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David Burnside: I seek further clarification of threat and intention. We discuss the threat of international terrorism as much as we discuss domestic terrorism. Does the Secretary of State include in threat and intention the further and greater evidence coming out of Colombia of the involvement of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein in international terrorism linked to FARC? Does he include
Dr. Reid: Any relevant factor would be taken into account by any reasonable person, and that includes the point that the hon. Gentleman made. On Second Reading, I said that the events that led to an act of decommissioning were probably much more complex than people allowed for, and they included the actions of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the events of 11 September, the long-term commitment that was made by the Sinn Fein leadership, which perhaps did not affect the timing but was one of the elements and we should not dismiss it, the attitudes of the British Government, the Irish Government and the United States Administration, and the world context. These are complex matters.
I understand the passions that dates and deadlines arouse, but we should not assume that, by declaring a deadline, we are putting in our hands a weapon that forces others to take actions, or that if used irrespective of circumstances will always help us to achieve the end objective. That is the point that I was making before I gave way to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).
Mr. Robinson: Could the Secretary of State tell the people in the "cold house" in Northern Ireland how it is that the assessment of risk lowers when the Provisional IRA carries out a non-specified act of decommissioning, but its failure to take that any further does not have a contrary effect on the threat to decommissioning?
Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman is an intelligent man, and he will understand that the Provisional IRA has carried out an act that is unprecedented in Irish historynot just in the history of Northern Ireland, but in Irish history, with the exception of a number of pikes that were handed over in 1798. Any reasonable, intelligent person must take that into account when assessing the intention of the people with whom one is dealing.
The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, if there is no continuation of the process that has begun, people may make an adverse judgment. Of course people may make such a judgment, but we should not assume that, by setting a deadline, especially within a time frame that allows us to debate it every year, we can predict with precision the multifaceted complexity of the political decisions that we may have to take six months, nine months or, for heaven's sake, two and a half years down the road.
Conservative Members have a particular view on deadlines, whereas the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists have a deeper, practical understanding of the difficulties, which is also exhibited by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). If the deadlines had worked as effectively as we were led to believe by speeches today, and if they had had to be imposed as rigorously as was implied, we would never have taken the peace process beyond May 2000. That was the deadline, and no Opposition Member suggested what we might have done in May 2000.
When we passed that deadline there was another deadline, in June 2001and when we passed that there was another deadline, as it happened, imposed by the resignation of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. After six weeks, the whole Assembly would have fallen. There was then another deadline, because I suspended the Assembly. I do not think that creating the illusion that deadlines of themselves, especially if publicly declared, are always helpful, and constitute tablets of stone that will be observed by everyoneincluding the IRA and the loyalistsis being entirely honest with those who support the current process.
Some Members have suggested that, in continuing to provide the legislative framework within which decommissioning can take place, we are somehow sending a signal to paramilitary organisations that they need not decommissionthat we are making decommissioning less rather than more likely. On the contrary, we are sending the signal that we will place no obstacles in the way of decommissioning, that there is no excuse for prevarication, and that in striving to ensure full implementation of the Belfast agreementincluding the putting beyond use of all paramilitary weaponswe will not be found wanting.
I think many Members have missed the point that I just made. If deadlines had been strictly maintained, the act of decommissioning in October last year, historic though it waswhatever questions have been asked about it, I think everyone accepts that it was historiccould not have taken place. At the June, or May, deadline, action would have been taken that would have made it impossible, subsequently, for the IRA to decommission.
We all agree that pressure must be maintained if full decommissioning is to be achieved. I think that pressure, and dedication, must also be maintained if we are to bring stability to the Northern Ireland Assemblyif we are to go beyond just the legislation of human rights, and encourage people to adopt the culture. There is much debate about the level of military presence at any given stage. Of course pressure is involved in all those contexts. We in Government can play our part in maintaining it by, among other things, demonstrating our good faith to the international community.
I do not believe that the process that has been caricatured today as a one-way process of concessions has been anything of the kind. I do not believe that only one side of the community has benefited from the acceptance of the principle of consent regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. I do not see that as a concession to the Unionists; it is a basic principle of democracy for all the people of Northern Ireland.
I do not accept that the abrogation of the territorial claim to the north by the Irish Government was a concession to Unionists. It was a recognition of the democratic decision and will of the people of Northern Ireland. Nor do I accept that the introduction of human rights, or equality of opportunity, is a concession to the republicans. It is the basis for a modern, decent, democratic society, as is inclusive government.
When we do these things, we do things that are good in themselves; butthis is the main point in the context of tonight's debatewe also do things that enable us, through recognition of the rectitude and legitimacy of our efforts to secure a decent, civilised, normal, peaceful Northern Ireland, to extend our own legitimacy in the eyes
Mr. Donaldson: I thank the Secretary of State for his good wishes, and I am sure that he could find ways of making 2002 a very happy year for me and for the people whom I represent, in Lisburn in particular. If he believes the point that he is making, will he elaborate on why in a recent speech he said that there was a danger that Northern Ireland would become a "cold house" for Unionists?
Dr. Reid: If the Deputy Speaker does not rule me out of order, I did not say that it was a "cold house", which was implied by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). I said that we must not allow it to become one. There is a danger of that. Sometimes, there is a natural assumption outside Northern Ireland in the international community that, in a period of change from conflict to peace, with all its difficulties, the people who by definition must have the greatest difficulty are the minority population. I was trying to make the point that that is not necessarily the case. There are equal difficulties for those among the majority population in Northern Ireland, who have to come to terms with issues concerning their own identity, and with not only agreeing and discussing but sitting in government with those who have been their enemies for so long and engaged in terrorism. Those are huge difficulties that no one in the international community should fail to recognise.
I hope, although the hon. Member for Belfast, East may not agree, that I, fellow Ministers and others try to recognise that. From the response, it appears that we do not always get it right but I was trying to raise the issue. I read all the responses, some of which were by him and his colleagues. I hope that the fact that we raised the issue was a measure of our recognition of a problem that had to be addressed. In deference to Mr. Deputy Speaker, who is giving me the gimlet eye, I will go no further down that road tonight.
Many hon. Members seemed to miss the points that I made earlier. I admit that I was not here for the whole debate because of difficulties in north Belfast. I would like to have been here and I apologise to the House for that, but while I was here and listening, I hardly heard any Opposition Member mention loyalist decommissioning. I do not notice people saying, "Yes, we did."