Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. George Howarth: If the hon. Gentleman will contain his impatience, I shall speak later in the debate and deal with the points that have been raised.

Mr. Cash: Will the Minister answer my specific question? Does he countenance on behalf of the Government the attendance in this place of those who are elected to the House but who are not prepared to renounce terrorism, although their track record clearly shows that they were interested in pursuing terrorism as a means of achieving change? Will he, please, answer that question? He has indicated a quarter of the answer, but will he now answer it?

Mr. Howarth: I shall answer it in my own time and in my own way.

Mr. Cash: I shall leave it at that. We shall have to wait until we hear the Minister's reply. However, the fact is that the Government are not prepared to state quite clearly that anyone who is elected to the House but not prepared to renounce terrorism will not be able to take his or her seat.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): My hon. Friend will know that the Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), has clearly said that he believes that the House should have the same level of security as the Northern Ireland Assembly--where, at least

25 Jan 2000 : Column 206

supposedly, those who sit have said that they have forsaken any type of violence and believe in democracy. Does my hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members are right to insist that the Government should include in the Bill at least that safeguard, if not any other?

Mr. Cash: Yes. I am also very grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, which were absolutely to the very point of the debate.

The Opposition spokesman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), has raised the decommissioning issue. However I say this to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) with great respect--at the heart of the issue is not merely a technical matter about bunkers or about whether we will make sufficient or substantial progress on decommissioning. Although that is a part of the issue, the real question is whether people should be in the Northern Ireland Executive or elected to the House if they are not prepared, given their track record, to renounce terrorism. In this Bill, that is the fundamental issue facing the Committee.

Mr. MacKay: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, but I want to press him a little further on this point. It is my understanding that the Belfast agreement's requirement that violence be renounced for good means that there must be no association with a paramilitary organisation that has failed to decommission its illegally held arms and explosives. As I said earlier, every Prime Minister and Taoiseach has said that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are inextricably linked. It follows that people cannot renounce violence simply by swearing that they have renounced it if the paramilitaries with whom they are associated have failed to decommission, or have not even begun to do so. Would my hon. Friend accept that proposition?

Mr. Cash: I would certainly accept--as I have said repeatedly--that there is an absolute requirement for decommissioning in respect of the whole process, including the Belfast agreement. However, for any people with a track record of terrorism who stand for election to the Northern Ireland Assembly or this House, it would have to be clear, not only that they were associated with the process of decommissioning, but that, on behalf of their constituents, they would disavow terrorism. That is the gravamen of the amendment. It is a fundamental constitutional question about democracy.

I need not elaborate any further. I am deeply disappointed that more hon. Members are not present for this important debate, which is fundamental to the workings of our democracy. Given the history involved, and the practical realities of the present, it is disappointing that more attention is not being devoted to the matter.

I am strongly of the opinion that the Opposition should have voted against the Bill as a matter of principle yesterday. However, having said that, I look to the Government to support amendment No. 32. If they do not, they will stand condemned by their unwillingness to go along with the clear principle that people who want to become members of a legislature--whether it be the Northern Ireland Assembly or the House of Commons--cannot stand for election without disavowing terrorism.

25 Jan 2000 : Column 207

Mr. William Ross: As yesterday, the debate is more wide ranging and interesting than the Government would have wished. The questions raised by all contributors go to the heart of our democracy, and the Government have not yet given us any real answers.

We are still considering the first group of amendments selected for debate, and I am grateful for the fact that it will be possible to go beyond 10 pm tonight. I hope that we will not be confronted with a motion to guillotine discussion on this important Bill. However, I should be somewhat surprised if we were not, as I suspect that Opposition Members are prepared to carry on the debate beyond the next two and three quarter hours so that the Government will be able to hear their views as we explore the detail of the Bill.

Amendment No. 10 and new clause 1 tie implementation of the Bill to decommissioning. I shall return later in my remarks to decommissioning and what it means to any reasonable citizen in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Amendment No. 32 would exclude unreconstructed terrorists from membership of the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The degree to which some terrorists remain unreconstructed was made plain at the weekend, when we saw Mr. Adams--who should be regarded as a Member of this House--carrying the coffin of Tom McWilliams.

McWilliams was hanged in 1942 for the murder of a Roman Catholic police officer in Northern Ireland. Such murders were carried out whenever the IRA planned outbursts of violence in Northern Ireland to disrupt this country's war effort. An uncle of mine who died last year aged more than 90 was involved in work against the IRA at that time, so I know something about the period.

McWilliams belonged to the original IRA, the predecessor organisation to the Provisional IRA. The appearance at the weekend of Mr. Adams, given his role in Sinn Fein, illustrates the seamless spiritual line of violence in Irish politics that extends from long before 1942 right up to the present day. It is an unbroken line--

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Joined-up terrorism.

7.15 pm

Mr. Ross: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) for that phrase. The truth is that such people have not deserted violence. As I said yesterday, a mental reservation exists in them. They have proclaimed several times that the wording of the oaths and undertakings that they have been asked to accept was such that they were able to accept them.

That is why the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) may have been somewhat amiss in his remarks. Wording that is tight enough to tie down the IRA and their fellow travellers will be refused. Those people will not utter any words that do not allow them to justify, to themselves and their followers, what they have done. They will accept only words that allow them to continue with their violence, as and when they consider it necessary.

Amendment No. 1 would achieve two things: first, the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, and secondly, that implementation was by order of both Houses of Parliament. Those are reasonable points that

25 Jan 2000 : Column 208

need to be accepted. All the tests set out in this group of amendments are reasonable tests of commitment to democracy.

How can armed terrorists be allowed into government? That is what has happened in Northern Ireland. The people involved are still armed. Anyone who thinks that they have deserted violence and are no longer tied to the IRA should have been disabused by the funeral at the weekend.

Those people's grip on their weapons is a public declaration that they believe in the power of weapons. They are wedded to the belief that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. It is not so much that they distrust the path of peace and democracy, but that they despise it. As de Valera once said, the majority have no right to be wrong--the corollary, of course, being that anyone who disagrees with the majority is wrong. De Valera changed his path eventually, but I suspect that he never changed his mind.

Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman suggested that I might have been remiss in respect of aspects of my amendment No. 32. However, the question of mental reservation would not arise if it were accepted, as it specifies explicitly that people would have to disavow terrorism, as defined by the Terrorism Bill currently being considered in Committee, so people would not be able to engage in a mental reservation. Is not that suggestion reasonable?

Mr. Ross: The hon. Gentleman's proposal uses language that is much stronger than that of any of the undertakings or commitments that the people about whom I speak have had to give to enter the Northern Ireland Assembly, so to that extent I agree with him. He is asking that a complete disavowal of terrorism be a requirement of any person seeking election, but the phrasing of that disavowal must be a great deal stronger than what has so far been used in Northern Ireland.

The amendments under consideration vary somewhat in their approach. Amendment No. 10 and new clause 1 tie the application of the Bill to weapons, while amendment No. 32, rightly, demands visible and verbal conversion to democracy.

However, in some ways amendment No. 1 is more comprehensive, as it sets the whole of the Belfast agreement as the standard with which those who benefit from it must comply. In other words, it would require people to accept the agreement as a whole and not cherry-pick, as the term that is often used has it.

Messrs. Adams and McGuinness say that we should stick to the agreement. They mean, of course, that we should stick to their construction of the agreement, and not to that of any reasonable man. Those are two very different things. The reasonable man put his construction on the agreement at the start, so many of them voted for it and soon regretted it.

Amendment No. 1 makes the implementation of the agreement subject to the opinion of the Secretary of State and the judgment of Parliament. It says that the Secretary of State can accept that weapons are being decommissioned, and that the people who used them have been converted and are now decent, law-abiding and snow-white citizens. But, having made that judgment, the Secretary of State would, under the amendment, have to come before Parliament with an order. It would be

25 Jan 2000 : Column 209

debatable and could be considered and explored so that its spin doctoring aspects might, to some extent, disintegrate. We could consider what the agreement and the decision reached actually meant, and whether these people had changed their minds. Such an examination should be welcomed by every hon. Member. If such a detailed examination were undertaken, we would know whether there was compliance with the requirements of the Good Friday agreement.

If the amendment were accepted, the agreement should be lauded by the Government. If a genuine conversion took place, the Government, every hon. Member and everyone in Northern Ireland would rejoice. But unless such an examination, or something like it, can be carried out, I think that people in Northern Ireland and many hon. Members will be extremely suspicious.

Conservative Members should also welcome the amendment. It avoids the dangers of cherry-picking, whether that is done by the Government, by the IRA or by parties prepared to be satisfied with less than the ideal. This is a holistic approach to the problem, and I think that the Government should welcome it. They tell us that we must not cherry-pick by taking out bits and pieces of the agreement but accept it as a whole. That is what we should be applying as the real test and standard of behaviour to be observed by folk who benefit from these things. There should be no mental reservations.

Let me turn now to decommissioning. There seem to be different views about the meaning of the word. I believe that under the agreement, the weapons must be destroyed. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) told the Unionist party that decommissioning meant what we saw happen to the Loyalist Volunteer Force weapons. That was nearly 14 months ago. The LVF brought in some home-made weapons--they had some ancient rifles that looked like the stuff brought in by Lord Carson for the old Ulster Volunteer Force in the early years of the last century. Some of the weapons could still be fired, and ammunition could be obtained for them but they were not modern weapons. If the LVF was relying on that armoury, I suspect that it is not in very good military shape.

No more have been produced, but the principle was clear. The weapons were brought in and cut up in front of television cameras. It was shown on television nationwide. That is what the leader of the Unionist party has told his party members that decommissioning means to him.

There have been reports in the press that the IRA could blow up the weapons. Let us be clear what that means. We cannot blow up guns. Suppose we built a stack of them and put a lot of explosive in the middle of it--we would simply distribute them to all and sundry for half a mile in every direction. Many of them would, I suspect, still be usable after that. Guns cannot be destroyed by that method. They have to be cut up or melted down--there is no other way. Rockets and mortars can be blown up, but that is a different kettle of fish.

Furthermore, what explosive would be surrendered? We could not be satisfied with a bang in a bog, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has said. A bang in a bog could be created by a home mix--something that the IRA is expert at producing. So that is not acceptable. Such material must go to people who are

25 Jan 2000 : Column 210

professionally qualified to say whether an explosive is Semtex or another explosive. It can then be blown up, burned, or whatever.

Bullets are a particular problem. They cannot safely be crushed, for they might explode, and they cannot be burned or exploded. They must be destroyed in some other way.

Ministers have made it plain that there must be substantial decommissioning and that it must be verifiable. Nobody has yet spelt out what substantial means; I have spelt out what verifiable means to me and, I believe, to the leader of my party, to every reasonable man and woman in the House and to the people of Northern Ireland. Given that we only have until May, the first tranche is unlikely to consist of half a dozen rusty revolvers or weapons that have been used to commit murder or other acts of violence. "Substantial" will mean many hundreds of weapons--large quantities of them--and hundredweights, possibly tonnes, of Semtex and other explosive.

The question has been posed time and again: who asked for the Bill, and why the rush? Who did the Government discuss it with? Is it related to the request or suggestion of members of Sinn Fein that Northern Ireland Members be allowed to sit in the Dail? We know that such a suggestion has been made--there is reference to it in the excellent documentation on the Bill produced by the Library. What would that mean? Is it not an effort by Sinn Fein-IRA to get a measure of condominium or joint authority in a more visible form over Northern Ireland? Is that what underlies the Bill? We deserve to be told; the longer these discussions continue, the more suspicious I become.

I can see no real reason for the Bill. There is certainly no urgency about it, yet it is being rushed through before we have time to ask the questions that need to be asked.

Next Section

IndexHome Page