided some months ago to give these privileges to the Members concerned, and I do not believe that taking those privileges away today would help the peace process at all. In fact, I think that it would probably hinder it. However, this debate is not central to the peace process—far from it—and that is why I am saying what I am saying.

Mr. Waterson: The Secretary of State may be right that the debate will make not a jot of difference to what happens in Northern Ireland. However, does he not think that there is a hint of irony in the fact that one reason why it may not is that those hon. Members who might have something to contribute to the debate from

28 Oct 2002 : Column 579

their side of the argument may be in their offices watching it on television without the slightest intention of coming to the Chamber to participate?

Mr. Murphy: I do not know whether those hon. Members are watching the debate on television. However, if they are, I hope that they will take the main message in my remarks. If they commit themselves to exclusively peaceful and non-violent means and people in the republican movement understand that they have to earn the trust of those in the Unionist community—and vice versa—we will have an Assembly back in Belfast working for the benefit of all the people in Northern Ireland. That is what we want. To repeat what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we have reached the stage when we must address such issues. We cannot carry on in the way that we did in the past. What the president of Sinn Fein said at the weekend was a move in that direction, but I wait with interest to hear what he will say to me later this week.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) said, we should bear in mind another important interest group—the constituents of hon. Members who follow the policy that I have described. There are about 250,000 of them and some will have voted for Members who sit for their constituencies, and others will not have done. They should all be entitled to a proper constituency service. That was another reason why we provided last year for these facilities to be made available in the House. That reason remains as valid as ever.

I also know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House had serious concerns last December about the resolution that was approved. It was a departure for the House, and I understand why they hesitated over it. I nevertheless believe that it was the right thing to do. In my view, it has led Sinn Fein Members to more engagement with other hon. Members, and that is wholly beneficial. I am aware that a number of Members have attended open sessions that Sinn Fein Members have organised. That kind of opportunity for dialogue should not be lost.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I welcome my right hon. Friend back to the Northern Ireland Office team. Does he acknowledge that during last December's debate the point was made, and accepted by the Leader of the House and by the House itself, that any facilities that the House offered should be offered to Sinn Fein Members on exactly the same conditions—in terms of constituency work and the purposes for which office costs allowance was used—as exist for any Member of Parliament; and that, in addition, Sinn Fein Members were equally required to fulfil the obligations of the Register of Members' Interests and so on?

Mr. Murphy: I understand my hon. Friend's points. I am told that those requirements have been met.

Much though the position in Northern Ireland has improved over the years, everyone who has spoken today, whatever their point of view, understands that we are at a sensitive juncture. On the question of those who are involved in government being committed to exclusively peaceful means, we have come to what the Prime Minister described as a crunch. Unless we have such a demonstrable commitment, we risk all the progress that we have made being stalled.

28 Oct 2002 : Column 580

I come back to the Northern Ireland Office after an interval and with a determination to see the process brought to a conclusion. The Prime Minister has made clear his view about what is now needed. My first step will be to listen carefully to what all the parties have to say about the way forward. It will be very important for us to work in close consultation and partnership with the Irish Government to ensure that the implementation of the agreement continues and that the obstacles to an early restoration of the devolved institutions are removed.

The motion before us is not likely to speed us towards that objective. Indeed, I think that it would take us in the opposite direction. I believe, therefore, that the House should reject it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page