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The Prime Minister: I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words.

This is a clear agreement--a deal. For the nationalist and republican communities, there has to be justice and equality. There has to be an end to discrimination. There has to be a genuine sense of sharing power and responsibility. In return, however, once that full ripening of democracy comes about, all people clearly have to give up the notion that violence can be run alongside the ballot box. From now on, people have to make a choice. The next few weeks are the moment of choice for Northern Ireland. People have to decide whether they are prepared, in return for justice and equality, to forswear the use of violence for ever. I hope that they make that choice.

Our relations with the Irish Government offer an opportunity to provide a way forward. The Irish Government and Prime Minister are entirely sincere in

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wanting to make sure that violence and the gun are taken out of the politics of Ireland for ever. We should work with them to ensure that that is so.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): If there is any delay in disarming and decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries, who would not necessarily be adversely affected by that decision, would General de Chastelain have any latitude in the certificates that he gives to others whose behaviour might be affected?

The Prime Minister: No. The obligations stand alone for each group. Each of them has a responsibility to decommission, and for one to say that it would not decommission would give no excuse to others. Everyone has the same obligation, and the penalties can be exacted accordingly.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I congratulate the Prime Minister on his determination and perseverance in the inevitably complex pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland. While the achievements of the Good Friday agreement necessarily focus on the saving of lives, does he agree that it is important to note openings for increased standards of living for the people of Northern Ireland that are emerging from the new east-west trade routes developed as a result of the agreement? In particular, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, the Northern Ireland CBI and the north-west development agency are developing links at present.

In view of the overwhelming importance of saving life, increasing living standards and establishing normality of life for the people of Northern Ireland, does my right hon. Friend agree that the House should support his statement, and that--in and out of Parliament--we should support groups who have difficulties, rather than seeking to exacerbate the problems?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The potential for jobs, investment and improved living standards is immeasurably increased by a viable peace process. Northern Ireland has an enormous amount to offer inward investors and companies that wish to do business. People should be able to invest in Northern Ireland in the knowledge that a proper political process is under way.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): I, too, commend the Prime Minister on his diligent search for an agreement.

General de Chastelain indicated in his report that he asked the paramilitary groups and parties to respond to two questions--were they committed to disarmament within the terms of the Good Friday agreement, and when would the Government receive details of the modalities? Does the Prime Minister recall that General de Chastelain said that no response was received from either the IRA or the UDA by the 28 June deadline? Will the Prime Minister give us some insight into the discussions held since 28 June with the IRA, either by General de Chastelain or by Ministers, which have enabled him to give so much more encouraging a statement to the House today?

The Prime Minister: I think, again, that is vital to stress certain points. The right hon. Gentleman is

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absolutely right to say that de Chastelain made it clear that he could not say at present that there would be decommissioning. That is why the agreement that we have entered into is not dependent on anyone's saying that there will be decommissioning, but, in the first instance, on the paramilitaries--whether the IRA or the loyalists--giving a statement of intention to decommission, which will be followed by a declaration of satisfaction from the Independent Commission on Decommissioning that that is so.

Actions are what matter. People say that I have received great assurances from Sinn Fein or the IRA that they are about to move ahead, and I believe that the political leadership of Sinn Fein wants the process to work. But my belief is not enough, and assurances are not enough. We have constructed a process in which, unless assurances translate into deeds, people will not sit in the Executive alongside democrats. That is the important point to remember. All sorts of discussions were held last week, and all sorts of assurances given. However, we have learned often enough in Northern Ireland that we cannot pay attention simply to assurances. Unless the assurances are followed by deeds, there is no deal.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I should also like to congratulate the Prime Minister and all those involved in these strenuous negotiations. I should particularly like to congratulate the Official Unionists on what they have achieved in the past three years. If one had said three years ago that the Official Unionists had achieved the principle of consent, backed by the people of Ireland, north and south, in a referendum, it would have been difficult to believe. If one had said that there was to be a massive devolution of legislative powers to Northern Ireland, it would have been difficult to believe. Now all the IRA's armaments and other weapons may be decommissioned by next May. There are failsafes. Does the Prime Minister agree that, if the Official Unionists go along with this agreement, it will be the most miraculous negotiation that anyone has ever achieved?

The Prime Minister: It has not happened yet.

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he did as Labour Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. If we do not put this to the test, we will never know whether decommissioning would have happened. That is why it would be foolish to throw away the chance of getting the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons by May 2000. My hon. Friend is right to say that many of the issues are already resolved. The issues that have torn apart negotiations in Northern Ireland for years and years, such as the principle of consent, the idea of an Assembly, and the changes to the Irish constitution, are now resolved.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I, too, join in the tributes that have been paid to the Prime Minister for his persistence. Does not he accept that the complexities that he has painstakingly explained to the House, however well-intentioned they may be, would be wholly unnecessary if the men of violence were prepared to lay down their arms? What makes the Prime Minister suppose that, if they have genuinely given up violence but refuse to lay down their arms now, so that the Executive can commence, they will lay down their arms in days, weeks or months from now?

The Prime Minister: The simple answer to that question is, if they do not, they will not sit in the

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Executive with the Unionists. It is up to them what they do now. They have always said that they will decommission in the context of the implementation of the agreement and the establishment of the institution. Let us see it. If it does not happen, they will not sit in the Executive with the Unionists. If it does happen, we should all be grateful. We must put it to the test. We will never get out of this situation unless we finally throw down the challenge to them, put them to the test, and see whether the test is met.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I, too, join in congratulating the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State on their patience and expertise in all these negotiations, and on the prize that that offers of peace in Northern Ireland and long-term peace for all the island of Ireland. I am sure that he recognises the enormous movements that have been made by the nationalist and Unionist communities in reaching this close position in which we may get long-term peace. I am sure that he, too, wants to see a non-military Northern Ireland in the future. Were there any discussions in the past week or will there be anything in the legislation that he proposes to introduce on limiting the private ownership of licensed arms and the large number of gun clubs in Northern Ireland? Having reached a point at which decommissioning is a real possibility, we surely would not want to see a growth of private arms, which could lead to the destabilisation of a peaceful Ireland in the future.

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. The tricky issues that he raised in the latter part of his question should be resolved in the longer term. The immediate task is to establish a framework which spells out a guarantee for the parties. That guarantee will allow us to ensure that both devolution and decommissioning occur. That is the primary task.

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