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14 Apr 2003 : Column 634continued
Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): I have listened carefully to the Prime Minister's chosen and considered words in response to questions about Syria. I should like him to assure the House that not only will there be no invasion, but there will be no air strikes and no military incursions into Syria without United Nations resolutions under chapter VII.
The Prime Minister: I really do not think that I can make the situation any clearer. If the hon. Gentleman reads my words he will see that they provide all the clarity that anyone could possibly wish for.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): The Prime Minister referred earlier to terrorist groups. He also said that most of the fighting in Baghdad is with foreign irregulars. Are not those jihadists from other countries who have no right to be there? Not only are they shooting at coalition troops but they are preventing the Iraqi people from returning to any semblance of normal life.
If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider setting up a homeland security department that brings together our intelligence and security agencies and other Departments, so that the people of our country can know that the battle against terrorism will continue in a high-profile way, in their interests and in their defence?
The Prime Minister: On homeland security, I have nothing to add to the Home Secretary's remarks. As for the foreign irregulars, my hon. Friend is right to say that people have come from several countries in the region and from different parts of the worldpeople from Chechnya have been discovered. Some are among those who are carrying on the fighting, and some have been carrying on the looting. There is a lot of evidence that the flow of people into Iraq has stopped. Some of those who crossed over from Syria, for example, have returned rather bewildered by what happened to them in Iraq and the way in which the Special Republican Guard treated them. Others will stay and fight because they are fanatics. That is one of the reasons why sporadic outbursts of fighting will continue for some time to come.
The House will recall that, with great regret, we were obliged to suspend devolved government in Northern Ireland in October last year. We were left with no alternative following a series of events that gave rise to serious concerns about continuing paramilitary activity. As a result, it was evident that there had been a breakdown of trust on both sides of the community. It was also clear that an inclusive Executive on the basis set out in the agreement was not sustainable for the time being.
For six months, the two Governments have been engaged in extensive dialogue about ways of restoring trust and confidence and securing long-term peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The two Governments continue to emphasise what the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said in their joint statement on 14 October 2002: that the agreement remains the basis for political progress; that they remain committed to its full implementation; that concerns around the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means must be removed; that paramilitarism and sectarianism must end; and that there should be commitment to the full operation of the agreement and to the stability of the institutions.
The Prime Minister reiterated and developed those themes in a speech in Belfast on 17 October. He made it clear that it was now essential to complete the permanent transition to exclusively peaceful means. We had reached a crossroads, a fork in the road. Acts of completion were needed: the trust necessary for the system to work could not arise from any other foundation. The commitment to exclusively peaceful means should be real, total and permanent. If that happened, we could implement the rest of the agreement, including on normalisation, in its entirety. He also acknowledged concerns about the instability of the institutions: those, too, had to be addressed as an essential part of the way forward.
Since October, both Governments have been closely engaged with the political parties to find a basis consistent with those principles for restoring devolved government and completing implementation of the agreement. More important, the parties have increasingly engaged with each other, without the Governments present, to the same end.
Those efforts led to prolonged negotiations at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March in which the two Governments discussed drafts of proposals with the pro-agreement parties. What became clear by the conclusion of those discussions was that there was a very large degree of shared understanding between the parties on what needed to be done to set the process back on course, However, it was also clear that time was needed for reflection and discussion. The impending election, due on 1 May, would have impinged on that necessary process. We therefore asked the House to postpone the election for a period of four weeks, until 29 May.
When the President of the United States came to Hillsborough on 8 April, he, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said that the people of Northern Ireland and their leaders had a momentous opportunity to ensure that peace was strengthened and political stability secured. Since last October, there have been many hours of intensive discussions between the British and Irish Governments and the pro-agreement parties, which have led to the development of a comprehensive package of proposals. The two Governments judge these to be an excellent basis for acts of completion but, as the Prime Minister made clear at Downing street last Thursday, it is necessary to have absolute clarity about acts of completion. Without such clarity, the trust and confidence needed to restore the agreement's institutions cannot be fully rebuilt. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach therefore directed further intensive political dialogue, which has continued since last Thursday.
On 12 April, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach issued a further joint statement. They said that the two Governments were absolutely committed to upholding the agreement and were determined that it must be implemented in full. They said that all parties and groups had a collective responsibility to fulfil the promise and potential of the agreement. The House will be aware that the Provisional IRA yesterday made a statement saying that it would be passing to the two Governments a statement dealing with the status of its cessation, its future intentions, its attitude to re-engaging with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and a process of putting arms beyond use, and a third act of decommissioning. It said that it stood ready to issue this statement in due course.
I can confirm that the two Governments have received a draft statement from the Provisional IRA. The Governments have studied it with great care and have asked the IRA to clarify a number of questions arising from it. They believe that there has been progress and that the statement shows a clear desire to make the peace process work. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach continue to believe that we can move to the final implementation of the agreement if there is sufficient clarity and certainty from all sides.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve the long-term peace, stability and normality that is within reach through acts of completion. The two Governments pay tribute to the vision, dedication and courage shown by all those who have contributed to the work on acts of completion. The two Governments will continue to make every effort to bring about a basis for publishing the package of proposals, but it would not be right to publish the proposals, and they can have no status until the necessary clarity on all sides about acts of completion is in place. I recognise that the steps the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach outlined last October are indeed big steps for all the parties to make.
The Government will stand by their commitments. We will not ask anyone to surrender their legitimate aspirations. We recognise how significant are the steps that we are asking for, but the prize is huge and historicfor this and future generations. It is a prize that does not forget the past, but draws a line under it and moves on. So, I urge all concerned in this process to redouble their efforts, in order that future generations
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I start by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in letting me have an advance copy of the statement and for many opportunities for consultation over the past few weeks, which I much appreciate.
From time to time, we have had our difficulties and differences with the Government over their tactics in the last year or two, but never over our commitment to the Belfast agreement and, of course, to peace. However, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in declining to publish the two Governments' proposals in the light of the refusal of Sinn Fein-IRA to date to commit themselves irrevocably to complete decommissioning and ending the IRA as a military or paramilitary organisation he has our fullest support? Does he agree that nothing short of complete decommissioning, verified by the de Chastelain commission and as transparent as possible, will provide any solution? Otherwise, we shall simply face a series of crises over an indefinite future as each new tranche of decommissioning has to be negotiated in turn. Does he agree that it would be a fatal error to allow ourselves to become victims of such salami tactics from Sinn Fein-IRA?
Is it not the case that, under the Belfast agreement, paramilitary decommissioning should have been completed within two yearsby May 2000? Is it not therefore right that Sinn Fein-IRA should be brought to understand that they cannot continue to play games with the peace process and with the rest of the community in Northern Ireland indefinitely and with impunity? Is this not the moment when we should consider other possible approaches and will the Secretary of State discuss that aspect in particular with our Irish partners and our American allies?
Will the Secretary of State also, and for the same reason, make it absolutely clear that the concessions envisaged in the document that the two Governments remain, at this moment, willing to issue are entirely conditional and contingent, and cannot simply be left on the table indefinitely?
Pursuing the same theme, does the Secretary of State recognise that, after five years of running after Sinn Fein, the time may be approaching when we may need to plan forward to enable an Executive to operate, if necessary, without Sinn Fein if it still cannot bring itself to take the decision to turn the republican movement definitively into a genuinely and exclusively democratic and peaceful political organisation?
May I ask the Secretary of State, not for the first time I know, to remove the slightest scope for ambiguity, misunderstanding or self-delusion, especially on the part of republicans, about what is required by ceasing to use the undefined and conceivably elastic term "acts of completion" in his public and private statements? Instead, he should use the concrete terms "the completion of decommissioning" and "the end of the IRA as a military or paramilitary organisation". Would