Previous SectionIndexHome Page

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is it not the case that the IRA's refusal even to start putting its arms beyond use plays right into the hands of those Unionists, such as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), who are totally opposed to the Good Friday agreement, regardless of any form of decommissioning whatsoever?

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) certainly went over the top. Would not it be useful for the Conservatives to bear in mind the way in which, during the years in which Labour was in opposition, we fully supported the Government on Northern Ireland, even when they were found to be negotiating with the IRA, although there were always denials beforehand? That is the support that a responsible Opposition would give on Northern Ireland matters.

Dr. Reid: I think that we have said enough on that last point. My hon. Friend has made his point, and I shall merely reiterate what I believe to be the essence of the matter. Yes, there are many details to be addressed, and hon. Members have raised them, but the essence of the problem is that the agreement will not work if individual parties pick and choose which parts they are prepared to implement. The success of the agreement depends on its full implementation in all its aspects.

Secondly, cross-community consent and co-operation are at the heart of the agreement. Ultimately, the institutions and the agreement itself are sustained and sustainable only if they continue to command the support of both sides of the community. On the basis of that simple but profound knowledge of the nature of the agreement, I hope that everyone in the House and far more widely will reflect on the role that they have to play in ensuring that cross-community support continues.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Is it not tragic that we seem to have delivered extremist government in Northern Ireland? The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—a man with whom I have not always agreed but whom I greatly admire—has to resign his position, yet representatives of terrorist organisations remain in government, the RUC is being dismantled and terrorists are allowed on to the streets. Is not the reason for all that the fact that the agreement was slightly flawed in the first place? It was not watertight in

2 Jul 2001 : Column 29

requiring decommissioning to take place before prisoners were released, and it does not allow Ministers to be removed from Government without the full agreement of both traditions in the Assembly. Is it not time to start again? In doing so, should we not be determined to place the blame for the situation where it really lies—not with the Unionists but with the terrorists in Northern Ireland?

Dr. Reid: I understand why the hon. Gentleman says what he says, but there is a misunderstanding. He speaks as though the agreement were a sort of legal insurance contract, whereby if the parties to it did not agree, we could take them to court and sue them.

This is an historic agreement—an historic compromise—based on the voluntary participation of people from different backgrounds, with different histories and different pain, although that pain may in a sense be indivisible, and they have come together to try to fit together the pieces that enable such an historic move to be made, but they all do so voluntarily. I can no more dictate to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, as anyone who knows him will know, than I can to the IRA or to the paramilitaries on the other side. I can of course use some sanctions, but, ultimately, we are all masters of our own fate in this matter, and, ultimately, if the agreement is to work, it must do so by the principle of consent. That is what we shall be trying to do during the next few weeks. Of course, in that, there will be benefits for everyone and difficulties for everyone, but if the agreement is to work, ultimately it must be with the full participation of every party to it.

The question is not just one of collective responsibility. Yes, we have collective responsibility but it is also a question of us using our appropriate influence. Just as I have some influence greater than other parties in some areas, so some parties have greater influence over the paramilitaries in that area. Therefore, it is no excuse, in order to avoid the use of our influence, to say that we all have responsibility. Yes, we do, but part of that responsibility is to use our influence in the area where it is most effective.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the process as a result of the Good Friday agreement has largely moved from open war to what one might call bad-tempered peace? Does he feel, like some on the Opposition Benches, that the problem is a shortage of rhetoric and ultimatums or does he agree that we must continue to seek progress in the spirit of the agreement? Will he confirm that, despite everything that we have said today, and despite the concern that we all feel about the deadlock, there is no evidence that any of the parties has turned away from the basic commitment to move towards a Northern Ireland at peace? If we had that impression, that would be the most serious issue of all. Will he confirm that they appear still to be intent on peaceful means?

Dr. Reid: My judgment is that all the parties to the agreement still wish to move towards a Northern Ireland where decisions are made by democratic and peaceful means—yes it is—but translating that into action is not easy, as the events of the past few days have shown. However, I am sure of one thing: the agreement will never be translated into action unless each and every aspect of it is addressed and we avoid one aspect appearing to lag

2 Jul 2001 : Column 30

behind the others. It will not work that way because it will not take the broad swathe of the whole community and the two traditions with it. I think that it is as simple as that.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Those of us in the House who want a lasting peace in Northern Ireland will share the disappointment at today's events, of which the Secretary of State has spoken. He also spoke of good faith and of evidence. What evidence does he have of the good faith of the IRA and Sinn Fein in decommissioning weapons? Does he now come to the conclusion that many of us have reached that the IRA and Sinn Fein have no intention of decommissioning weapons and, indeed, probably never had any such intention? If he accepts that view, what will he do about it?

Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman asked me a very fair question: what is the evidence? The evidence on which I base my judgment is not the psychoanalysis of any of the parties or individuals involved, but what has happened over the past five to 10 years. Many of the things that have happened would have been entirely outwith the realm of predicted possibility 10 years ago.

I would not want to assume that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the cessation of violence by the IRA was of huge significance, but I think that in the history of the past 30 years it was of considerable significance. He may not believe that the decision by the Irish Republican Army to open up its arms dumps was of huge historical importance, but anyone who knows anything about the history of the IRA knows that that was a hugely significant step. Therefore, there is evidence that the people who said that they were committed to going on this journey, as it is sometimes called, did indeed embark on the journey and wish to continue it. That is not the question.

The question is not whether nothing has happened—things have happened—but whether progress has been sufficient. I believe that progress has not been sufficient. Along with accompanying changes on the legal, social and institutional side in Northern Ireland, I believe that there was a commitment to make progress in putting paramilitary weapons beyond use. At the moment, not one weapon has been put beyond use. Therefore, to hold the view that there is evidence about the sincerity and commitment of those engaged in the process is perfectly compatible with believing at the same time that progress has been insufficient.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): I can assure my right hon. Friend that his words on the futility of war and blood sacrifice spoken yesterday on the still blood-soaked fields of the Somme, surrounded by the ghosts of the lost generation, resonated far beyond those fields. They stand in stark contrast to much that I have heard in the Chamber this afternoon. When next he hears expressions like "Sinn Fein must pay the price", I ask him to look to the future, not the past. For a more stark and graphic example of the failure of constructive negotiation, he need not look much further than the fields that he saw yesterday.

Dr. Reid: Yesterday's visit to the battlefields of the Somme was a very moving experience, as it always is. One general point and one particular point came back to me. As my hon. Friend says, if there is anywhere on earth

2 Jul 2001 : Column 31

that exhibits the tragedy of the failure to resolve differences by peaceful means, it is surely the Somme. First, I think that in about 48 hours during the opening of the battle, more than 5,500 members of the 36th Ulster Division died. The second point that came back to me, in historical terms, is that not far from the Ulster Tower is another monument—to the members of the 16th Division who also gave their lives. They were not from Ulster, but from the rest of Ireland. I was there with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann.

It struck me that in those circumstances, pain is indivisible. I am sure that, like me, the House does not want the next generation of young people in Northern Ireland to see more than 300 police officers killed and murdered, 40,000 or 50,000 people injured, and 3,500 families experience the pain of seeing their loved ones killed. We in this country should remember that to achieve commensurate figures for the rest of the United Kingdom, we would probably have to multiply those figures by 35 or 40: we would be talking about almost 100,000 dead. Preventing that from happening to the next generation is the measure of the prize that we can achieve if the process succeeds. I am sure that the vast majority of hon. Members want to achieve that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page