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7.55 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I shall be brief. All hon. Members must welcome steps towards peace--several hon. Members have spoken about that--but it is reasonable that people should have questions about it. I support elections and I support the agreement in principle, but we must ask whether we should look for peace at any price. It is important that we do not. If this peace agreement is to work, it must be built on firm foundations, not on sand.

Senator Mitchell should be congratulated and thanked for his work. Can the House recall his principles? I shall remind hon. Members of them. They state:

among other things--

    "the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations . . . To urge that 'punishment' killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions."

It is painfully obvious that there has been no disarmament and that punishment killings and beatings continue. We should remember that the UDP was expelled briefly from the talks because of its involvement in killings. Earlier this year, Sinn Fein was expelled from the talks for three weeks because of its association with two killings. Three weeks' expulsion from the talks for two lives seems a little cheap. Punishment beatings continue on both sides, but particularly from the IRA. The police and Ministers know that the IRA has been heavily involved in such beatings throughout the talks. Are we being honest? Are the foundations of this agreement firm?

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) started the process of discussions in 1993, we talked about decommissioning all weapons before terrorists would be admitted to the talks. That condition was then reduced to some weapons as a guarantee of good faith. No weapons have been handed in so far, and the talks have finished. We are voting today on elections in Northern Ireland. Do we expect to see weapons handed in immediately after those elections? When will the decommissioning process begin?

We have heard that IRA murderers and other prisoners will be set free. We must ask what message that sends to those who intend to continue with terrorism--because some may. We must remember that they are not political prisoners: they are criminals, gangsters, hoodlums, extortionists, racketeers and drug dealers. They are rightly

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sentenced, and every hon. Member has condemned the crimes with which they are associated. What conditions will be imposed upon them, and will they be enforced? Must weapons be surrendered before they are released?

We should mention the victims, as the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) did. Both sides--the IRA and the loyalist terrorists--are rather rich from their drug running, criminal activities, extortion, protection rackets and so on. We might expect some evidence of good faith from them: perhaps they should put some of the proceeds towards compensation. That may be a vain thought, but I voice it nevertheless.

Over the past 30 years, the peace, such as it has been, has been maintained by the security forces, both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the armed forces. I served out there with the armed forces. I do not say that the armed forces were perfect. I served with the RUC. The RUC would certainly not say that we were perfect either, because we had some pretty ding-dong battles or disagreements. I would not say that members of the RUC were perfect, but I would say that they were mostly pretty good. I would say that they were very brave. I would particularly say that the Catholics in the RUC were outstandingly brave, as they, above all others, had to move house and often suffered family separations because of their standing in the RUC.

I know that there is to be a commission on policing for Northern Ireland. I wonder why. I ask Ministers to refer to their own press notice of 7 April, which quotes from a digest of information on the Northern Ireland criminal justice system. It states:

We would all agree with that. It continues:

    "The main reason given for this by Catholic respondents was that Catholics would not join because they 'fear intimidation or attack on themselves or their relatives.'"

Why do we need a commission? We already know why there are so few Catholics in the RUC, and we regret it. That report stands by itself.

I was taught at school never to pay danegeld. There is no real and tangible movement yet by terrorist organisations. No weapons have been surrendered, and punishment beatings and murders continue. I wish the agreement well and I support elections, but if the agreement is built on sand, I fear that we may all rue the day that we pass it.

8.1 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I am mindful of the time and of the fact that under the timetable motion the vote will be taken in 12 minutes' time. I know also that the Minister wants a reasonable time to answer many of the points that have been raised in the debate, so I shall be brief.

I reiterate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). Opposition Members welcome the agreement and congratulate all those who have brought the negotiations to the present position. We believe, as the Prime Minister suggested this afternoon, that this is a stage in a process and that there is still a long way to go before we can say that the Government and all those involved have achieved a binding peace settlement.

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We were grateful for the Minister's reference to the triple lock. Can he give the House an assurance again this evening that he can foresee no circumstances in which that triple lock could be broken? If the present agreement fails, the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the British Government may consider it necessary to present other proposals that may go outside the triple lock agreement.

In his opening remarks, the Minister mentioned that this was the first of two Bills. It is our understanding that the prisoner issue requires primary legislation. Do his comments mean that the prisoner issue will be incorporated in the constitutional Bill to which he referred, which may come before the House in the next Session?

Two crucial issues were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell relating to assurances in the Prime Minister's letter, which has been placed in the Library. They primarily refer to paragraph 25 of strand 1 of the agreement, which deals with the means of removing Ministers and people in office from the assembly. The Prime Minister's letter states:

The words

    "we will support changes to these provisions"

are somewhat ambiguous. Can the Minister clarify whether legislation brought before the House, perhaps in the constitutional Bill to which he referred, could make changes to implement those ideas, and that we do not have to rely exclusively on legislation emanating from the new assembly to make those changes? The wording is ambiguous and it would help enormously if the matter could be clarified.

On decommissioning, the letter goes on to say that

Can the Minister give the House some assurance that relevant measures have started? If not, when will they start? Can we have further details about how those are being informed?

8.5 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy: With the leave of the House, I shall do my best to answer some of the points that have been made in the debate.

The shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), raised several issues. The letter to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was placed in the Library of the House this afternoon.

We will deal with decommissioning and the holding of office, which was raised by several hon. Members, in Committee later this evening. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered some points made by the Leader of the Opposition today. He referred to the fact that decommissioning is an indispensable part of the agreement. In answer to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) on the apparatus for decommissioning, there is no obstacle in the way of decommissioning. The legal technicalities are in place, the schemes in place, and it is up to the organisations that hold illegal arms to decommission them.

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This afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to the fact that the right to hold office is a matter for the assembly, within its code of conduct and Standing Orders. There are aspects of the agreement that deal specifically with that. My right hon. Friend said that he would review the matter in six months' time. I shall return to the subject later this evening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made an exceptionally powerful speech. He referred to unity of purpose within the new structures. All of us would pay tribute to him for his valuable contribution over two years in the talks.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) referred to numbers in the assembly and the electoral system. My only answer is that those issues were specifically dealt with in the agreement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently reviewing electoral fraud as a result of evidence given to her by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the forum committee, which did good work on the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) spoke of the filling of vacancies by by-elections or substitution. That, as I said earlier, is a matter for consultation with the parties. The Bill allows for the Secretary of State to take into account the result of that consultation.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) referred to decommissioning and the powers of the Secretary of State. They will be dealt with later, in Committee.

The House will agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) in condemning the recent murders that have taken place. Again, the filling of vacancies will be a matter for consultation. I agree with him on numbers and the new assembly. I also agree that the assembly will successfully fill the democratic deficit.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) raised various interesting points. I wish the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) well and hope to see him soon in the House. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the three independent chairmen did excellent work in the talks, which would not have succeeded without them. I agree, too, that the Bill is not an unimportant issue and that it paves the way for local democracy.

In a moving speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) reminded us about the victims of violence, especially in Britain but also in the rest of the United Kingdom. We all listened with great interest to the tribute that she paid to the people in her constituency.

I did not agree with anything that the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) said, but in the referendum the people of Northern Ireland will make up their minds about the matters to which he referred.

I did not agree with much that the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) said. I accept that he has lived in Northern Ireland all his life and practised there as a barrister, but it is for the women and men of Northern Ireland to decide on 22 May what they think of the agreement.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) referred to the agreement in not particularly glowing terms. I believe that he thinks sincerely that peace should come about in

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Northern Ireland, but he has some doubts about the agreement. The agreement was the work of the parties in the talks process, not only the two Governments. We have to accept that the referendum is the time that will tell.

Finally, I can assure the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) that there will be a separate Bill for the release of prisoners issue. I agree that there is a long way to go before there is a firm settlement. I agree also that, ultimately, the triple lock must be put into effect. There can be no imposition on the people of Northern Ireland, but the parties have decided, the House will decide later tonight and the referendum is to take place on 22 May. I believe that there will be a resounding yes to the agreement from the people of Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].

Further proceedings postponed, pursuant to Order [this day].

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