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28 Oct 2002 : Column 593—continued

6.39 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): This debate is not about the facilities for four Members of Parliament or the two researchers who they employ and the cost to the public purse. This is a debate about symbolism. Unfortunately, many debates about Northern Ireland, as I learned in

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my two years as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office, are about symbolism rather than reality. This is a debate to make certain people feel good: if the motion is passed, they will feel that they are not tainted by the fact that in day-to-day politics they have to deal with matters that they find unpleasant.

The debate is also symbolic because if the motion is passed, that could be interpreted to mean that we reject the concept of parity of esteem. Those who vote for Sinn Fein—many of them young people who do not support the IRA but support a political party because of its work within the communities on issues of social and economic concern—would regard it as a rejection of them.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Gapes: No, I have only four minutes.

I have no remit and am not an apologist for terrorist organisations of any kind. I was in the Standing Committee that considered the Terrorism Act 2000. I have denounced terrorism whether it comes from Hamas, loyalists or the IRA. However, we must think about the political significance of the motion. Are we saying, in effect, that the Belfast agreement is dead and that next year's Assembly elections will not take place? Are we putting up the ramparts and telling Sinn Fein that it is out of the system because it has inched grudgingly towards the political process, rejected a partitionist solution and then taken part in partitionist institutions? Are we saying that it is out of the system because its members have rejected the concept of taking a place in the Executive but have then become Ministers with responsibility for health and education? Are we saying that it is out of the system because it has moved away from its paramilitary past insufficiently, sometimes incoherently, and often not in the best way? Nevertheless, surely all right hon. and hon. Members accept—or perhaps some will not—that there has been a significant change within republicanism over the past 10 years.

If we adopt the motion today, we are effectively putting an end to all that and saying to that large constituency in Northern Irish politics—some 20 per cent. of the people—that we are no longer interested in the process of moving from violence to democracy. I believe that that would be foolish and the wrong thing to do at this time. I am not saying that the House might not change its mind, but this is not that occasion. To take such a decision would be premature; it would be subject to wrong interpretations and would set back the peace process. I hope that the House will reject the motion resoundingly.

6.43 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): This has been an important debate; it has been as much about signals, responses and judgments as about the precise nature of the agreement that the House made last December regarding access to the facilities here. I think that that is right, because the specifics of Westminster must be set within a much broader context, as all the speakers in the debate have done.

In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) was at pains to stress that we are talking about nothing more nor less

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than the judgment about how one responds to developing circumstances and, more specifically, to the situation in which concessions or gestures are made repeatedly as part of the process yet find no response. Whether it is the release of prisoners, turning a blind eye to breaches of the agreement or, as we argue in the motion, the needless offering of House space to Sinn Fein-IRA, the judgment to be made is what is the correct response when concessions are made and nothing is given in return.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new responsibilities. Some years ago, he and I spent many hours together in Standing Committees considering education legislation, and I have the greatest respect for his abilities. We all look to him to carry his new onerous responsibilities with his typical style and integrity.

The Secretary of State admitted to doubts about the current circumstances. He said that recent events had had a profoundly destabilising effect. He then went on to quote the Prime Minister—he would, wouldn't he—but in this case it was the Prime Minister's challenge to Sinn Fein-IRA and the reference to Xthe crunch". Our complaint is that there are no crunches. That is the whole point of the debate—we want to highlight the fact that the Prime Minister wants to appear decisive, talking about forks in roads and crunches, yet none of that seems to appear in what his Ministers, in their various capacities, do. We are looking for an indication, whether it has to do with what happens in the Northern Ireland Office, as it is now reconstituted, or with what the Leader of the House says in a few minutes, that the Government are looking seriously at the subtle but important interplay between concessions that are made and expectations that are raised and constantly dashed—in this case, as so often, by Sinn Fein-IRA—when nothing happens.

There is no response by the Government to the actions or inactions of Sinn Fein-IRA, only an endless succession of concessions. The one about which we are most interested today is a matter for the House. I resent suggestions from Labour Members that to bring this matter to the House of Commons is frivolous, in breach of some bipartisan approach, unnecessary or irrelevant. If the House of Commons cannot debate its own aspect of the peace process, if we cannot have a debate about the facilities that we have offered—wrongly, as we thought at the time, and even more wrongly now—what on earth can we debate? For Labour Members to suggest, not once but several times, that there is something wrong-headed about bringing this matter to the House, is something that I cannot accept.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) pointed out, the sad reality is that since we made this concession to Sinn Fein-IRA in December of last year, the situation has become worse. We have here another example of how a concession has been made by the House of Commons to Sinn Fein-IRA and not only have we had nothing in return but there has been a material worsening of circumstances. We are not talking about giving in yet again, turning the other cheek or a blind eye and expecting that to induce Sinn Fein-IRA to behave better. That is what Labour Members have suggested throughout the debate. We do not believe that that approach has worked or will work, because there is no evidence that that is the case. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to come forward with a

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different approach. In his admirable opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford took care to suggest that there was an alternative approach, that we have given thought to it and that we have ideas on the matter. Ours is not simply a negative response, but it is one that we feel honour bound and duty bound to make. We ask the new Secretary of State to examine what his predecessors have done since he was last in the Northern Ireland Office and to make his own judgment, with the benefit of hindsight, on what response there has been to this seemingly endless series of concessions.

What kind of signal do we at Westminster want to give the electorate, the people of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein-IRA and the other political parties in Northern Ireland? That is what we are most concerned with today. As Her Majesty's Official Opposition, we have initiated this debate because we believe that it is the right thing to do. What response can we give? Do we turn yet another blind eye? Do we turn yet another other cheek? Will we give yet another concession to Sinn Fein-IRA, only to find that the situation gets worse and there is no response? Labour Members and the Government seem to be arguing that this is a one-way street.

That simply will not do. It is not good enough. It is not an appropriate response. We have run out of other cheeks—if I may put it in that way.

Our challenge to the Government, to Ministers and to the House is that we should ask ourselves whether that approach is honest and will work. Although we opposed access, if someone could have demonstrated that the concession the House made last December had brought positive effects, I have no doubt that we should have taken a very different attitude and I doubt that my hon. Friends would have felt the need to table the motion. However, sadly, one can only conclude and report that what the House did in what it—or rather Labour Members—saw at the time as a spirit of generosity has been met with repeated slaps in the face.

There has been a negative response to the concession that has been made, so for once it is time to say that we feel it right to withdraw that concession and to give a different signal. That is the proper response at this stage. I hope that when Members vote in a few minutes, they will reflect on that point and will be prepared to take that sort of attitude rather than merely continuing to take the same stance.

I hope that Labour Members, the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State will accept the motion in the spirit in which we offer it. I hope that we shall hear no more from Labour Members to the effect that we are wasting everybody's time, that to hold political debates in the House of Commons is inappropriate and that, for goodness sake, to be partisan is positively passé. A few us still like a bit of partisanship every now and then, but we did not table the motion in that spirit. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford set out the argument carefully and responsibly and I hope that, in that spirit, Labour Members will consider our comments and respond to them. I retain the forlorn hope that, even now, we may have persuaded the Government and the Leader of the House of our case.

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6.52 pm

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