Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): If the Bill was supposed to be a carrot to encourage decommissioning, and decommissioning does not occur but the Bill is enacted, the measure will remain an Act.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is right. There are no conditions attached to the Bill. If it is part of a deal, the law-abiding people, as always, will deliver first, while the holders of illegal weapons deliver nothing. In the so-called process, not one ounce of Semtex, and not one bullet or weapon has been handed in. The Minister should understand the strength of feeling on this side of the Committee: we, who have seen our friends cut down by murderers, are asked to go along with the process when there is no evidence that Sinn Fein is prepared to abide by the agreement that it signed.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): The hon. Gentleman insists on talking about that side of the Committee. It is important to emphasise that the anxiety that he expresses is shared generally in the country and on this side of the Committee.

Mr. Howarth: That intervention does not surprise me. The right hon. Gentleman has appeared in the Chamber only recently and I warmly welcome his words, which will be widely welcomed in the country. I do not suggest that there are no reservoirs of anxiety on the other side. I pointed out only that there was no evidence of such anxiety, apart from the contribution of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has shown that there is cross-party concern about the matter. The Minister should take note of that.

Symbolism is important when discussing Northern Ireland. We must tread carefully; not allowing the Bill to pass unamended will convey a clear message and an important signal. Even if we do not support the Bill, we must accept that it has been voted on, but we should not allow it to continue unamended. If we did that, we would send the wrong signals to those who have the power to decommission but have shown no signs of exercising it. The amendment is an opportunity for Ministers to make the position clear, and I hope that they will take it.

It is an enormous privilege to serve in the House. All of us have struggled to get to the House--perhaps not all of us, as some of us arrived here unexpectedly, as I did in 1983. However, most hon. Members take membership of the House seriously and regard it as a great privilege to serve in the oldest Parliament in the world, which dates back to 1265. It may be unrealistic to imagine that any member of the Irish Parliament would be prepared to swear an Oath of Allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. Nevertheless, the Government are seeking with this Bill to give away the right to sit in this hallowed place without getting a single thing in return. That cheapens membership of the House and shows yet again how much contempt and how little respect the Government have for the House of Commons.

Many references have been made to yesterday's debate. Most of the amendments were available only today and it is discourteous to the Committee that important amendments were not made available for consideration by right hon. and hon. Members in advance. We should have more time to consider them.

25 Jan 2000 : Column 225

I am genuinely mystified as to why the Government are pursuing this Bill. I do not think that they are being totally dishonourable. I certainly do not think that my namesake, the Minister, is a dishonourable man. However, we cannot see where the Government are coming from. I am struggling. I searched yesterday's Hansard and saw that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) said:

If the Bill is not part of the discussions that took place in Belfast, of which the hon. Member for Lagan Valley had no knowledge--we were told that parliamentary links between the various legislatures were discussed at that time--we are told that it is to provide some linkage between the institutions.

The Irish institutions have not been particularly helpful to this country. Time and gain, we have seen attempts to extradite people wanted for serious crimes in this country. Whatever the actions of the Government of Ireland, their institutions have been singularly unhelpful in enabling us to bring those persons to justice before our courts.

Mr. Brady: Nor, it seems, does the Dail see any merit in the Minister's argument. Otherwise, we might see some reciprocity.

Mr. Howarth: I believe that we shall deal with reciprocity in a later amendment.

Amendment No. 1 is rather more comprehensive than the amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). It is unquestionably linked specifically to the terminology of the Belfast agreement. Amendment No. 10 nevertheless makes the point that I sought to make and sends a clear signal that we want some measure of decommissioning. I prefer amendment No. 1, but am happy to go along with amendment No. 10 and new clause 1.

Amendment No. 32, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), is also worthy of consideration and I support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). If it is good enough for the Northern Ireland Assembly to have protection against terrorism, it is certainly good enough for this House. I say this to the Minister: if you will just turn to your right--

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language.

Mr. Howarth: I apologise, Mr. Lord.

If the Minister were to turn to his right, he would see at the entrance to this Chamber the coat of arms of Airey Neave--a Member of this House who was blown up by terrorists in pursuit of objectives in Northern Ireland. It is an affront to suggest that we should allow membership of the House to people who, if they have not committed the same crimes, hold similar aspirations. We owe it to the memory of Airey Neave to state in the Bill that nobody

25 Jan 2000 : Column 226

engaged in terrorism should be entitled to membership of the House of Commons in the way that it is phrased in amendment No. 32. If it comes to a vote, I shall certainly support that amendment.

8.45 pm

Mr. Oaten: The propositions are that there would be a link through the Bill to decommissioning and to a denouncement of terrorism. Both propositions come from the same perspective. Liberal Democrat Members are as frustrated as any party at the delay in making progress with decommissioning and wish to see it proceed as speedily as possible.

Tempting arguments were made by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), who suggested that the Bill should have some link with decommissioning, to speed the process. In negotiations, the Government have held a few cards that they could play at various points, but they appear to be running out of cards. The Bill might be another card to be played. Tonight's debate has not cleared up when it should be played.

Would coupling decommissioning with the Bill help the peace process? I am disappointed that we have yet to receive clear guidance from the Minister. It is unhelpful that the Government have not been open about the process. There is a nervousness on all sides that some kind of deal has been done. If one has been done, we would judge it on its merits. We accept that the whole process has been risky. If the deal is that the Bill has to pass before decommissioning, I may accept that that is another risk on a difficult path. Being unclear whether that is the case and where the process is going is not helpful. Although it may be tempting to link the Bill and accept some of the amendments, I and others on the Opposition Benches are left to take on trust that the Government know what they are doing--[Laughter.]--and that they are doing this in the interests of peace.

Mr. Forth: I am slightly surprised at what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is it not at least possible that his party would know a lot more about the Government's motivations through one of the rather sinister Committees on which the hon. Gentleman's colleagues sit cheek-by-jowl--indeed, in bed--with Government Members. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows more than he cares to reveal at this stage and is just bluffing.

Mr. Oaten: I assure the Committee that the pillow talk does not go anywhere near Northern Ireland. The issue is whether or not linking decommissioning with the Bill would help the process. Although the Government are not being open and clear, some discussions have taken place. We must take it at face value that, broadly speaking, it would not be helpful at this stage to link decommissioning with the Bill.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that the process will be harmed if the Government have done a deal with Sinn Fein on linking the Bill with decommissioning and that link is written into the Bill. I cannot understand that. If we accept the amendment, surely the link will be set in stone. If they have come to an arrangement, it will not be damaged if it is included in the Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page