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Mr. Fallon: On a point of order, Sir Alan. If no explanation is forthcoming from the Government Front Bench as to why Second Reading and Committee are being taken so close together, can you tell the Committee whether any explanation has been given to Madam Speaker?

The Chairman: That is not a matter for the Chair.

6 pm

Mr. MacKay: Let us consider amendment No. 10, which is grouped with new clause 1. The latter was tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends and Ulster Unionist Members. A month ago, the courageous First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), made the decision to enter into an Executive with members of Sinn Fein. We considered the matter long and hard, and concluded that he was right and that, yet again, we would walk the extra mile with him to try to ensure that the process moved forward. We have always supported that process, from the Belfast agreement onwards. The Under-Secretary of State

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for Northern Ireland will willingly confirm that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) started the process, and was ably abetted by Lord Mayhew and my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is in his place.

There were signs before Christmas that Sinn Fein-IRA would at last fulfil its obligations under the Belfast agreement. I use the phrase "Sinn Fein-IRA" correctly because successive Prime Ministers and Taoiseachs have stated that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are inextricably linked and one and the same; they are two sides of the same coin. There were signs that Sinn Fein-IRA would decommission its illegally held arms and explosives by May 2000. That hope was shared, perhaps naively, by me and others. The majority of Members of Parliament supported the Government and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann as First Minister of the Executive that was being set up.

All hon. Members in every party in the House are democrats. We all believe that it is unsatisfactory for Ministers to run part of the United Kingdom when they remain inextricably linked with men of violence who have failed to end their violence for good or fulfil their obligations under the Belfast agreement to decommission any of their illegally held arms and explosives. Not one gun or one ounce of Semtex has been handed in by any of the paramilitaries--republican and so-called loyalist--whose political associates signed the Belfast agreement.

It would not be right in our free society for the two Sinn Fein Members of the Assembly who are Ministers respectively for Education and for Health to retain those Executive positions without substantial decommissioning. I therefore support what the Secretary of State and the First Minister have said repeatedly: early decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives must take place. Most reasonable people believe that that must happen this month, which ends next Monday, or shortly thereafter.

Sadly, having met a wide variety of people in the Province during a four-day visit, which concluded on Sunday, I can report that few people believe that Sinn Fein-IRA will fulfil its obligations and decommission. I hope and pray that they are wrong, because it is in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland that decommissioning occurs, and that the Executive is able to continue to run much of Northern Ireland. The politicians whom the people of Northern Ireland elected should be responsible for much of the running of their Province. That is healthy and helpful, and we wish to encourage it. The people of Northern Ireland would dearly like to continue with that process.

Amendment No. 10 and new clause 1 show that we have absolute faith in General de Chastelain and the commission. It is for him, not--with the greatest respect--for you, Sir Alan, or me or the Under-Secretary to decide whether decommissioning has taken place. If the general, when he reports on Friday or Monday, reports that there has been no decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by the Provisional IRA, the Secretary of State has no choice but to do that which he has promised the House and the people of Northern Ireland: he must suspend the Executive until progress has been made.

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Conservative Members believe passionately that, in such dire and sad circumstances, it is up to the Secretary of State to suspend the Executive. It should not be left to the First Minister and his Unionist colleagues to resign and thus close down the Executive.

Mr. William Ross: The right hon. Gentleman said a moment ago that Conservative Members relied totally on General de Chastelain. It may well be possible to rely on the general's words, but how can we rely on any construction that the Government's spin doctors might put on them?

Mr. MacKay: The general is obliged to report by the end of the month. When he does that, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and other hon. Members will study his words carefully, and we shall take no notice of whatever spin is put on them by those who wish to influence events. I know the general, and I believe that his report will be clear and succinct and not open to various interpretations.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I do not know the general, but I am sure that he is an excellent man. Everything that I have heard about him is good. However, there is currently an idea that, instead of being destroyed or surrendered, weapons will be kept in bunkers in which terrorist organisations place them, where they will be permanently out of their reach. How can any intact weapons, in bunkers whose location is known to terrorist organisations, be permanently out of their reach? Perhaps my right hon. Friend can enlighten me.

Mr. MacKay: If I answered that point in too much detail, I would be trespassing on your good nature, Sir Alan. However, I shall respond briefly to my hon. Friend, who takes a deep interest in such matters. He is joint vice-chair of the Conservative Northern Ireland Committee.

Successive Governments have used the word "decommissioning" rather than destroying or surrendering. I am not too fussed about the way in which weapons and explosives are decommissioned as long as it happens. It does not matter whether they are destroyed, handed in or left in sealed containers, provided that General de Chastelain and his staff can police them at all times.

Mr. Fallon rose--

Mr. MacKay: I will certainly give way but first I want to clarify our position for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). Where I have great criticism of the paramilitaries, republican and so-called loyalists, is that not one gun or ounce of Semtex has been handed in. I want substantial progress towards the decommissioning of all illegally held arms and explosives by the appointed day in May this year. So far, we have seen no progress whatsoever. That is what really counts.

Mr. Fallon: The word "decommissioning" is used in my hon. Friend's amendment, so I am sure that he is right

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to explain at length what is meant by it. Is my right hon. Friend saying that putting weapons in a sealed container is decommissioning? If so, can he say the purpose for which those weapons could possibly be needed?

Mr. MacKay: The word "decommissioning" is not only used in the amendments but was used in the Belfast agreement and all the legislation that came from it. I am sure that successive Governments have been right to define that process as decommissioning. I am anxious to ensure that weapons are decommissioned--taken out of commission. Whether they are taken out of commission by being destroyed or are retained in a sealed container that is properly policed is secondary to ensuring that they are all decommissioned. We want them all decommissioned by the said date in May. That is essential.

Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend knows well that the Bill is about a proposed change to an aspect of our constitutional arrangements that many of us believe is of fundamental importance--allowing aliens to enter the House. Given that he believes that such a change could properly be brought about provided the words in the amendment are fulfilled, does he not think it reasonable to be more than fully satisfied that the meaning of the words "decommissioning" and "substantial progress" are positive, reassuring and provide a guarantee such as we would require before allowing aliens into the House?

Mr. MacKay: My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which is why I have discussed decommissioning at some length and am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Blaby and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) for pressing me to define "decommissioning" more fully.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone) rose--

Mr. MacKay: I have not completely answered my right hon. Friend and know that he will want me so to do. It is vital, as decommissioning goes to the heart of the amendment and new clause, not only to debate the merits of decommissioning but to take a look at where we are on decommissioning and how it relates to the Executive. Vital, crucial days lie ahead for the Province. Every law-abiding person in both communities is hoping and praying that there will be substantial decommissioning so that the process and the Executive can proceed. That is the crucial test.

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