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11.41 pm

Mr. Ingram: I shall try to deal with all the points that were raised in the debate, and I shall deal first with those raised by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). I accept the fact that he welcomes the order in principle, and I understand some of the reasoning that he used to set himself a position slightly different from that of the Government. I know that he understands that the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, and the way in which the amnesty flows from it, were set up by the previous Administration, so this is a continuum.

At that time, it was decided that five years was the period over which such a process was likely to be conducted, after which the Act would come up for further consideration by the House if no progress had been made. Of course, there was no suggestion then that we were likely to achieve the Good Friday agreement. That was a major step forward, as everyone, including the hon. Gentleman, recognised at the time.

In one sense, I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the possibility that some people may take the wrong signals from the extension. That may happen.

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There is not unanimity of opinion in Northern Ireland; not everyone marches to the same tune. There will be those who seek to exploit what we are doing for their own ends--although I do not say that that is the spirit in which he raised the matter.

Neither the IRA nor Sinn Fein is under any such illusion. They both know that the Government are determined to deliver on the commitment given last May that June is the target date, and remains our objective. That is the way in which the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and of the Republic of Ireland have gone about their business, time after time, constantly seeking to get all the parties round the table and move the process forward. No pro-agreement party should be under any illusion about the Government's determination.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked about the on-going discussions that there may or may not have been between the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the various groups with which it is in contact. It is for the de Chastelain commission to advise the Governments on meetings with the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Freedom Fighters or any other group to which it may be talking.

The commission's most recent report, on 22 March, said that its meeting with the IRA representative had been in good faith. It also stated the commission's expectation that further meetings would occur soon. That was how it reported not only to the Governments but publicly. I would analyse that as progress, and that was how the commission set things out in its statement; it used a word that could lead us to that conclusion. This was not the end of the process, but again, it was part of a momentum towards achieving what we all hope will be the end result.

Further to that, General de Chastelain has made it clear on a number of occasions that if he believes that progress is not possible, he will say so. He has not said that, but he would do so if that is how matters appeared to him. The general's integrity and judgment are beyond question. I know that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey would accept that. There are no secret deals and no secret knowledge. That which the commission obtains from its points of contact is eventually reported on. It is then for the House and the wider community to consider that.

I repeat that if General de Chastelain makes an assessment of the situation and concludes that no progress has been made, he would say so. I am sure that that would resonate widely and deeply in everything that we are doing, but he has not said that yet, nor is there an indication that he is likely to do so. A textual analysis of what he reported on 22 March shows the opposite to be the case.

I pay tribute to the resolute way in which the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has stuck to his task. It has not been an easy task, and I know that he receives many plaudits, but it is worth constantly paying him such compliments, because he has a difficult job trying to lead his party down a route that is difficult for him and for many in the Unionist community.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that he has stuck to his task, as has the Prime Minister. The way in which the two Governments have dealt with the issue and the determination that they have shown is what the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want.

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They may not necessarily have voted for it or even in support of the Good Friday agreement, but ultimately the objective that we seek is what they want, even those who at present may give electoral support to parties that have not yet totally turned away from violence. That is the mood of wider opinion in Northern Ireland. I am conscious of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman was not present for my opening comments. The June target date remains the operative date for the Government as well.

I shall not spend too long on the comments of the hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), and for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), or even those of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). I have heard their argument time and again. It contains no solution. I understand their criticism. I understand that they say that we offer hope, rather than delivering anything more substantial, but what is the alternative? Is it to go back to the violence and back to war? Is that what they want? Is that what they want to impose on the people of Northern Ireland?

Dr. McCrea: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ingram: In a moment. I shall deal with some of the offensive comments that the hon. Gentleman made. [Interruption.]

If bombast alone could remove the bullet from Northern Ireland, it would have gone long ago, but shouting, ranting and raving at it does not deliver peace. That will be achieved by careful analysis of the situation, by considering where the problems exist in Northern Ireland, by trying to find points of agreement and by creating the inclusive society envisaged in the Good Friday agreement.

The hon. Member for South Antrim has been shouting at me, but I hope that I have silenced him, for the first time.

Dr. McCrea: It was the provos, not the Minister of State, who tried to silence this hon. Member. It was the provos who tried to murder my family and me. Does not the right hon. Gentleman know how hurtful it is to suggest that we are going back to violence, when we have been the butt of the terrorist violence? We are not taking up any gun. We never pointed any gun at them. We are not doing so now. I find it extremely insulting for him to suggest to someone who believes in democracy and whom the provos have tried to murder that we want to go back to the gun. We want the guns stopped.

Mr. Ingram: I do not for one moment deny the threats that have been suffered by the hon. Gentleman and his family, but I can look around the House and see others who have suffered similar threats. They might not have suffered to the same extent, but the potential was there. Many families have had to accept the possibility of such violence being visited upon them because a member of their family--perhaps a Member of Parliament--had taken the arguments on.

That is the reality that is faced by all of us who deal with these issues, so the hon. Gentleman is not unique. I recognise the sensitivity that is involved. I have not been

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Minister for victims for so long without understanding the extent and depth of the grief that exists in Northern Ireland. We have tried to tackle that grief sensitively and not to turn our face away from it. We have tried not to exploit the situation, but to heal it. We do not want to create divisions or continue to exploit the sectarian bitterness in Northern Ireland. Instead, we want to try to achieve a better and more decent society. I think that my objectives are different from his.

The hon. Gentleman spoke earlier about the visit made to the Maze by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office when she was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, she did not visit the republican prisoners. She met the so-called loyalist prisoners. He might have recognised some of them, as he shared platforms with some of those very evil people. That is the reality. It was widely recognised that her brave decision ensured that the loyalist groups remained on ceasefire. As we have said consistently, we are not involved in a perfect peace. There are major difficulties--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I say to the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) that they should keep quiet while they are in a sedentary position. There are strong opinions and they can be expressed strongly in this House, but they must be expressed within the rules of order.

Mr. Ingram: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There are heated views to be expressed, and the temperature has been raised by DUP Members. We are on a difficult road, and this is an imperfect peace. We are seeking a more perfect solution as best we can, so I ask them the same question: if we do not pursue that, then what? Is it more Army, more violence and more of what we had in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s? Is it more of what the DUP does when it says that it does not share government with Sinn Fein, but joins it in Assembly committees? They try to have it both ways. They say publicly that they do not support such arrangements, but I have met joint delegations consisting of DUP and Sinn Fein councillors, as well as other representatives of those two parties. If the DUP is not going to have dealings with Sinn Fein, that should be complete and total; it should do so in no way at all.

I accept that DUP Members understand the importance of democracy and are aware that there is sometimes a need to talk to one's enemy to further one's own political ends. That is what DUP representatives are doing when they participate in joint delegations to meet me as a Minister, as they have done a number of times. I shall not accuse them of hypocrisy, because I cannot use that word. I am sure, however, that many people outside the House will question why they do not serve on the Executive with Sinn Fein, but join it in making a variety of other representations.

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