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8.3 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): As someone who is strongly supportive of the Belfast agreement, I take no pleasure in seeing it in its present difficult circumstances. The extent of its difficulties is merely reflected by the fact that we are debating the order this evening when we should be looking forward to the scheduled Assembly elections far away in June 2003.

No one can gainsay that the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons is the reason—the main reason—why we have been brought to the regrettable stage of debating an order that prepares for premature elections to the Assembly. Decommissioning of illegal weapons was, and remains, an integral part of the Belfast agreement. Almost three and half years after it was signed, we are still waiting. I am on the record as having said that I am not a patient person in the best of circumstances; these are now difficult circumstances and I have completely run out of patience.

I also deeply resent being cheated, and I do feel cheated by the IRA for reneging on its promise made to all of us in Northern Ireland on 6 May 2000. It promised that it would verifiably and completely put its weapons beyond use. On the basis of that statement, I was one of the Ulster Unionists who, on 27 May last year, stood in the Waterfront hall and, despite a great deal of heckling, urged my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist council to jump first and take Sinn Fein back into the Executive.

We did jump first, and as a result Sinn Fein regained its two substantial Ministries within the Assembly—Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Education—but no decommissioning followed. I feel deeply cheated and, but for the resignation of the First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) on 1 July, the Government would, I fear, have continued to tolerate no movement on the weapons issue. I am ashamed of that fact. His resignation should not have been necessary. I certainly regret that he felt compelled to resign, but I fully support his reasons for taking that step. The ensuing talks at Weston Park between the pro-agreement parties have ended without a breakthrough at all. Given that they were scheduled before 12 July, which is a sensitive enough time in Northern Ireland, it should come as no great surprise that there was no substantial or significant breakthrough.

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Although Ulster Unionists have no fear of Assembly elections, I remind the Government that if there continues to be no movement on the arms issues, the D-word—decommissioning—will be the major factor in any election campaign. That is bound to polarise the two communities, as it did in the recent general election. If we head into elections in the autumn—as I say, we have no fear of them—[Interruption.] Despite the amusement of Democratic Unionist party Members, I assure them that we are confident that we will do well in the Assembly election.

The difficulty is that the decommissioning problem will not go away even if we have elections in the autumn. So I urge the Government to give serious consideration to the other options, however unpalatable, especially suspension. They did not like it the last time, but it must be considered again. Last week we debated electoral fraud. There are no reforms in place to combat that before the Assembly elections. It does not take a crystal ball to predict that there will be a significant number of absent voters west of the Bann. I urge the Government to consider all options and remember that decommissioning must be dealt with; elections in the autumn will not take away the problem.

8.8 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): We just heard the confessions of a pro-agreement Unionist who admits to having exercised poor judgment in advising colleagues to trust the IRA. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has learned to her cost that it should not have been trusted.

Elected representatives from Northern Ireland have few powers in the House because of our numbers. The one authority that we have is to speak on behalf of those we represent and to tender advice to them. When we tender advice, we need to summon up all our experience of those whom we are being asked to trust and determine whether there is anything in their past behaviour which would show them worthy of that trust. In this case, few intelligent people would have been prepared to advise the people of Northern Ireland that they should trust the IRA and put their future in its hands.

The Ulster Unionist party has learned the electoral price of putting its trust in the Provisional IRA—it has had to pay a heavy cost indeed. I find interesting the UUP's enthusiasm for elections while remaining willing to encourage the Government to consider other options, including suspension. The hon. Member for North Down did not clearly state her preference—whether she would prefer no institutions to institutions in which there were fewer representatives from her party—but perhaps she will get around to it at some point.

The Minister said that the order is a necessity and that it is part of the Government's contingency planning, but he did not state in precise terms what contingency would bring it into use. Even if the circumstances that he spelled out were to arise, there is no guarantee that the Government will use this contingency measure because, as the hon. Member for North Down said, other options are open to the Government.

I am sure that the House would regard it as a cynical exercise if the Government were to have tabled the draft order knowing full well that they had no intention of using its provisions. However, Government advisers are openly telling the press that they prefer suspension to elections.

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If the Minister were to encourage some of us by stating that if the circumstances—in his terms, the "regrettable" circumstances, although I might describe them otherwise—arose in which no First Minister or Deputy First Minister was elected before the six-week period had expired, he would act under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and use the order to call elections, the House will have used its time wisely tonight. If, on the other hand, he has no intention of doing that—I shall explore some of the reasons he might have for not doing it—the Government are engaged in a cynical exercise tonight.

I thought I detected in the speeches of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen a notion that is foreign to my concept of democratic principles: they advised the Government that the outcome of any election was not wholly certain and that Ministers did not really want to hold an election unless it was going to provide the desired result. The people of Northern Ireland are being told that the Government are putting through an order tonight and they will allow Assembly elections to take place, provided the people vote the way that the Government want them to. That is the message from both the Minister and the Front-Bench spokesmen for the principal Opposition parties: such is their adherence to democracy that they will allow the people of Northern Ireland to have a vote, provided they vote the way they want them to.

In fact, the Government know that the electorate will not vote the way they want them to. Recent experience tells them that. The UUP professes enthusiasm for elections, but whatever the tough talk in the Chamber tonight we know that in the 13 of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies in which the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party went head to head, the DUP got five Members of Parliament elected while the UUP got four, and the DUP beat the UUP in eight of those constituencies while the UUP beat the DUP in five. Taking all of the votes cast for the two parties in those 13 constituencies, the DUP got 20,000 more votes than the UUP. Those are the facts that the Minister and his colleagues will take into consideration when deciding whether or not to use the order before the House tonight. I hope that the Government get better polling information than the Belfast Telegraph managed during the general election.

If whatever soundings they take lead them to judge that they can get an election result that suits their policy, Ministers will use the order and go to the country, but I judge that the electorate have not changed from 7 June—if anything, they have come to a stronger realisation that Sinn Fein-IRA are not fit to be in government. That was our belief from the start and it has been borne out by Sinn Fein-IRA's behaviour ever since.

To the Unionists, the process has involved the making of concession after concession to Sinn Fein-IRA while getting next to nothing in return. The Provisional IRA has not decommissioned one weapon, one bullet, one ounce of Semtex, one detonator—it has not moved at all on that issue. Its representatives are happy to talk to people and issue statements containing well studied words, but they have not delivered the product—indeed, they do not intend to deliver the product and they were not required to do so by the Belfast agreement. The agreement required only that they make sincere and genuine efforts to do so.

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A later agreement indicated that the Provisional IRA would be prepared to decommission in certain circumstances—if the context was right. That context is, of course, a united Ireland. If the Provisional IRA can see that progress towards a united Ireland is irreversible, it will be prepared to consider decommissioning. Many of us saw that back in 1998 and our views have been justified.

I note that the Minister holds out the hope of the current round of negotiations, which is now complete. We are told that the two Governments are to go away and draw up a paper that will, according to the press—I shall be interested to hear the Minister confirm or deny this—be provided to pro-agreement parties. It would appear that the Government, indulging their fascist inclinations—[Interruption.] Government Members can tut as much as they want, but they should listen before arriving at their conclusions.

The reality in Northern Ireland is that there are four main parties. My party is larger than both the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein. The Government want to speak to Sinn Fein—they repeatedly ask for and hold meetings—and they do the same with the SDLP. However, they do not do that with the DUP; they do not want to hear views that differ from their own. The Government issue invitations to talks at Weston Park not to the DUP, but to those who hold the same views on the Belfast agreement as they do. That is the form of democracy being exercised by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

My question is a simple one. If the tuts from Government Back Benchers are anything to go by, they expect the Minister to stand and say that on the same day as the parties that support the agreement receive the documentation, the parties that are against the agreement will do so as well. That would be the proper thing to do. A major political party, one that is bigger than the parties to which the Government are currently talking, is outside the process, but it is entitled to see what proposals are being made on the future of Northern Ireland. My party's electoral mandate means that we have a greater stake than the SDLP and Sinn Fein. I want the Minister to clarify that point.

The hon. Member for North Down said that an alternative was available—suspension. In that, we see the hypocrisy of the SDLP. When the first suspension of the institutions in Northern Ireland was being considered to salvage the hide of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the SDLP said that the Government could not suspend—that it was dreadful even to contemplate suspension. Its representatives hightailed it to Dublin and asked the Government there to put pressure on the UK Government to ensure that the institutions of the Belfast agreement were not suspended, saying that to do so would be to ensure the death of the agreement itself.

However, because the SDLP knows that suspension is now the alternative to an election—an election in which its strength is likely to be reduced—to save its own hide it is urging the Government to choose suspension rather than elections. Although it is not always the case that the pattern of the past is repeated in such circumstances, thus far the position has always been that the SDLP, the IRA and the Dublin Government demand one thing—namely,

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suspension rather than an election—and I rather suspect that, during the next few months, there will not be too many people pulling out their copies of this order to look at the arrangements for the election process.

The outcome will of course be determined on the basis of the paper being provided by Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Irish Republic. I note that although the former First Minister for Northern Ireland told us that the process he had entered into at Weston Park would address only one subject—decommissioning—the heralded paper deals with a whole series of issues, including policing, demilitarisation, or normalisation depending on how one wants to describe it, and other matters such as the equality agenda.

It has been indicated, rightly, by the Front-Bench spokesman for the Conservative party, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), that there is huge concern in Northern Ireland about further concessions being offered to Sinn Fein-IRA on policing. That is a matter of concern not only within the Unionist community but for the police service itself. There is massive demoralisation in the force. At present, hundreds of people are taking sick leave. More than 800 have already left the RUC. If further concessions are offered to the IRA for political purposes, that will be a heavy blow and one from which the service will never recover.

The hon. Gentleman said that there should be no further concessions on policing until decommissioning had taken place. I am sure that was loose wording, but it is worth clarifying the point. My view is that there should be no further concessions on policing before, during or after decommissioning takes place. The so-called concessions in the Patten commission report have been delivered. There is no requirement on the Government to go beyond that in terms of practical policing, and I do not believe that the Government should move on that issue. If the Government are seen to be providing policing concessions to Sinn Fein and the SDLP in order to extract some weapons from the IRA, that will undermine the whole political process—a process that no longer enjoys the support of Unionists.

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