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Mr. Robert McCartney: Does the Minister agree that there is nothing in the agreement that refers to parties? It refers only to individual Ministers. The undertakings and pledges are personal. As the hon. Member for Derry said--[Laughter.] As Gilbert and Sullivan said, it is innocent merriment. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, nothing in the agreement requires anything other than an individual to give the pledge or be removed. Unless a Minister has been apprehended, or involved in some act of violence, or has personally commissioned or authorised some act of violence, he cannot be removed. The Minister agreed that the talks would be parallel with decommissioning and that when agreement was achieved there would be some practical demonstration of the commencement of decommissioning. That has not occurred.

Mr. Murphy: Yes, and my experience of politicians in Northern Ireland tells me that when the assembly is set

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up and when the code of conduct is debated during the months of preparation for when the assembly takes over the functions of the Northern Ireland Departments, there will be much debate in that chamber about the nature of the pledge of office, the code of conduct that Ministers must sign, and the points that the hon. and learned Gentleman has just made. For that matter, during the past few months--once here in London and once in Dublin--individuals and parties were expelled from the talks on the basis of what occurred.

I repeat that the agreement that was reached by the Governments and the parties in the talks refers to the issues that have been raised in the debate today. Of course it does; they are important matters. If the assembly is to mean anything, it must have control over how it conducts itself when it takes over the full functions that it is entitled to take over under the agreement and under the major constitutional Bill that we shall consider later this spring and in the summer.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister went into some detail this afternoon in response to a question from the Leader of the Opposition. For example, he has said that if during the first six months of the shadow assembly or the assembly the provisions have been shown to be ineffective, the Government will support changes to those provisions to enable them to be made properly effective. I am happy to repeat that commitment tonight.

It seems to me that that is more than straightforward and satisfactory. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that we will support such changes, but, at the end of the day, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh said, the establishment of trust and confidence among parties in the assembly after the election is the only way in which peace will come to Northern Ireland and political stability can be achieved. There is no other way, and we have to ensure that it is within the assembly that the changes occur. However, we will watch it with great interest as the weeks go by.

Mr. William Ross: The Minister has just repeated yet again the very careful language in the letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), which says that the Government will support changes to the provisions. Supporting changes is not making changes to the provisions. The support will not be effective because all the other parties involved in the agreement will have to go along with the change, and they will not.

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was talking about reshuffles earlier. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to disagree with the Prime Minister this evening. The issue is pretty clear. With your permission, Mr. Martin, I shall read the hon. Gentleman a passage from the agreement. The assembly that we are setting up tonight in shadow form and the later assembly that will be established in the major Bill later


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    That applies to shadow Ministers and Ministers when they take office. It cannot be clearer than that.

Mr. Thompson: Why will the Government not say that they will make rather than support changes? Does that not confirm our view that in this agreement the British Government have conceded to a large extent their absolute sovereignty over that part of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Murphy: In the agreement that has been forged and the debate this evening, it is not a question of the British, Irish or any other Government imposing anything on the people of Northern Ireland. The purpose of the agreement is in the nature of the word--it is an agreement made between Governments and parties. That is why we are discussing these matters. Obviously, we have a concern, because we are the Government in Northern Ireland, but the whole purpose of tonight is to ensure that the government of Northern Ireland is in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. I have confidence that they will be able to manage the process.

Mr. Peter Robinson: This has been a useful debate. It has been illuminating in many ways. The Minister has shot himself in the foot--indeed, with his most recent remarks, he has shot himself in the kneecap.

The Minister made two vital errors. The first was to say that the expulsion of the UDP and Sinn Fein from the talks process compares with what would happen under the agreement. The forum legislation--the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Act 1996--makes it abundantly clear that it is the parties that have to keep the Mitchell principles and that if they do not do that, the members of the party are to be put out. That provision tied the behaviour of the organisation itself and those with whom it associated, but on this occasion the parties and their organisations are not included; only the individual is tied. That is the smoking-gun scenario: a Minister must be caught with a smoking gun in his hand to be put out of the Government or out of the assembly. The condition applies not to the party but only to the individual. There is no requirement to decommission; nor is there a requirement for the party to be in ceasefire mode. That is the reality and it was the Minister's first error.

10.45 pm

The second error was to say that this is an agreement and therefore that it is not up to the Minister to give the assurances that have been asked for. That is precisely our point: there are little pieces of paper floating around with the Prime Minister's signature on them, but although the Prime Minister is a mighty man in the House of Commons, he is only one party to a multi-party agreement and is therefore not capable of changing the agreement unilaterally--he simply cannot do it. Even if there were some meaning to the piece of paper--there is not--it can be read in at least three ways. Even if there were some meaning to it, it simply would not affect the agreement.

As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said, he never got a copy of the letter, so he is not bound by it; nor are any of the other parties, because they have not even seen it. They did not need to see it, because it does not affect the agreement that was reached. On 22 May, people will not be asked to say yes to the agreement plus a couple of letters from the Prime

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Minister and an assurance from the Minister who is on the Front Bench tonight. They are being asked to say yes or no to this agreement alone. Those are the two vital issues with which Minister has helped us this evening.

I cannot understand the position of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). He says that the Conservative position differs greatly from that expressed in the amendments. I do not know whether he has read amendment No. 29, which seems to me to be identical to the Conservatives' position. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), who obviously has read amendment No. 29, recognises that it is precisely what the hon. Member for Bracknell was asking for earlier: conditions have to apply before anybody from the assembly will be entitled to be in government.

I would not for one minute question the desire of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh for full decommissioning--he has said nothing that is inconsistent with that desire--but I hope that he notices the counsel of despair that has brought him to the position he takes. He says that the Government have tried security measures, that they have tried punishment, that they have tried this and that they have tried that and that, because none has worked, we have to try another way, which is to reward terrorists. Because we have been unable to deal with terrorism using security measures or by imprisoning terrorists, we must allow them entry into government and open the prisons--all those rewards must be given to buy them over.

If there were any sense in that proposal, it could only be on the basis that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said--that there had been a sea change in attitude on the terrorists' part; that they had been prepared to renounce violence permanently; that they had been prepared to commit themselves exclusively to peaceful and democratic means; and that they had been prepared to make a new start. In those circumstances, the hon. Gentleman might have at least an academic argument, but the terrorists have done none of those things.

Let us consider what has happened on decommissioning. The Conservative Government said that for the IRA to be involved in talks it must decommission. As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said, that requirement was watered down at Washington 3. It was then said that the IRA had to make a start on decommissioning to show that it was on board--that it was serious about the proposal.

That requirement was wiped away. An international commission was set up. It said, "Some people want decommissioning at the start, but it will not happen. Others want it at the end. The only reasonable balance is to have some decommissioning during the talks process." On that basis, the Ulster Unionist party was prepared to sit down at the negotiating table.

It did not happen. Not one gun, not one ounce of Semtex, not one bullet, and not one detonator was decommissioned throughout the process, although it had been set up on the strict understanding that parallel decommissioning would take place--the international commission had set that condition--and now the IRA will get into government without decommissioning. We are told that voluntary decommissioning may take place, but there is no requirement for it to take place. Members of the IRA walk through a talks process without handing

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over any guns; they walk into Government without handing over any guns; and there is no requirement for decommissioning to occur.


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