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7.45 pm

The conditionality of the amendments is not a new concept. Many of us have adhered to it from the beginning of this process, and it is precisely because tonight the prospects of progress on decommissioning do not look good, as the Minister knows, that conditionality becomes even more important.

Those of us who have taken an interest in Northern Ireland know--we do not suspect, we know--that in conjunction with the Bill, the Government planned this week to move orders to permit Sinn Fein elected representatives to make use of these facilities. We also know that the Government have shelved that plan indefinitely. Given that there is neither urgency nor emergency in respect of the Bill, the Government would have been wise to have taken a similar line, as advocated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, but two helpings of embarrassment on the same subject in the same week were probably too much. Having been a Minister, I understand that. Given that that followed a week in which the wheels kept coming off the Government's wagon, I can understand why they are forcing the Bill through tonight. However, that does not mean that the Bill cannot be improved and make some recognition of the realities of what is happening out there, and of what I learned in Belfast yesterday.

The Minister will not be inclined to accept conditionality--that was the message from the Secretary of State last week--and I understand that, but he would be well advised to do so. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell will press amendment No. 10 to a Division. If he does, I will vote with him. I tell the Minister that that vote will not be a cooling on the agreement by those who vote against him. It will be saying on the record that unless the Government look to their political judgment in these matters, we shall all find ourselves in extreme difficulty very shortly. It is right, and the role of the Opposition, seriously and carefully to warn the Government that there is a way to avoid that stigma. One way to avoid it would be to accept amendment No. 10 and new clause 1.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the opportunity to speak. I shall follow the right hon. Gentleman.

I understand the aims of those who supported the agreement, and I am not arguing about the agreement, but I believe that a dangerous situation has developed. Last week, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made it clear that those of us who had misgivings about the agreement had no right to make any comments in the House on recent developments. That was a shameful exhibition, and I hope that that theme does not re-emerge tonight. Time and again, we hear Labour Members who, rightly, are still fighting the battle of the coal mines, and it seems to me that any of us are right to keep arguing the case that we believe to be right. The average Ulsterman will not buy a pig in a poke, and wants to know what the bargain is. Some of us recognised the difficulties from the beginning.

There are those who keep arguing about decommissioning. I cannot understand how anyone in this House can be against proper decommissioning when this House legislated to decommission legally held sporting firearms throughout the nation. If we were concerned

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about that, we ought to be concerned about the decommissioning of illegal weapons in the hands of terrorists.

My sense of humour has not left me completely, and I was amused to be told by certain sources that it was being considered that the weapons would be put in concrete bunkers and sealed. Some of us thought that if those people could tunnel out of the Maze, they could tunnel into those bunkers. I understand that someone with connections to Sinn Fein-IRA has said that there will be no announcement on decommissioning because there would need to be a convention of the IRA called to announce that, and no convention has been called.

The Bill contains a statement by the Home Secretary that the Bill conforms to European legislation. We believe that the Bill must conform to the Belfast agreement. I know that our Sinn Fein opponents, in political terms, do not believe that decommissioning was in the agreement. However, even a blind man on a galloping horse could see that it was in the agreement that decommissioning must take place.

The Government would be standing by and consolidating the agreement if they came forth now and said that they were prepared to accept the amendment and that there will be no further move on this issue unless the Belfast agreement has been ratified completely. That would save a lot of hassle, and would prevent a Division. However, I can assure the House that if the amendment is divided on, those of us voting for it will be putting on record the fact that if the Government are not prepared to stand by the agreement in all its parts, we are.

Mr. Hunter: In his exchange with the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) was characteristically over-generous. One need only look at the five lines of the Bill's title to see how narrow and limited it is in its objectives. There are deeper implications, but the Bill itself is restricted.

So far, our attention has been focused on three amendments and one new clause. However, that has been sufficient to bring to light some of the many baffling and puzzling features of the Bill.

First, why is the Bill being pushed through so rapidly? Still, no answer has come to that question. Secondly, what is the need for the Bill in the first place? We have speculated on that matter during our deliberations on the amendments.

The third baffling and puzzling point--there are many more to come--came when my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) invited the Minister to state unequivocally and unambiguously that it is totally intolerable that those who have not disavowed terrorism should be in this House. There were baffling moments when the Minister declined to answer. I thought that that was an extraordinary episode--that a Minister of the Crown should hesitate and remain silent on that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone made a strong argument on amendment No. 32, which amounted to this: why should the Government not accept the proposition in the amendment? That proposition is that there is no place in a democratic Parliament for people who are terrorists. That is consistent with the spirit of the Belfast agreement,

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of which, I acknowledge, I am not a supporter--although I accept that others are. The proposition is consistent with the spirit of the agreement, and with the letter and spirit of Government policy. The Government therefore have no reason to reject the amendment.

We started our deliberations on the amendments with something of an academic argument about what we understood by decommissioning--a concept that is central to new clause 1 and the amendments. We may have started from different points, but we have finished very much on common ground. We understand that illegally held arms are precisely that: they are illegal and they should not be held. Decommissioning means the irretrievable and irreversible physical separation of paramilitaries from those weapons. Most of us can see no alternative to the physical destruction of those weapons. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) came to that position by the end of the exchange.

I strongly support the underlying proposition in new clause 1--that there should be linkage between the decommissioning of illegally held arms and the implementation of the Bill. To be honest, I would rather not have the Bill at all. I voted against it yesterday, and I oppose it in principle. Nothing that I heard last night--and, I suspect, nothing that I will hear tonight--has led me to change my mind.

Nevertheless, the composition of the House is such that the Bill is proceeding. On pragmatic grounds, one must try to be as positive as possible about it and to argue that its damage should be limited. In that respect, the linkage between decommissioning and the implementation of the Bill is a significant step in the right direction.

The arguments have been well rehearsed, and I can summarise them briefly. So far, there has been concession after concession to the republicans--concessions that have come in return for virtually nothing. Their prisoners have been released, and the north-south body--the embryonic structure for an all-Ireland Government--has been created. They have places on the Executive, and they have achieved their long-held objective of the effective destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Now, it is their turn to deliver on decommissioning. I strongly support the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell that they should do that.

8 pm

I have one slight reservation about the new clause. The emphasis on implementing the Belfast agreement is not enough. The agreement is woefully inadequate on decommissioning. All that it demands is co-operation with the Decommissioning Commission, and that the political parties use their best endeavours to persuade the paramilitaries to decommission by May 2000. My right hon. Friend argued that the wording of new clause 1 goes further than the Belfast agreement, and I hope that that is so. We want the verifiable, on-going decommissioning of all illegally held paramilitary weapons.

Amendment No. 1 was tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and it is supported by my hon. Friends the Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). There is much to commend the amendment. It would offer a belt-and-braces process and it seeks more cast-iron reassurances than new clause 1

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that verifiable commissioning will become a reality. I confess that I have a reservation about the proposed new subsection (2B) because the composition and arithmetic of the House is such that one wonders whether all Labour Members would approach a draft order with independent judgment and thought.

However, the key point is found in proposed new subsection (2A), which would require all parties to the Belfast agreement to accept that decommissioning should be a reality. That is vital. It would give a status to the constitutional and democratic parties of Northern Ireland that they rightly deserve. If we can use the old cliche, it would provide a Unionist veto, but that is absolutely right. It has been one of the sadly missing ingredients in the process to date.

Amendment No. 32, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, is self-evidently justified and it is a matter of deep regret that the Government did not instantly respond to the reasonable challenge that he presented. New clause 1 is a significant step in the right direction in that it would establish linkage. However, we come to the heart of the matter in amendment No. 1. It would give a positive role to the parties of Northern Ireland in establishing whether verifiable, genuine decommissioning is on-going.

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