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7.30 pm

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I want to focus my remarks on amendment No. 10 and new clause 1. Before I do so, I should like to commend the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on her speech. It is a pleasure, in a serious debate such as this, to be able to say to someone on the other side of the Committee that I agree with virtually every word that she said. I agreed not only with what she said but with the significance that she attached to clause 1, the qualification for serving in the House and the amendments that might affect that. I hope that she will not mind my saying that I also greatly admired the fineness and sharpness of her stiletto. In fact, it was so fine that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland still does not realise that he is bleeding.

The fact that amendment No. 10 and new clause 1 are on the amendment paper tells us something of significance about the Bill. Earlier, Mr. Martin reproached me for a question that I put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I asked why the amendments to this clause had been put to the Committee today in such a rush after yesterday's Second Reading. I offered him a choice of answer: either that this was complete happenstance--the business managers had nothing better to do so they dreamed up a Bill that had no relation to anything and thought they would take up a couple of days of our time with it--or that the measure related to the Belfast agreement.

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It is significant that all the amendments, which have been tabled and accepted as legitimate, relate to the agreement. They all relate to the process. It is clear--not only from Hansard, as my right hon. Friend pointed out--that the House authorities have no view on the merits of amendments, they rule only on the acceptability of amendments in the context of the Bill. That is what we are discussing.

In that light, the speech of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich becomes even more important. She rightly pointed out that the debate is about qualification for serving in the House. That is an issue of fundamental importance, which goes far beyond whether a couple of Sinn Fein politicians--or even a couple of IRA or loyalist paramilitary politicians--are eligible to serve in this place, or whether that is desirable. Clause 1 carries far wider ramifications than that.

The first point that I make to the Government is that the amendments all set the context for the debate as to qualification for service in the House. The Minister would do the Committee a considerable service, and would lessen the contempt that the people of Northern Ireland will feel about the way in which the Government are proceeding, if--as his hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said--he was a little more open with us as to the background to clause 1 and the amendments.

Mr. Oaten: Is it not because the Bill has wider implications, which go beyond Sinn Fein and Ireland, that it is somewhat unwise to link it to decommissioning issues? The Bill should stand alone.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: The hon. Gentleman is right in so far as clause 1 deals with a non-specific issue; it adds Ireland to several countries that are affected by the disqualification provisions--Commonwealth countries and so on. In that narrow sense, he has a point. However, I hope that he will not take it amiss when I point out that those of us who are operating in the real world understand what clause 1 and the amendments are about.

Clause 1 and the amendments that have already been accepted put the Bill in the context of the agreement--in the context of decommissioning and of terrorism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who has temporarily left the Committee, and the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) pointed out. Although the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) is technically correct, the rest of us are debating the real issue that lies behind the amendments.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Reference has been made to other countries. The Americans do not allow people in, even on a visitor's visa, if they have a murder conviction. Can we possibly imagine that we should allow people--even those from Commonwealth countries--to stand for Parliament if they had such a record? The intervention of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) was not relevant.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I suspect that I should get on the wrong side of Mr. Lord were I to develop the hon. Gentleman's point, although it is a good one, which the whole Committee will understand.

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I want to draw the Committee's attention to two aspects of amendment No. 10 and new clause 1: conditionality and progress on decommissioning. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is no longer in the Chamber, because it was not clear to me that there was as much difference between his view and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) as he thought. In the context of the agreement, decommissioning is the outward and visible sign of an inner grace. It is a demonstration of the fact that a renunciation of terrorism has taken place--or that there is a willingness to move away from it over time.

I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell as expressed in the phrasing of amendment No. 10 and new clause 1. I suspect that, had the roles been reversed and the Conservatives were in government, we might or might not have introduced the Bill. However, we are not debating the principle of the Bill; we are debating its substance, line by line. It has received its Second Reading. Given the Government's majority, it will become law. We are considering whether we can improve it.

That was the approach, with which I agree, taken by my right hon. Friend in his introductory remarks. He put his finger on two issues in the amendments that would make the Bill better. The first is progress on decommissioning. All of us--especially those who have been Members of Parliament for some time and, in particular, those of us who have had the privilege of serving in Northern Ireland--understand that the Belfast agreement was a deal. It was a deal endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland and that gave legitimacy to those right hon. and hon. Members who bought into it, despite our reservations about one or other aspect of the agreement. However, the legitimacy derived from the referendum told us that we had to buy into the deal.

As is shown in relation to amendment No. 10 and new clause 1, part of that deal related to decommissioning. If we consider the other issues in the deal, we find that progress has been made on all of them, with the one exception of decommissioning. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell said that the Unionist community had given and given, but that no one else had given anything in their direction. I do not want to pursue that line of thought, although I share his perception.

Progress, which would have been inconceivable to many people a few years ago, has been made on the whole agreement, except on that one issue. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have had the pleasure of exchanging views on other matters, but he is not helping the Committee or--far more important--the people of Northern Ireland by maintaining that the Bill has no significance to the deal that was done in Belfast.

It is not helpful for the Committee to get into a debate tonight about the definition of decommissioning. However, I tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell that, like him, I was recently in Belfast, and I was deeply worried to hear the latest Sinn Fein lie on decommissioning, which runs something like this: "We are not using the weapons. That is decommissioning". It is not, and to make substantial progress against a

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background of Sinn Fein saying, "We will not use them any more and that is substantial progress on decommissioning" is to treat people with contempt.

Mr. MacKay indicated assent.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's assurance that he would not countenance that definition of decommissioning. Were he to countenance it, he would lose the support of all Conservative Back Benchers in the process.

Mr. MacKay: I confirm that I share my right hon. Friend's disgust that Sinn Fein-IRA representatives are now simply saying that the fact that they are not killing or maiming many people with their guns is a form of decommissioning. That is not decommissioning as defined in legislation. More important, that is not decommissioning as defined by any reasonable, civilised person, and it certainly would not be acceptable to us or, I trust, to the Government.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I am not in the least surprised, but I am reassured by what my right hon. Friend says. I know that Conservative Back Benchers will share that perception, but we need to hear that the Government also share it. The amendments concern substantial progress in decommissioning. Their importance, in the context of the clause, is that they affect the qualification for serving in the House.

My second point concerns conditionality. I have at least the virtue of being consistent. From day one--as the Minister, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and my right hon. and hon. Friends know--whatever reservations I might have had, I gave my support to the agreement. I have not wavered from that view. I have made it clear from time to time that I felt as much anger and distaste as did others, when I saw flocks of people being let out of jail, but I always gave the agreement my support, because it was a deal.

The Minister's problem, and the reason why these two amendments would introduce conditionality, is that there is a growing view in this country and in Northern Ireland--I hope that the Minister will not take it unkindly if I put it this way--that the political judgment of Ministers is now itself starting to undermine the agreement. There are those who simply do not understand why a more cautious approach was not taken to the release of prisoners, with conditionality built in, requiring response before the next step was taken. Any expert on conflict resolution or negotiation anywhere in the world could have told Ministers that the way that they are proceeding is precisely the wrong way to deliver the deal at the end.

As recently as last Wednesday, I was the first--perhaps the only--Member to raise conditionality with the Secretary of State in the context of his statement about reforms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I said that reforms were manifestly necessary but I invited him to make the name change conditional. I was not greatly encouraged by his response, but he did not flatly say no, and I shall hang on to that, bearing it in mind that even he is not planning to implement the measures until the end of next year. A lot can happen between now and the end of next year.

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