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11 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): When the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) made the announcement that led directly to this order, I was one of a small minority who expressed reservations about the whole process. It is with considerable relief that I make a short contribution this evening. If I may, I want to impress two points on the House.

First, I want to pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made in his typically generous and graceful contribution. He was at pains to point out Members of the House who have played some part in bringing about this order. I should like to name three people who are present and have been crucial to this process.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has negotiated thus far, though there have been considerable difficulties with his party. That cannot have been an easy task, and the bravery that he has shown is well supported in the country as a whole.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh has a particular role in the House for English Members and English constituents. Irish Members have come on the media to condemn brutal murders. If my hon. Friend came on, no one could tell from how he phrased his anger and disgust whether the person murdered was a Protestant or a Catholic. Sadly, that was not true of all spokesmen in Northern Ireland. Like the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh has a particular place in the affections of the House for the courage that he has shown over a long period.

It would be wrong if I did not also mention the Secretary of State. Although some will dismiss this movement and these events as inevitable and what history is about, I believe that individuals have played an important part in bringing us to this point. The Secretary of State has shown an array of skills, especially knowing when crucial guarantees should be given, and giving them. His statement to the House on Monday of last week played an important part in ensuring that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann had a majority on Saturday when the vote came, rather than a deficit. I would not want someone who had previously been a critic of this process to let events go past without admiring the skills that the Secretary of State has displayed.

We are celebrating an important event of this Parliament in a proper, reserved way and with a certain anxiousness, because it is not without risk. In the week that we take this action, a terrorist organisation in Spain that did not surrender its arms has given notice that it believes that it should now turn its back on the democratic process. However, I think that two powerful forces will work for the success of this agreement, beyond those highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh.

First, if we pay attention to the local government by-elections in the Republic of Ireland, we already see the effects that the potential agreement is having in the politics of these islands. Sinn Fein is emerging as a major challenger for power in the Republic; the Irish Prime Minister therefore has an added interest in ensuring that those who said at some stage they should surrender their arms do so, for there are major consequences for the polity of his own country.

The other factor that I believe is working for good, for security, and for effective democratic change is the Secretary of State's statement that if need be, he, with the Irish Government, would collapse many agreements that are coming into force if arms were not delivered. With typical skill, he did not define the time limit involved in that judgment.

I recall a comment made by Beatrice Webb when asked why her marriage was so successful. She said, "I leave all the important decisions to Sidney. I decide which are the important decisions." The Secretary of State, while giving a guarantee, has left in his own domain the timing in regard to when he will act on the statement that he made tonight and on Monday last week.

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As someone who was sceptical about the whole process that the former Prime Minister initiated in the last Parliament, I wished, in my short speech, to thank three of the big figures who have brought the House to this stage. I also wished to emphasise that, although we celebrate the change in an appropriately low-key mood, it is still fraught with great difficulties. I believe that the statements made by the Secretary of State tonight and earlier will help to ensure the success of what we do now, rather than the opposite.

11.8 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): This has been a year of amazing events, from the retirement of the leader of my party to the people's pregnancy. However, while the rest are basically accidents of circumstance, this is the biggest surprise of all. It says something about human nature: it proves that, for all the differences between all the sides, there was enough good to make the process work.

Flexibility has been fought for on every step of the way. The dangers have been well documented. Sometimes we almost forgot what the end was meant to be, but the end has been achieved, and I am pleased to note that even those who doubted the process have accepted the democratic will of the majority. There have been a few wobbles, and at some points it has not been entirely clear where the various parties have stood. For example, I continue to be concerned about those who seek to create a link between prisoner releases and the Good Friday agreement. That always struck me as an inappropriate connection. Having said that, let me add that I think we need to start looking forward, and burying those reservations with the past.

Sometimes it looked as though party politics were beginning to creep in. If party politics are allowed to interfere with the peace process, the result is an amazingly debilitating set of circumstances, and I think that that almost did slow the process down. However, I was glad to hear--it was reiterated tonight--that the official Opposition were genuinely behind the initiative. The meeting of senior Conservatives with Sinn Fein representatives a few weeks ago reiterated their willingness to give Sinn Fein the opportunity to take its place in the eyes of the public, as well as in Northern Ireland, as a serious political player.

About two weeks ago, I was at a prize day at my old school, the Royal Belfast academical institution. When I spoke there, I expressed the hope that we would get there in the end and that children at the school would not have to live through the troubles and violence, and live in the completely sectarian environment that, unfortunately, so many children have had to live in for so many years. It seems now that they will not have to grow up in that environment. My feeling is that, more than anything, if the process works, they will be encouraged to take a completely different outlook on people from different parts of the sectarian divide. Indeed, I like to think that, in 20 or 30 years, the very phrase "sectarian divide" will have fallen from public use because it will no longer have any meaning.

I noted the comments of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) with regard to Martin McGuinness and his concerns that that gentleman should not be the Education Minister--but that is devolution. It

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is not our remit to determine who the Minister should be. It is important that we understand that our job is to ensure that people have the space to make the democratic decisions that they want without interference from over here.

Mr. MacKay: To put the record straight, I did not say that Martin McGuinness should not be a Minister. I said that many people, understandably, deeply regretted that he is and that he has to prove himself. I acknowledge that, under the agreement, he has every right to be appointed under the d'Hondt formula. I just put that right.

Mr. Öpik: I stand corrected. It underlines the importance of us making it clear that we will not meddle in processes and in decisions that are, rightly, in the hands of the Province. I understand from his intervention that the right hon. Gentleman is confirming that his party accepts the legitimate right of those who are elected as Ministers in Northern Ireland to play their role in that process.

Thanks have already been given. The list was pretty comprehensive. I should like to say again what I said a few days ago: it is worth remembering that the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was instrumental in beginning the whole process. To that extent, one of the great triumphs that he should be proud of, and that we should acknowledge on both sides of the House, is the courage that he showed as Prime Minister in taking big political risks to move the process forward.

Of course, the current Administration, including the Secretary of State, have played an important part as well. Sometimes it is easy to forget the pivotal role that the right hon. Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam) played in beginning to bring the republicans into the political process in a positive way. She deserves great credit for what was a unique contribution in that area.

Of course, the future holds some difficulties. Those who have been involved with devolution in Wales and Scotland know that there will be a period of readjustment between the House of Commons and Northern Ireland as we begin to understand how the devolution process works. That will take one or two years. I suspect that there will be frictions in that process, but is it not great to be in the same sort of political environment as Scotland and Wales, where the issues are ones of interaction, rather than whether we can set up the process in the first place?

The whole process is not just a lesson for Northern Ireland, or the United Kingdom. It is a lesson for the world stage of politics. It shows that, with courage, determination and some good faith, almost anything is possible. Almost anything can be resolved, however unlikely the goal may seem as we embark on such a process.

For anyone who has lived in Northern Ireland, the order is a personal thing. When I watched politics as I grew up, I envisaged that, perhaps at some point in the future, I would see the sort of momentous changes that needed to be implemented for peace to become a reality. Back then, I did not expect that I would be here in person now to vote in favour of such an important order. It is almost unbelievable. As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said, this is a new beginning that has a strong emotional overtone for the people of Northern Ireland.

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Naturally, we support the order. It is an honour for me to be here to observe the proceedings--which are a triumph of reason over emotion--and for that I shall always be grateful.

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