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Miss Widdecombe: I recognise that. My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. However, we cannot rewrite history; we must start from where we are. I am trying to address the issue in the context of where we are.

Mr. Mackinlay: I invite the House, including the right hon. Lady, to pause for a moment. I have no difficulty with the Oath, but others clearly do. It appears that we forget that mandates come from the people. I have always thought it odd that we should decide who should be eligible to represent people. Surely it is a fundamental

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point of democracy that people are entitled to choose the good, the bad, the indifferent, the republican or the monarchist--it is a matter for the people. If someone receives a mandate from the electorate, in my view he is entitled to serve in this legislature or any other to which his mandate sends him.

Miss Widdecombe: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. When hon. Members participate in running a country or in scrutinising its running, they must, first and foremost, have allegiance to that country. The Oath has solved the problem of serving two masters and the attendant conflict of interest.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The Bill does not affect the Oath and the Government have no plans to change it.

Miss Widdecombe: I recognise the phrase "have no plans"; I know it of old. I ask the Minister to go a little further. Will he give a cast iron, on-the-record guarantee that the Government will never, under any circumstances, propose or support a move to abandon or amend the Oath of Allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen?

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Lady knows perfectly well that no Parliament can bind another. That is constitutional basics.

Miss Widdecombe: I shall be happy to accept an assurance that merely binds the current Government.

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Lady will have to accept the assurance that has been given. I have clearly indicated the Government's view. The right hon. Lady may use phrases such as "have no plans" in a disingenuous or misleading way, but the Government do not.

Miss Widdecombe: The Minister has given a wonderful hostage to fortune, which we have all heard. I take it that he is not prepared to give a cast iron, on-the-record guarantee that the Government will never, under any circumstances, propose or support a move to abandon or amend the Oath of Allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. Hon. Members should note that carefully in the context of this measure and, perhaps, in others that we may consider.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I have noted the Minister's reluctance to give such a guarantee. However, given the stress that my right hon. Friend placed on the importance of the Oath as a guarantee, is she not developing a powerful case for voting against the measure on Second Reading?

Miss Widdecombe: No. My hon. Friend has been here long enough to know that Second Reading is a means of moving to further, detailed discussions of the Bill, including probing matters further and debating amendments. It would be odd to rule out further stages of the Bill.

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Mr. Simon Hughes rose--

Mr. Forth rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and then to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Mr. Hughes: The right hon. Lady's comments imply that the Conservative party believes that the rewording of the Oath should never be considered. A Member of Parliament who is not from Northern Ireland said to me the other day that the current Oath does not accommodate hon. Members who have been properly elected, but have republican views or sympathies. Does the right hon. Lady claim that those who are properly elected should be prevented from taking their places because they did not agree to, or stand on a platform of allegiance to a monarch? Such people respect monarchs, but believe that their allegiance is not to them, but to the people who elected them, and to the Parliament of the country where they were elected.

Miss Widdecombe: When we talk about "Her Majesty's Government" and "Her Majesty's Opposition", we do not use the terms lightly. They have a clear constitutional implication. I hope that all Opposition Members would oppose any suggestion of watering down the Oath of Allegiance.

Mr. Forth: Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the extraordinary parliamentary philosophy that she outlined a moment ago? Apparently, we no longer oppose Bills on Second Reading because we want to consider them later in detail. Surely it is possible--and in the case of this measure, proper--to oppose a Bill in principle when it would affect so significantly the relationship between this legislature and others.

Miss Widdecombe: I was not setting out a general principle that Second Readings should never be opposed. If a principle is overriding, Second Readings will be opposed. I am anxious to build on the developments in Northern Ireland, although not at any price--I shall discuss that in a moment--and therefore we shall not oppose Second Reading. Perhaps I can make progress with the reservations that we have about the Bill.

The Minister will be aware of the deep unease in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, which Conservative Members share, that despite moves that have been made--not least the early release of more than 300 terrorist prisoners--there has as yet been no decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by those paramilitary organisations that signed up to the Good Friday agreement. Our view, therefore, is that the Bill should not take effect unless there has been substantial and verifiable decommissioning. Our amendment--which, if selected, we shall press to a vote in Committee tomorrow--reflects that.

As part of the Mitchell review, General de Chastelain must report on progress by the end of this month. Of course, we hope and pray that he will be able to report that decommissioning by the paramilitaries has begun, but if not, and if that process is stalled, nobody should be in any doubt as to where the responsibility lies--not with the

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right hon. Member for Upper Bann or other constitutional politicians, who have done everything that has been asked of them, but with the paramilitaries and their political representatives, who have not.

Without a start to credible decommissioning, the Bill will be seen as yet another example of all take and no give by the paramilitaries. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has tabled an amendment that would ensure that the Bill, if enacted, would not come into force until there was substantial progress on decommissioning, verified by the de Chastelain commission.

Although the Republic of Ireland has not been a member of the Commonwealth since 1949, we accept that that does not detract from the fact that it has a unique historical relationship with the United Kingdom, which has been set out across the years and is explicitly recognised in legislation. Section 2(1) of the Ireland Act 1949, which was passed when the then Irish Free State declared itself a republic outside the Commonwealth, clearly says that

That has been manifested in many different ways over the years, not least the co-operation between the British and Irish Governments on Northern Ireland in recent years.

Many of the old antagonisms that used to cloud British-Irish relations have given way to a more constructive partnership. A great advantage of the Good Friday agreement is the opportunity it creates to build on that, especially now that the offensive territorial claim over Northern Ireland in the Irish constitution has at long last gone. The British-Irish agreement, which came into force last month, introduced new and closer ties throughout these islands through the British-Irish Council. Like the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, we view it as a significant development that should facilitate closer co-operation on a range of issues, without in any way undermining sovereignty.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 enabled Members of the Irish Senate to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the Minister pointed out. That dealt effectively with the situation that occurred in 1982 when the current Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland was disqualified from the then Assembly because he was serving in the Senate. That Act did not include Members of the Dail. Clause 2 of the Bill rectifies that and removes the prohibition on sitting in the Assembly that applies to members of one half of the Irish legislature. The Opposition do not oppose that, but we recognise that it is important that there is a prohibition on the appointment of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive who are also Ministers in the Government of the Irish Republic, as there clearly could be conflict of interest in the exercise of Executive power. I am grateful that the Government recognise that, too.

We believe that the Bill should go further, however, and also state that a Member of the Irish Parliament, should he be appointed a Minister, should at that point be disqualified from the Assembly and from Westminster. Therefore, we shall support the amendment to that effect in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann.

The Opposition are committed to the establishment of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement and the devolution of power to the

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Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have provided a real basis for such a lasting peace. Therefore, we shall not divide the House on Second Reading. However, I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Government to take into account the progress made on decommissioning before bringing the Bill into force, to guarantee the continuation of the Oath in its present form and to accept that Ministers of other Governments should not sit in this House.

We strongly support the Good Friday agreement, but that agreement must be implemented in full--in all its parts and by everyone. It is our strong view that all parties must fulfil all their obligations. Only when that happens can we really start to believe that the paramilitaries are truly committed to democratic and peaceful means and that a lasting peace can be established.

We shall therefore give the Bill a fair passage to its next stages, but I hope that, between now and tomorrow, when those stages commence in the House, the Minister will carefully consider what I have asked for and will respond positively.

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