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This is unambiguously good news for the people of Northern Ireland. I endorse utterly the right hon. Gentleman's tributes to all those whose efforts have brought about today's result. However, I should like to give nuance to some of his remarks. It is a fact that many people in Northern Ireland in both communities have, reasonably and rightly, immediately welcomed the excellent news. But it is not entirely surprising, given the suffering and horrors of the last 30 years, that a significant number have reacted to the news with cynicism and scepticism. I think that they are wrong to take that view, and hope and pray that they will come to change their mind. However, we in the House must all make an effort to consider the concerns and feelings of all the people of Northern Ireland in both communities.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that what has happened is the first vital step in a process that must be completed and must continue until all the arms in the hands of former terrorists have been decommissioned? Does he agree that the next move must come from the so-called loyalist paramilitaries? Does he agree that in the
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree therefore that it would be highly desirable to negotiate some kind of co-ordinated and programmed process leading to full decommissioning? Does he consider that General de Chastelain's remit is sufficient to allow him to negotiate such a package? If not, will he consider other ways of achieving the same objective? Will he now give the House a clear answer to the question to which the Prime Minister did not give a clear answer when he was asked it earlier today, both by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)? What happenswe hope that this is not the caseif decommissioning is not completed by February next year when General de Chastelain's remit runs out? It is only common sense to make contingency plans for that eventuality. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that that has been done, even if he does not want to tell us what those plans are?
I now come to another vital point that was touched on, but no more than that, earlier this afternoon. Can we have an explicit and unqualified assurance from the right hon. Gentlemanthe Prime Minister was neither explicit nor unqualified on this subject this afternoonthat there will be no question of any reduction in police numbers, troop numbers and their equipment and support below the levels that the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding believe necessary to fulfil adequately the tasks that they have been given? I would very much appreciate a clear and explicit assurance on that vital matter.
Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is a splendid opportunity for all those involved in lesser degrees of confrontation in Northern Ireland, including aggressive demonstrations such as stone throwing, to make a contribution to de-escalating tensions and begin to heal the hatred that exists? In that context, will the right hon. Gentleman join me in appealing to all community leaders in north Belfast to take advantage of the present conjuncture to begin to negotiate an end to the harassment of parents and children at the Holy Cross school, and to the difficulties that Protestants have recently encountered in neighbouring Catholic streets?
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I understood the scepticism and the cynicism that will exist in certain quarters. There is indeed a degree of scepticism, which is not unuseful. After so many decades of pain on all sides, it is healthy for people to be sceptical. Cynicism is somewhat different. It is our job to illustrate to those who are dominated by cynicism that politics can work. Recognition of the futility of many long years of trying to solve problems by violent means is increasingly reinforced by making political progress and thereby defeating cynicism. Nevertheless, I understand how painful and how difficult many of the decisions are to people in Northern Ireland.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the move is the first step in a process that must extend wider and longer. It is part of a process that will take many years to bear fruit. For example, in the general political process, we have embarked on policing, but it is just a beginning. No one thinks that we will have attained the object of that exercise within a short period. When we form the new democratic institutions, they will take a considerable time to become stabilised. New powerscriminal justice and so onshould perhaps be passed down in due course to the new institutions. That will take time, and the same applies to all other aspects of the agreement.
It is understandable that such things, including the resolution of the arms issue, take time. I wish that it had come about earlier; that would have been more helpful, but now we can truthfully say that we have begun the implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday agreement.
I agree that we must ask the loyalists to ask themselves what they can do. There are those who wear the banner of loyalism and demean the idea of allegiance to any country, not just to the United Kingdom. Gangsterism, racketeering and thuggery do not always appear on the stage carrying a banner with the words, "Gangsterism, racketeering and thuggery." However, there are other loyalists who have played an extremely constructive part in the process.
I would want not to damn everyone because of some of the people who have been engaged in what we have seen. I hear from them the response, "We may not be prepared to do what the IRA has done." I encourage them to tell us not what they cannot do at this stage, but what they think they can do. Any movement, particularly a movement away from the murderous bomb campaign that has been taking place, would be another part of the dynamic of changing the recent vicious circle.
The hon. Gentleman asked about unreciprocated concessions. There are two parts to that. Many of the things that we are doing are not concessions. Human rights protection and equality legislation are not concessions but the building blocks of a civilised society. However, if the hon. Gentleman is asking whether everyone who is part of the process expects that we should be able to move all the elements and that everyone should gain from that, I agree.
I applaud General de Chastelain and his commission. More than any, they have suffered the brunt of cynicism and sneering over the years. I thank them on behalf of the whole House and everyone in Northern IrelandI am sure that I speak also on behalf of the two Governments and Ireland as a wholefor their endurance in staying there. They have obtained a discretion, an integrity and an independence that are vital to the process.
The hon. Gentleman repeated a question that is perhaps based on a misunderstanding and which he said my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not answer to his satisfaction. The remit of the de Chastelain commission does not finish in February. Its remit stems from the two Governments themselves. What finishes in February is the legislative framework that enables decommissioning to take place. That is an important distinction. General de Chastelain will therefore remain for as long as the two Governments wish him to do so.
It is important for paramilitary groups to build on what happened yesterday and for that to happen across the board, laterally and as part of a forward-moving process. There are many tricky problems, but it is my firm belief that the trickiest of allmoving from conflict to peace and from people who were previously engaged in terrorism to people who say that they now want to adopt exclusively peaceful meansis immensely helped by the independence of John de Chastelain and the integrity that he holds. I think, therefore, that it is wise for us to say that we will take his advice on these matters as the process continues and see what he would prefer to have happened.
The hon. Gentleman then turned to the resolution of issues that arise from the early release of prisoners and those who are on the run. He referred to an amnesty. It is important to recognise that the people to whom he referred do not fall into a single category. For instance, there are people on the run of whom the security forces have never heard, those about whom they have no evidence or suspicion and people who have served longer in prison than they would have done if they had stayed there and obtained early release. There are others against whom there may be evidence for long-outstanding charges. It is precisely because of that difficulty that we have expressed the intent to resolve the issue, but have not yet decided on the method that will be deployed. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that when we make that decision, the House will be the first to know and we will bring our proposals before it. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would allow us to do otherwise.
The hon. Gentleman's other questionI am sorry for answering his questions with such fulness, but he asked them with sincerity and integrity and it is worth answering them allwas whether we take and heed advice on security matters. Of course, that goes without saying. There is still a threat out there. There are people who, unlike the IRA, which is moving in a direction that we all applaud, have stayed entrenched. Some of them are republicans and some are loyalists. We will combat them in the illegality and malice of what they are doing as resolutely as we will pursue peace with those who wish to work in partnership with us towards it. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we must not allow them to act as a veto on the rest of the process because of their commitment to using violence.
I hope that I have answered most of the hon. Gentleman's questions. On north Belfast, despite all the difficulties, efforts are being made behind the scenes and many community leaders are trying to resolve a very difficult situation. I merely say this to the people who are protesting there: first, whatever they may think their grievances are, we are willing to address them. They do not have to take the action that they are taking. Secondly, and perhaps more important, to hold young children to ransom as they put forward their demands is not only wrong and should be stopped, but does nothing to advance their case anywhere in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom or internationally.