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6.2 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): I should like to start my limited contribution by echoing the sentiments of many on the Opposition Benches about the programming of the Bill. It is extraordinary that the Government should introduce legislation with a guillotine timetable, which will necessarily result in our having no time for any scrutiny or considered reflection. The Government would perhaps be more credible if they were as swift and determined to condemn and penalise parties and individuals who repeatedly violate the terms and spirit of the Belfast agreement as they are in trying to get this Bill through the House in just one day.

I suspect that, in all fairness, the Secretary of State is under considerable pressure from the Irish Government as well as the Prime Minister. We are all aware of the logjam of Government Bills in the other place. The

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Secretary of State no doubt wishes to get the Bill through the House to concentrate on the November election for a restored Assembly. Crucially, the Government believe that the creation of the monitoring commission will go a long way towards allaying the fears of the Unionist community, which has become increasingly disillusioned with the Government's repeated concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA. To many, that is exactly how recent history post the Belfast agreement appears.

The Secretary of State referred this afternoon to an absence of satisfactory commitments to end paramilitary activity. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy)—I was in the Standing Committee last week—recently reiterated that acts of completion were needed before the Assembly elections are held. The great majority in all parts of the House agree with both statements. However, many feel that the carrot and stick have not been applied equally in enforcing the Belfast agreement. Many perceive the concessions made at Weston Park in 2001 and the concessions on the dismantling of watchtowers made at Hillsborough in March, with no movement by republicans in return, to be part of a continuing and depressing pattern.

Let us not forget that decommissioning was meant to have been completed by May 2000. Yet here we are three years later—three years during which we have witnessed Colombia, Florida, Castlereagh and Stormontgate. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) on 13 April this year, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree confirmed that there had been three acts of decommissioning carried out by paramilitary organisations—one by the Loyalist Volunteer Force and two by the Provisional IRA.

On 27 April Gerry Adams stated that the IRA was willing to decommission all its arms and ensure that there was complete and final closure to the conflict. However, his careful phraseology drew the proper response from the Prime Minister that he was being extremely ambiguous on the future of paramilitary organisations. That ambiguity remains.

I fully support the principle of excluding any party or parties in breach of their responsibilities. It is worth noting that, despite what the Liberal Democrat spokesman said, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) initiated the proposal last July. Had he been listened to at that time, we would probably never have had to dissolve the Assembly, and all that ensued thereafter could have been avoided. As a result of the Government's decision at that time, all parties suffered equally, as did the peace process itself.

I support the establishment of the monitoring commission. When it was first suggested, it met with strong resistance, not least from the Secretary of State's predecessor the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), but Downing street waded in, and as we now know, the matter once again gained prominence at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March this year. The terms of reference for the commission are clear. Important points such as strand 1 reserved matters, which relate purely to the two British members, are useful and important.

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Other equally important points are less clear, as has been pointed out by Baroness Park in the other place. Where will the commission get its information from? What powers will it have to obtain information from the British and Irish security services? What will its relationship be with the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and with the Garda Siochana? How much will it all cost? Where will it be based and how will it be staffed? Will it have access to the ongoing work of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Organised Crime Task Force? As we discussed this afternoon, will it be able to investigate past and current alleged violations of the agreement?

The only body with which we can compare the new body is the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning under General de Chastelain, but what has that body achieved? That commission operates in such secrecy that it is difficult to know whether it has achieved anything of significance. We are asked to take too much on trust, and stonewalled when we ask what terms such as "significant" and "verifiable" mean. If the monitoring commission is to have any credibility, it must operate in a more open manner. We must be able to see that progress is being made, that intimidation is stopping, that exiles are being allowed to return and live in peace, and that paramilitaries have ceased both fundraising and stockpiling arms.

The Government themselves must now take more responsibility for their actions. They cannot continue to set up commissions and abrogate decision making to them. That is why the official Opposition believe that the Secretary of State himself must have the power and ability to exercise his judgment and prerogative to make an exclusion with or without a recommendation from the commission. Anything else would tie his hands and represent an abdication of his responsibility as Secretary of State.

I concede that Northern Ireland is mercifully a safer place today than before the Belfast agreement, but abuses continue daily, adversely affecting the lives of thousands of wholly innocent people. If we read the papers any day, we will see that that is the case. Only yesterday, The Irish Times contained reports about intimidation of members of the police commission and about a death threat to a Catholic priest made by a so-called loyalist paramilitary group. There was also a report about the dinner that is to be held in Donegal on Friday to commemorate Maze escapees, which the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) mentioned. I earnestly hope that, as we speak, the Chief Constable is in talks with his opposite number in the Garda to ensure that any on-the-runs who turn up are arrested.

That is everyday news in a Northern Ireland that is still suffering abuse at the hands of a limited number of people with disruptive agendas of their own. Like my party, I shall always support any measure to combat that continuing menace. If a reformed Assembly is the goal of this Government, it must not be achieved at the cost of principle. The Belfast agreement committed all participants to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. Both the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the new monitoring commission have their part to play in

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enforcing the agreement. Ultimately, however, it is the Secretary of State who must take responsibility for ensuring that anyone violating the Belfast agreement will be excluded from the democratic process in Northern Ireland.

6.12 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Perhaps you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will give me latitude by allowing me to put on record at the commencement of my speech my condolences and those of my colleagues to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). I trust that his colleague can pass those condolences on. His wife died this week and I think that anybody who has been with him and his wife will know that theirs was a very warm and loving relationship. Indeed, it was a lifelong relationship, which makes the cloud all the darker for him.

Many in Northern Ireland, or at least those who have studied the Bill, will consider it an odious, unnecessary and loathsome measure that demonstrates two key Government failures. It also attempts to achieve the impossible and prop up the failed agreement. The first Government failure is their admission that, until this moment, they have been unwilling to act on their own behalf or take the necessary powers enabling them to act in order to do their duty by expelling those who have corrupted the political process in Northern Ireland through their involvement in ongoing terrorism. In introducing the Bill, the Government want to share their inertia with others.

The second Government failure that the Bill demonstrates is that, instead of dealing with those who wish to be at the same time Ministers and members of the army council of the IRA by isolating them and excluding them from the Executive, they seek to link and equate those terrorists with democrats who refuse to partner them in government. I suspect that, in another more enlightened age in society, those who refused to get into bed with the representatives of unrepentant and active terrorism would be applauded and supported by their Government—but not here, and certainly not by this Government. Indeed, the Bill even offers the same range and level of penalties against democrats as against terrorists.

Let me deal first with the origins of the Bill. Reference has been made to the Belfast agreement, which referred to how the Assembly might deal with those who were in breach of the requirement for using exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The paragraph in question appears under that dealing with executive authority and says:

On a first reading of that section of the Belfast agreement, it was clear that it would never work. From the moment we read the agreement, we warned the people of Northern Ireland not only that it would not work, but that it was intended not to do so. It was a device to create a pretence that tough action would be taken against terrorism, yet the ability to take such action was not allowed for in the agreement or subsequent provisions contained in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

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Indeed, the 1998 Act contained an additional provision ensuring that, if the Secretary of State was of the opinion that people had been in breach of their anti-violence pledge, he could submit a resolution to that effect and require it to be debated in the Assembly. Interestingly, in the five years when IRA activity was ongoing and we saw the catalogue of incidents that has been mentioned, not once did the Secretary of State, past or present, make any move to ensure that Assembly met to consider breaches of that pledge.

When we made it clear to the people of Northern Ireland that the exclusion provision would not be workable, we did so on the basis of never contemplating the possibility that the SDLP would be prepared to stand up and exclude its colleagues in Sinn Fein. It was clear to all but the most politically pubescent that a veto would be used by nationalists to ensure that IRA-Sinn Fein were not expelled, no matter what they did, and that no act, no matter how vile or wicked, would irritate the SDLP sufficiently to lead it to exclude IRA-Sinn Fein.

The evidence is there for all to see. Gun running from Florida did not make the SDLP take action, and nor was the murder of more than 20 people by the Provisional IRA enough to do it. The Provisional IRA shot more than 200 people, but that still was not enough to prompt the SDLP to act. More than 350 paramilitary beatings took place, but even that did not cause it to take action. The exiling of the IRA's opponents took place, but no action was taken. Even training in Colombia, the raiding of Castlereagh and spying at Stormont did not provoke the SDLP sufficiently.

I cannot imagine that even the most depraved, murderous act that it would have been possible for the Provisional IRA to commit would have provoked the SDLP to vote Sinn Fein-IRA out of office. What I consider even worse is the fact that nothing they did was enough to force the Government to take action against them. The Government knew that the IRA was in breach of the agreement, but could not bring themselves to say as much. So what did they do? They punished everyone. Rather than putting the provos out, they suspended the whole Assembly. Now what do they do? They produce this Bill, in which once again they attempt to pull others into the provos' net. They equate the behaviour of terrorists with the function of Government to decide the appropriate level of security for Northern Ireland. The Provisional IRA's security level is to be equated with what is described as normalisation—or, in provospeak, British demilitarisation.

In addition, those who will consider whether the IRA is fit for government will seek to punish the unblinkered democrats who have concluded that Sinn Fein-IRA are not fit to be a partner in government, and who therefore refuse to sit with them in the Executive. The Government have sunk to the level of accepting terrorists as bona fide politicians, so they intend to force others to stoop to their position or else be punished for having the principle and courage to resist.

As for the scaled-down punishments in the Bill, does any Member actually believe that Sinn Fein will alter its position by one iota because it has been threatened with a fine? My colleagues and I passed on our ministerial salaries so that no hardship would fall to us. At no stage while I was a Minister would the threat of fines have influenced any action I took. These lesser punishments

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are being placed in the Bill to serve as a pretence that action is being taken while terrorists remain in government.

Let me say this to the Government. If I refuse to sit on an Executive with Sinn Fein and the House considers that to be an offence that should be punished, my colleagues and I will happily bear that punishment; but to suggest that if I refuse to sit on an Executive with Sinn Fein-IRA all the members of my Assembly party should have their salaries stopped for two years is absurd, and probably does not comply with the European convention on human rights.

Why are these things in the Bill? Why do the Government now want to punish those of us who acted as Ministers but refused to partner Sinn Fein-IRA? Not once did a motion to exclude us come before the Assembly. Our modus operandi never caused a crisis in the Assembly. No Secretary of State ever suspended the Assembly because we had taken a particular position. No one claimed that we did not fulfil our responsibilities to the whole community effectively and fairly. Indeed, it was quite the opposite: three Secretaries of State, in the House and outside, have praised the work that we did. Let me set modesty aside, and remind the House that frequently—and almost universally—the press described my colleagues and me as the best Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. But now the Government want to punish us. Why?

The answer is simple. Indeed, it was given by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). The Government cannot bring themselves to tackle Sinn Fein-IRA in isolation; they require balance. There is no Unionist terrorist capable of getting into Government who can be excluded from the Executive or fined, so a democrat who refuses to bow the knee will do just fine. As the right hon. Gentleman says, we are the next best thing. The Government have to find someone whom they can balance with Sinn Fein-IRA.

Breaches in the pledge of office will be easy to identify, and it will be easy for any monitoring body to consider them and reach a conclusion. That does not apply to those who breach the non-violence pledge. They work in the dark, and make their decisions behind closed doors. Under the Bill, they will even be able to argue that the decision in question was made not by the leadership of the Provisional IRA, but by some maverick group. They will be able to jump through a plethora of loopholes—and I shall be interested to discover just how clear the monitoring body will be in tying down the Provisional IRA in relation to any particular incident.

Why, after all, should the monitoring body differ from former Secretaries of State? As the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) will recall, one of them even went to court over a case. She then had to justify the decision she had made in relation to Sinn Fein. Her defence was that, in the round, she considered that it was adhering to its ceasefire. If, despite the list of offences committed by the Provisional IRA over the past five years, the Secretary of State is not prepared to take action—if he cannot pin down the IRA—what hope have any of us that the monitoring body will do so?

The Bill is entirely unnecessary. We do not need a monitoring body to tell us when the IRA misbehaves. The Chief Constable is quite capable of informing the Secretary of State of that, and indeed has a duty to do

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so. He even tells the world publicly when the IRA misbehaves, and I am sure that the General Officer Commanding and the intelligence services will give the Secretary of State whatever advice is needed in respect of Provisional IRA members who have stepped out of line.

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