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Mr. Robert McCartney: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He states, by implication, that he believes that the Prime Minister's letter of assurance to the leader of the Ulster Unionist party has no value, and that, once Sinn Fein is admitted, it will never be expelled for failing to commence and carry through a process of decommissioning.

Mr. Mallon: I did not receive a letter from the Prime Minister, and, to be honest, I am not greatly impressed by letters from Prime Ministers--not that I have much experience of them. Moreover, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) does not show me the letters that he receives from Prime Ministers.

Like Sir Patrick Mayhew, I believe that decommissioning will happen, and that it will happen voluntarily or not at all. It will happen not through exclusion, but through inclusion. It will come about as a result of the political process at every level working on those involved and on the entire community.

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We must face the fact that the community we represent is unique--it has suffered very deeply. It will arrive at a point at which it will not tolerate the holding of arms, not through exclusivity or because people are made into martyrs, but through the proper working of the political process.

Mr. William Ross: The hon. Gentleman clearly has not seen the letter that was sent to my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). Would he mind if I read it to him, so that he could give his view? It said:

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I would certainly object to the hon. Gentleman reading the letter.

Mr. Mallon: I shall consult the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) after the debate, and read the letter then. I shall not be surprised if I do not totally understand it, but I shall be surprised if the hon. Gentleman does. I shall be very surprised if the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), who might understand it, can explain it to those who do not, because I can imagine the way in which it is drafted. I do not say that in a pejorative sense.

I say about the agreement in its totality: let us tell it as it is, not put a spin on it and sell it as a great Unionist or nationalist victory, because it is no such thing. Let us not sell it as a means of getting decommissioning before the assembly is set up, because that will not happen.

There is something wider, deeper and more fundamental at stake: something that takes us right down into the next century. Anyone with a feel for Irish history--Unionist or nationalist--knows that the terms of the amendment would never solve the problem. I ask hon. Members to repeat to the Government and to the Opposition: do not be conned or forced into another Washington 3, because that could undo all the work that has been done, without getting anywhere near solving the problem of decommissioning.

Mr. Beggs: Is the hon. Gentleman confirming by his observations that all the references to decommissioning and the Mitchell principles, which gave hope to all the wishful thinkers who are being induced to support the agreement, were a con to bring us to this stage, and that there was never really any intention to insist on decommissioning?

Mr. Mallon: I cannot speak for Senator Mitchell or for the people in the international commission. I give my own view, which is that decommissioning will not be achieved through an approach such as that embodied in the amendment. I believe that it will happen when there are certain convergences of different factors.

I am talking not about a united Ireland, but about a time long before that happens. I hope that I am right in prejudging that it will happen. The convergence of certain factors and sets of circumstances can lead to decommissioning, but any other approach will prevent it. Not only will the argument be lost; the gains that could come out of the agreement will be lost with it.

Mr. MacKay: The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) uncharacteristically and, I trust,

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inadvertently, slightly misled the House. I want to put the record straight and to reconfirm what the Prime Minister said at Question Time and what I said on Second Reading.

We have asked the Minister to consider the fact that when the major constitutional Bill to set up the assembly--as opposed to the current Bill, which provides for the shadow assembly and the elections--comes before the House, we will want a clause that says that no Members of the Assembly can be appointed Ministers if the paramilitaries that they are associated with have not substantially decommissioned or have resorted to violence in any shape or form.

That is very different from what is in the amendment. I want to put the record absolutely straight so there is no possible misunderstanding.

Mr. Thompson: I support the amendment. As far as I can detect from what the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said, he agrees with the amendment in principle--indeed, he might agree with it in substance--but, because he feels that it would not be carried out in practice, he will not support it. If one believes something in principle, one should carry it out. If the SDLP uses that type of reasoning and argument, it will find that another party will swallow it up because it will tell the electorate that it is the party that gets results. Members of the SDLP should be careful in going down that road.

10.30 pm

I, too, am sceptical about whether the Government will accept the amendment. They may talk piously of giving up arms, decommissioning and all the rest, but, as far as I can discover, they cannot accept the amendment because it would mean that Sinn Fein would not get into the assembly and that is the deal that has been made to get Sinn Fein in. All the high-falutin' principle and the rest about decommissioning and using peaceful means is merely rhetoric and means nothing.

Surely we have learnt that of the six Mitchell principles, which were followed more in the breach than in their observance. Even while those who had accepted the principles were in the talks, the organisations that they were associated with were carrying out beatings and murders. Only when they were caught were the representatives excluded. The idea that the Mitchell principles--even though they had been signed up to--were in any way effective is nonsense.

The hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who spoke for the Opposition, does not, as far as I can see, yet understand the nature of the new assembly. While the Bill deals with the assembly in its first stage, the conditions and rules will also apply when it becomes active. The idea that we will have a new constitutional Bill that will change everything that we have here is not real. It will not then be possible to table and make amendments on decommissioning, so this amendment is right and proper.

Surely those who enter the democratic system must eschew violence. They must forget about it, give it up and agree to abide only by democratic means. If they are not prepared to agree to that obligation, they should not be allowed to enter the assembly. I support the amendment.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): The amendment is entirely consistent with the position that the Conservative

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Government adopted. The Downing street declaration, which launched the process, was an urge for inclusive dialogue, but it was conditional on two points: first, the acceptance of the principle of consent and, secondly, an unequivocal commitment to exclusively peaceful means--the renunciation of violence. Over the past five years, that position was somewhat re-presented through the Mitchell paper and the Mitchell principles but the Conservative Government remained committed to decommissioning in parallel with the dialogue. That has not materialised. The position that we defended in government is consistent with the amendment. The Bill could allow participation in the assembly at executive level of people who have not unequivocally rejected violence.

Mr. Paul Murphy: This has been an interesting debate. No hon. Member supports violence or disagrees that the Mitchell principles, which lay at the base of the talks that have taken place during the past two years, are the proper foundation for a democratic society in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, but there has been little reference, except by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), to why we are here this evening. We are here because of the agreement.

The Bill is based on an agreement. The agreement was made on Good Friday, but it had been in preparation for many months--indeed, years. Of course it is important that decommissioning is an indispensable part of the process. It would be a travesty if there were a return to violence and those responsible for it were Ministers in an administration. Everyone accepts that, but how do we ensure that those matters are addressed by the assembly? Today, we are dealing with the assembly, how it will discipline itself, and how its Ministers, if they went back to violence, would be dealt with.

Page 10 of the agreement deals with the pledge of office. For example, Ministers would have to pledge their

Page 7 states:

    "An individual may be removed from office following a decision of the Assembly taken on a cross-community basis, if (s)he loses the confidence of the Assembly".

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