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28 Oct 2002 : Column 580—continued

5.47 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I welcome the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) to his new appointment. As I am the longest-serving Northern Ireland spokesperson in the House, I was hoping to get the job myself and thus fulfil the dream of the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) that an Ulsterman would finally be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, I bear the right hon. Gentleman no malice and look forward to continuing the close and constructive working relationship that he and I enjoyed when he was Secretary of State for Wales.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), who is now Minister without Portfolio and chairman of the Labour party. No doubt, his experiences in conflict resolution as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be barely adequate to the task he faces in his new role.

It is clear both from this afternoon's debate and from previous debates that Sinn Fein having access to the facilities of the House is a highly sensitive question and one that has caused division in all the major parties represented here today. It is easy to understand why the pressures have grown recently, given the dramatic television pictures of the police raids on Sinn Fein's offices in the Assembly and the subsequent suspension of the devolved institutions. The arrest of a Sinn Fein member of staff at the Assembly and the accusations of an informer in the Northern Ireland Office have brought the process, which was already under massive strain, to near breaking point. However, I remind the House that those pressures have been building for 12 months and that they have always been present. To draw short-term conclusions from what is simply another step in a long-term process is therefore rather inappropriate.

Little more than a month ago, some two weeks prior to the police raids on Sinn Fein's offices in Stormont, the collapse of the Assembly appeared to be inevitable because the First Minister, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), had already promised his party's ruling council that he would pull Ulster Unionist Ministers out of the Executive if the IRA had not disbanded by January. Now let us be clear about this. It is inappropriate for the Conservatives to suggest in their motion regarding Sinn Fein Members' access to the facilities of the House that the recent activities of Sinn Fein—or a breach by it of the ceasefire—have directly, specifically and unilaterally led to the suspension.

This is not the first time that we have discussed these matters, nor is it the first time that some parties have sought to gain political capital out of a difficult

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situation. Last November, after much negotiation, the Assembly met to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister. More than 70 per cent. of MLAs voted for the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and Mark Durkan but, because of the divisive voting system in the Assembly, they were not elected. A few days later, the vote was repeated, with a similar number of MLAs voting as they had done before. This time, the vote was carried because some members of the anti-sectarian Alliance party pretended to be sectarian to maintain a framework within which everyone has declared that we hope to build a non-sectarian society.

So we are discussing today a series of difficulties that are not that different from what we have observed before. It comes as little surprise to me that the strains have come to the fore, but it is somewhat disappointing that the question of access to facilities in this House is being tied into a strategy for long-term gain when what is under discussion today is a tactical question.

The political crisis in Stormont has been brewing against a backdrop of continuing violence across Northern Ireland. There is no question about that, and I agree with what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said. He is right to suggest that a number of people in Northern Ireland have not experienced a peace dividend and still suffer punishment beatings and the underlying levels of violence that they would have expected or hoped to cease by now on account of the Good Friday agreement four years ago. Ordinary and decent citizens who support the agreement are fed up with the daily toll of stone throwing, graffiti painting, sectarian intimidation and pipe bombs.

However, in considering the access to facilities and how to move forward, we must remember that various parts of the community that have been involved in violence in the past are still involved in violence. There are loyalist elements in Northern Ireland who are doing every bit as much to destabilise parts of Northern Ireland as republican paramilitaries.

It is in that context that I want to focus on what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said in moving the motion. It is rare that I find myself so much at variance with the hon. Gentleman. Although I will seek to disagree with much of his argument, he is perfectly entitled to take that position, as is the Conservative party.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): That's very good of you.

Lembit Öpik: I am pleased to hear how heartened and relieved Conservative Members are that the effective Opposition in this Chamber have granted them the right to be wrong.

The argument of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford gives us the opportunity to take a cool-headed and deeper look at the true dynamics of the question of how we move forward. He suggested that, a mere 48 hours after the Conservative party had tabled the motion, the IRA had acted accordingly to move

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forward. That is fantastic and if, on that basis, 48 hours from now, similar progress can be made, a tremendous service will have been provided to the peace process. If, as the motion says,

within 48 hours, I might be tempted to join the Conservative party myself, and I have little doubt that the Secretary of State will do the same. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Perhaps that is a bridge too far in the world of hope. If it were that simple, we would have made more progress in the past.

I am concerned about the four fatal errors that the Conservative party believes the Government have made. The first is the decision to release all prisoners without conditions at the time. The second is the policy of turning a blind eye to transgressions; presumably primarily on the republican rather than the loyalist side. The third is to offer new concessions on what, by implication, was a unilateral basis. The fourth is the suspension of the Assembly, instead of the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive. I want to examine those criticisms and compare them with what the Conservatives themselves had to do in government to move forward.

Let us examine the real world of Northern Ireland politics, and the dealing, bartering and pragmatic decision making in which any Prime Minister of any party and any Northern Ireland Secretary must engage to make progress in Northern Ireland. There are four things for which the Conservatives could have been criticised up to 1997: first, the squandering of an opportunity by having talks with the IRA at a time when the IRA had not even declared a ceasefire; secondly, turning a blind eye to all the carnage of the bombing, which, thankfully, has ceased in large part, but which was going on when discussions were held at the top level of a Conservative Government with people who had in no sense renounced violence; thirdly, giving concessions to terrorists—and let us remember that the whole debate about amnesties was commissioned by a Conservative Government, not by a Labour or a Liberal Democrat one; and, fourthly, failing to suspend those talks when some particular atrocities took place and before the discussions came to public light.

Unsurprisingly, other parties who understand the need to interact responsibly in this Chamber did not condemn John Major when he took a risk by having background talks at a time when the level of violence was significantly higher than it is today in England and Northern Ireland. It is to the credit of John Major, and not his damnation, that he was willing to do that.

I find it disingenuous in the extreme that the Conservative party in 2002 is willing to condemn a Government who are making rather less dangerous decisions on negotiations with former and allegedly current paramilitaries than it did when in government six or seven years ago. My counsel to the Conservatives would be that hypocrisy is the most dangerous strategy of all to pursue in Northern Ireland. Even though the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is being perfectly sincere in what he says, the mere semblance of hypocrisy is dangerous. As the Secretary of State

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implied, what is said here can on occasion be interpreted in a damaging way among those who take a moderate line on both the Unionist and nationalist side in the discussions.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: I am happy to give way, but let me stress again that I am not seeking to score points but to make progress.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned hypocrisy several times and connected me with it, implying that I am speaking or behaving hypocritically. In other words, he assumes that I do not believe what I am saying. He knows that I have said consistently exactly the same thing about Northern Ireland and delivered exactly the same analysis and recommendations since I assumed these responsibilities. On what possible basis does he think that I do not believe what I am saying?

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