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The Prime Minister: I am afraid that they are just anti-Europe. It is as simple as that. The point that my hon. Friend makes is true. Part of the purpose of the declaration is to make sure that on issues of subsidiarity, we achieve clarity. That is important. The declaration, which was agreed by every one of the member states, states in clear language that they do not want a European superstate. A few years ago, voices would probably have been raised in protest against that.

I draw attention to the recent statements made in front of the French Parliament by Mr. Giscard d'Estaing on the same subject. There is a general view in Europe that as member states move together on certain matters, it is important that they decide not to go into other areas, and even to push back power in certain areas. That closer co-operation must be based on co-operation between member states, rather than on the obliteration of national identity.

The idea that a country such as France has lost its national identity is absurd. The countries of Europe are proud of their national identity. The idea that Poland, for example, which wants to come into the European Union, is not proud of Poland and Polish national identity is absurd. We—or rather, the Conservative party—must escape from that ideological straitjacket; otherwise we will be unable to protect the British national interest, which requires us to be engaged.

The British Conservative party is virtually alone of all Conservative parties in Europe in its views, so much so that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) must write to them pleading to be allowed a different set of rules from Conservative parties elsewhere in Europe. That is an indication of how far away the Conservative party is from a realistic view of how people are living and working in the Europe of today.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must move on to the main business.

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Orders of the Day

Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.37 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I intend to begin by setting out what the Bill does. I shall then explain the political context for the Bill and why it is necessary to introduce it at this time.

The Bill extends the maximum length of the period during which legal immunity may be provided in implementing a decommissioning scheme. It does so by amending section 2 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. Under that Act, the power to provide legal immunity expires on 27 February next year. Clause 1(2) initially extends the maximum period during which legal immunity may be provided until midnight on 26 February 2003. In other words, by today's proceedings the period will be extended by 12 months.

Under the 1997 Act, the Secretary of State has the power by order further to extend the relevant period. Such an extension may not run for more than 12 months after the order is made, or five years after the 1997 Act was passed. Subsection (3) does not affect the former condition: each order would still be subject to a maximum duration of 12 months and require parliamentary approval by affirmative resolution. However, it substitutes 27 February 2007 for the five-year period.

Subsection (4) provides for retrospective effect, if necessary. That means that anything done in accordance with a decommissioning scheme, even if the Bill is not enacted by 26 February next, will, once the Bill is enacted, fall within the legal immunity provided for by the 1997 Act. In short, the Bill extends the existing arrangements for one further year, with the possibility of further extensions, subject always to the approval of this House.

The background to today's proceedings will be well known to some of the participants who are present. Just over five years ago, when the now Lord Mayhew introduced the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill to the House, he observed that, in a democracy, politics and violence do not mix. I agree with that view and I assume that everyone else in the House agrees with it. We all know that in Northern Ireland, we are dealing with a peace, a process and a democracy that are all imperfect by those standards. That is perhaps an inevitable price of the transition from decades of conflict to a normal society. But no democracy can indefinitely tolerate the existence of private armies. No Government can allow people to advance their political objectives, however legitimate they may be in themselves, by the use or threat of violence.

An integral part of the peace process has been to convince those who were previously wedded to violence, including those brought up in the traditions of physical

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force republicanism, that there is another, better way in which they can pursue their political goals. Many of those so involved learned years ago that they could not achieve their ends by violence alone. It has inevitably been a more difficult challenge to get them all to accept unequivocally that bombs and bullets have absolutely no contribution to make to the work of a truly democratic movement. Indeed, violence is a self-defeating exercise even by the standards of the objectives that some of these movements proclaim, because so long as the use or threat of violence continues, it must follow that violence and the necessary response of society to it are the biggest obstacle to achieving a normal, open and democratic society—the very objective that those using violence so often claim to be pursuing.

It will therefore come as no surprise to anyone in the House that there is still a great deal to be done and more progress to be made, but it is worth reminding ourselves of what has been achieved. In recent years, the political landscape in Northern Ireland has changed beyond recognition. Huge strides have been made on the implementation of all aspects of the Belfast agreement and in improving the daily life of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I have agreed with almost everything that the Secretary of State has said so far. However, his speech would have been marvellous four and a half years ago, when the Belfast agreement was secured. The agreement stated specifically that all paramilitary arms would have to be decommissioned within two years. However, after two years, plus another two years, plus six months, he is now saying that we will give the paramilitaries another year and perhaps another four years. What is going on?

Dr. Reid: If the hon. Gentleman was being absolutely honest with the House, he would have read out the words precisely before those to which he referred, which dealt with a commitment by all the parties to use all their influence to see that all arms were put beyond use within two years. We have clearly not achieved that deadline. Nor did we achieve the deadline of June last year, which was given subsequently, and it seems to me likely that we will not achieve that of 26 February next year. That suggests that deadlines in themselves do not always achieve the objectives that they are meant to achieve. I shall return to that point later.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I thank the Secretary of State for giving way on an important point. As he pointed out, the agreement set a target date of 26 May 2000 for the complete disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. Early in May 2000, the Government, with the consent of the other parties, substituted a fresh target date of June 2001. That has now passed. Under what target date are the Government operating for the full implementation of the agreement? Have they abandoned its full implementation as a target?

Dr. Reid: The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I shall deal with that exact point later in my speech. I shall comment on deadlines, target dates and the extension that I have already mentioned. Today's action

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means that we shall debate the matter not at the end of five years, but one year after the extension for which the Bill provides.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Clearly, we are considering a difficult issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that the one example of proper decommissioning by the IRA resulted from a deadline and massive international and national pressure? As he acknowledged, we must build on that if the peace process is to continue. Yet does not the Bill give the opposite signal—that decommissioning can be deferred indefinitely? It means reverting to quiescence, which, although one might hope that it would lead to decommissioning, has led to nothing in the past.

Dr. Reid: Several factors led to the act of decommissioning, but I do not believe that the pressure of a 26 February deadline was one of them. Pressure came from several sources, which may have included 11 September, the persistent application of pressure by Governments here, in Ireland and in the United States, and the resignation of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). In my view, the most important factor, and the most important sanction on those engaged in the process, is the possibility of its failure. Such failure is almost beyond imagination for all of us who are involved in it, including those who have embarked on moving away from conflict to dialogue.

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