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5.26 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I move the amendment more in sorrow and anxiety than anything else. My anxiety has been considerably enhanced by what we have discovered this afternoon

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about the Secretary of State's extraordinary gullibility in buying the Sinn Fein-IRA line that they are somehow separate organisations.

Dr. Reid: I did not say that they were separate organisations.

Mr. Davies: The right hon. Gentleman seemed to agree with me when I put it to him that that was what he was saying. He then made the most inappropriate analogy with the trade union movement and the Labour party. Perhaps he would like to think about that again.

Dr. Reid: I did not say that they were separate organisations. I said that they were not identical organisations.

Mr. Davies: The right hon. Gentleman is somewhat confused and is taking refuge in jesuitical and retrospective reinterpretation of what he said. I am anxious that he should put the record straight if he wishes to do so.

Dr. Reid: I must refer to semantics, because the hon. Gentleman seems not to realise the difference between two things that are entirely separate and two that are not identical. Something can be linked to something else, or can overlap with something else, without being identical to something else. If the hon. Gentleman studies a dictionary when he leaves the Chamber, it will all become clear to him.

Mr. Davies: Let me put to the Secretary of State my conception of the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA so that he may tell me whether he disagrees with it. They are two facades of the same organisation. The distinction is an entirely artificial one, contrived with typical and cynical ruthlessness to enable Sinn Fein-IRA, for it is one organisation, to advance its cause with, in its favoured phrase, the Armalite rifle in one hand and the ballot box in the other. It is absolutely terrifying to know that that strategy, duplicity and artificiality should have been so successful as to bamboozle the Secretary of State.

Dr. Reid: The recent exchanges raise an extraordinary question. If, because he is not so gullible, that is entirely what the hon. Gentleman believes, why in God's name did he support the Belfast agreement? Has he signed up to support an organisation that he believes is not committed to moving away from violence but continually committed to its use? That does not leave me embarrassed, but it leaves the hon. Gentleman in an extraordinary position.

Mr. Davies: The right hon. Gentleman is trying to change the subject, but I shall certainly answer him very directly indeed. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I support the Belfast agreement. We recognise that one of the parties to it is—and must be—Sinn Fein-IRA, which is certainly a former terrorist organisation. I trust that the word "former" is appropriate. We wish it to cease to be a terrorist organisation. We wish it to give up its arms and

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to pursue its objectives in future by democratic and peaceful means. That is precisely the effect of the Belfast agreement—or what its effect ought to be.

Dr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman should follow Healey's first law of holes: when in a hole, stop digging. I do not believe that the Irish Republican Army is a former terrorist organisation—it is a terrorist organisation which is on ceasefire. It is a terrorist organisation which is moving away from that description. However, the hon. Gentleman is in an extraordinary position: he believes that the IRA is only former terrorists but that it is still committed to terror, and yet—with all those deep misgivings—he apparently supports the Belfast agreement. The hon. Gentleman should get his thoughts sorted out.

Mr. Davies: I said—Hansard will bear me out, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman listens carefully—that I hoped it was a former terrorist organisation. It certainly was a terrorist organisation and it certainly was a unified terrorist organisation, which operated with two arms to bamboozle the innocent—such as the right hon. Gentleman. In his negotiations, he no doubt believes it when Sinn Fein says, "Oh no, we are awfully sorry, although we'd like those concessions and we'll pocket them thank you very much, we cannot deliver the IRA". No doubt he falls for that line, and it is a fascinating but very, very depressing indication of what has gone wrong with the peace process over the past two or three years. If this debate achieves nothing else, it will have made clear that the Government have been operating under an extraordinarily facile and naive illusion in an extremely dangerous situation.

That error of judgment completely eclipses another one that has arisen during the past few weeks and which I also regret, although it has nothing like the importance of the matter to which I have just drawn attention. That error of judgment was committed at a time when there has been some good news, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, in that there has been a first act of decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA—I repeat: Sinn Fein-IRA. There is also encouraging news, which has nothing to do with Sinn Fein-IRA, on other fronts; for example, other nationalist organisations—especially the Social Democratic and Labour party—the Catholic hierarchy and the Gaelic Athletic Association and so forth have all accepted the new police service. It is extremely good news, which I strongly welcome, that the Policing Board has been able to agree on a new cap badge for the new police service in Northern Ireland.

It thus seems extraordinary that, instead of allowing that good news to sink in, the right hon. Gentleman and his Government have set about deliberately eclipsing it by making a series of extraordinary proposals, one of which is included in the Bill, while another—even more pernicious and abhorrent—is to come before the House with a Government motion that I trust we shall be able to debate tomorrow.

The situation is unfortunate and sad. It is a matter of considerable anxiety to everybody who cares about the future of the peace process—the future of peace in Northern Ireland and successful, devolved democratic government in Northern Ireland.

I had not anticipated, nor indeed had I ever conceived, coming to the Dispatch Box to disagree with the terms of a decommissioning Bill. I had expected, as we had all

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expected, that it would be necessary to extend the regime under which General de Chastelain operates for a few months beyond February, perhaps for a year. I thought that the exact timing might be a matter for consultation. There has been no consultation whatever—at least none with Her Majesty's Opposition. There may well have been consultation with much more sinister forces, including those that the right hon. Gentleman thinks are not part of a terrorist organisation. Perhaps he would like to let us know to what extent the deadlines in the Bill have been negotiated—or whether the motion that the Government are to move tomorrow has been the subject of discussions or negotiations with Sinn Fein-IRA.

Dr. Reid: On the first one about decommissioning, none; on the second, discussions have been going on for over two years, including discussions with the hon. Gentleman's party.

Mr. Davies: I can testify that there has been no discussion with my party on the timing of deadlines in the Bill. The deadlines were a bad surprise and a shock, and we had absolutely no reason to suppose that they would be in the Bill. If the right hon. Gentleman has been discussing some of those things, including tomorrow's motion, with Sinn Fein-IRA, it will be interesting to know what, if anything, he has been able to get as a counterpart to some pretty extraordinary concessions.

In the absence of clear answers and consultation beforehand, we must simply look at the Bill as it stands. It contains a fundamental error: it extends the deadline for decommissioning, for whatever reason, to five years from February. For some reason that I do not understand, instead of the Bill stating five years, a particular date in February 2007 is given, but the effect is exactly the same and the Bill's purpose is absolutely clear. I believe that to be a disastrous mistake, for two separate reasons. It will have bad consequences of two kinds. Unfortunately, they will reinforce each other and both contribute to damaging rather than supporting the peace process.

The first mistake is that extending the regime for decommissioning for another five years sends the wrong signal to Sinn Fein-IRA, loyalist paramilitaries and others with arms in Northern Ireland. The signal is, "Relax. Take your time. You are not up against a deadline; there is no particular urgency." I am as aware as anybody that deadlines may not be met, but the idea that extending a deadline will speed up the process seems hardly credible. Not only does it seem hardly credible: the Secretary of State himself does not believe it. He has said this afternoon that Sinn Fein-IRA and other groups in Northern Ireland go down to the wire, taking at least the time that they are given under the deadline whether they meet it or not. It follows, therefore, that extending the deadline extends the time that they take. The right hon. Gentleman is not even willing to learn the lessons of his acknowledged experience. I find it extraordinary that he should come to the House with a Bill extending deadlines, and then tell us that that will have no effect on the time taken by those concerned to fulfil the commitments under those deadlines.

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