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Sir Brian Mawhinney: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth: I will indulge the right hon. Gentleman for a second time, but I then will need to make some progress.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I am extremely grateful, but the debate can move backwards and forwards in Committee.

First, may I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, who has consistently in recent weeks--in virtually every speech that I can find--stressed the importance of decommissioning, so there can be no doubt in the minds of the people of Northern Ireland or anybody else that the Government attach huge significance to decommissioning? It seemed to me that the Minister did not say quite the same thing in answer to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) as he said previously. Therefore, I would be grateful if he would address the matter again.

Earlier, the Minister said that, if de Chastelain's report indicated that there had been no decommissioning, the Secretary of State would intervene and intervene quickly. However, in reply to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, he added the extra condition that the Government would then have to make a judgment about intentions. Bearing in mind that this issue will be the front-page story in all tomorrow's newspapers in Ireland, if not in this country,

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will the Minister take his time and say precisely what is the Government's position so that we can all understand what we may have to look forward to?

Mr. Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman will accept entirely that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have to make decisions on the basis of what is reported to him. What he has to decide--and will decide--on the basis of that report is that there has to be clear progress towards a timetable that was set out in the Good Friday agreement. I do not think that it would be sensible--strictly speaking, I do think it would be what the House wants--for me to enter into a discussion about what progress should be made at this point. However, we need to know clearly what the intentions are. I shall not speculate on what might be in the report, because I simply do not know what will be in it at this point.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I think that there is a bit of confusion here. What the Minister has just said is not what we were made to believe by the Secretary of State. That had to do with real decommissioning and not with intention or with whether we could see any progress. It was about whether real decommissioning was going to take place. Tonight, the Minister has not said that and he needs to make the matter clear not only for the people of Northern Ireland who want to see decommissioning, but especially for those who do not want to do it. They need to have a clear message from the House.

Mr. Howarth: Let me make the position clear. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have to be satisfied that there is the intention to make progress and that there will be a programme that will lead--[Hon. Members: "Ah!"]--and that there will be progress toward the commitment that exists within the Good Friday agreement. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) understands that that was the position all along. I have not changed that position tonight, nor has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I should now like to address aspects of the Bill. So far, we have dealt with matters that are not contained in any of the clauses. Perhaps we should now move on.

Mr. William Ross: On a point of order, Mr. Martin. After the Minister's remarks, do you not catch the strong stench of sugar and butter simmering on a stove?

The First Deputy Chairman: That is not a point of order.

Mr. Howarth: I shall not go into the hon. Gentleman's culinary allusions.

The Bill might potentially benefit Members of the Dail. Throughout the debate, many of those who have taken part have expressed the--false--assumption that it is being brought into force exclusively for the benefit of Sinn Fein. That is not the case. There have been numerous individuals who have taken up a political career both north and south of the border, including members of the

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Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party of Northern Ireland, who have gone on from positions in Northern Ireland to be elected to the Dail.

Mr. Thompson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Cash: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth: I shall give way to the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson), but not to the hon. Member for Stone, because he did not bother to come in to listen to what I had to say about his speech.

Mr. Thompson: Although certain persons may have served both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, is not the point they did not serve in both places at the same time?

Mr. Howarth: I did not assert that any did. I was merely pointing out that the only people who had been mentioned during the debate were members of Sinn Fein. However, certain members of the parties I mentioned have, in the past, served both in Northern Ireland and in the Dail.

Mr. Robathan: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth: Yes, because the hon. Gentleman has sat here throughout the debate. However, I shall then attempt to conclude my speech.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the Minister. May I take him away from the generalities of the Bill and back to the amendments, which deal with the decommissioning of illegally held weapons by paramilitary organisations? Will he now answer clearly the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), who asked him to explain precisely how we would know whether weapons were being decommissioned? After the Minister's answer, I am extremely confused, as is the rest of the Committee.

Mr. Howarth: I cannot be held responsible for the hon. Gentleman's confusion, for it is a regular occurrence.

There is potentially a broad group of individuals, not only members of Sinn Fein, who might want to take advantage of the Bill's provisions. Of all the potential beneficiaries in the Dail, only one is a member of Sinn Fein.

The Bill stands on its own merits as a sensible and modest measure to reflect the close and co-operative relationship that we now enjoy with the Government and people of Ireland. If there is a linkage to be made between the Bill and the new constitutional arrangements, it should be with the significant amendments to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which came into effect only last December. Those changes put consent at the heart of the Irish constitution. They remain in force regardless of other developments, and rightly so.

Now that those arrangements have come into force, the time is right to extend the further courtesy set out in the Bill to Ireland and treat that country on the same basis in electoral law as most other favoured nations are treated.

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I cannot recommend that the Committee accepts any of the amendments. In the light of what I have said, I hope that some of the right hon. and hon. Members who have tabled or supported the amendments will feel it appropriate to withdraw them.

Mr. Forth: On a point of order, Mr. Martin. I seek your guidance. Would it be possible when we come to vote for you to be prepared to put separately to the vote amendments Nos.10 and 32 and new clause 1? They have all approached the matter in a different way and have all received some support during the debate. It would be important for the Committee to indicate which it supports.

The First Deputy Chairman: I will consider what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I say no more than that.

Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Martin. May I support the proposition of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)?

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. It is not a point of order. I have answered the point raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the Committee is not pursuing it. I have said clearly that I will consider the matter. I do not want hon. Members to bring a case to me because the case has been put.

Mr. MacKay: I think that the Committee was concerned and confused about one aspect of the Minister's response. I would have forgiven him if it had not been for the fact that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was sitting next to him and appeared to be aiding and abetting him. In those circumstances, it is important that we have clarification. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) rightly observed, our deliberations will almost certainly be splashed on the front pages of the Northern Ireland newspapers. That being so, we owe it to the people of Northern Ireland that the Minister's remarks be clarified.

The Under-Secretary of State said--he will correct me if I am misquoting him, but I do not think that I am--that the Secretary of State would intervene only to suspend the Executive, and in consequence the cross-border bodies and other organisations, if General de Chastelain reported that no progress was being made. He added that if the general said that there was an intention to make progress in future, that would be all right.

I hope that I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. The Secretary of State might want to intervene to clarify the matter. I said earlier, when I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman was understandably detained in the Province, that I much welcomed the indications that he had given publicly that if--we all hope and pray that this will not happen--decommissioning does not take place in the next week or so and the general reports that progress has not been made, he would then suspend the Executive. I added that it was vital that it was the Secretary of State who suspended the Executive and not the First Minister, who by no action of the Secretary of State was forced to resign and therefore collapse the Executive. I would appreciate

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confirmation of that from the Under Secretary of State or the Secretary of State tonight. I think that that would helpfully clarify the situation.

If the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen do not wish to clarify the position, I fear that we must stick to what Hansard will presumably have reported. If the general reported that there is an intention to make progress, I would accept that, if it took only a few days. However, we cannot continue for many days without progress taking place. We are hoping and expecting that the Secretary of State will stick to what he has always indicated and promised us. That is--I am glad to say that he is nodding--that he will suspend the Executive if decommissioning has not properly commenced to the satisfaction of the general. I think that I can take the right hon. Gentleman's nod as a sign that I have interpreted the position, but it is difficult to know as he is now winking at me and not prepared to rise to say one thing or the other. I suspect that he is watching the clock and hoping that the sitting will be suspended at 10 o'clock.

It is essential that I put on the record on behalf of the Opposition that we are four square behind the Secretary of State in suspending the Executive if he feels that he must do so if there has been no proper decommissioning. It is--[Interruption.] the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) says from his place on the Bench as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, "What has this to do with the Bill?" If he has not been in his place throughout the debate, I shall explain exactly what it has to do with the Bill. Decommissioning is the key to the amendment. Therefore it is important that the matter has been raised first by the Under-Secretary and that it has been responded to by me. Perhaps that will put the hon. Gentleman right.

I was intensely disappointed in the Under-Secretary's reply to hon. Members' complaints about the necessity for Committee stage--

It being Ten o'clock, The Chairman left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report progress.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

The House divided: Ayes 299, Noes 156.

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