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Mr. McCabe: Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that what we are hearing is exactly what he said to Lord Mayhew in 1997? Did he tell him that a one-year period with the extension of up to five years was the

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wrong deadline? Did he disagree in this House? Is there a record of that in Hansard? Does he think that any of the loyalist groups, including those which are not even currently engaged in the process, could decommission within a few months? What deadline did he think in 1997 was appropriate? How long does he now think it would take loyalist groups to decommission?

Mr. Davies: Unless the hon. Gentleman has been asleep for the past five years, I can only imagine that he has deliberately come to the House to produce manifest absurdities. In 1997, we did not have the Belfast agreement. We did not have the beginnings of a mechanism to produce decommissioning. Since then, in case he has not noticed, we have had the Belfast agreement. In case he has forgotten, that agreement provided a deadline of two years, as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). Nothing happened under that deadline; it was extended for a year, but still nothing happened. Eventually, some progress was made after 11 September.

In producing a regime under which decommissioning might take place—if initial agreement between the parties is secured and if the international commission and the other organisations required can be set up—to start off with a five-year period may well be reasonable, but once four or five years have elapsed, deadlines have been missed, people have failed to live up to the commitments they made, and the law-abiding and peace-loving people of Northern Ireland have been disappointed, to go back to square one and start again with another five years seems less absurd than irresponsible.

Mr. McCabe: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) is trying to waste time by pretending that he does not know what has happened in the past five years, so I shall not give way to him again this afternoon, but I shall give way to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

Lembit Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Given that the Good Friday agreement did not exist when the Conservative Government decided to create an amnesty, does he not agree that that required a greater act of faith on the part of Parliament than this Bill, which we are discussing in the context of the Good Friday agreement?

Mr. Davies: Yes, that is true. That took place right at the beginning of the peace process launched by the Conservative Government and it required a considerable act of faith. I take the hon. Gentleman's remark to be a compliment to my right hon. and learned Friend Lord Mayhew, who I am sure will be pleased to have the approbation and recognition of the Liberal party and its official spokesman for once.

Mr. Goodman: Does my hon. Friend not agree that the most remarkable feature of the debate has been the Secretary of State's statement that under the terms of

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the Belfast agreement the IRA is not obliged to decommission—a position exactly the same as that of the IRA?

Mr. Davies: I am sorry to have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. The Secretary of State's statement is enormously significant—and enormously depressing.

Dr. John Reid: I am sorry to keep intervening, but Opposition Front Benchers appear to be genetically incapable of either hearing or understanding words. I made no such statement—that the IRA were not so obliged. I said that they had not signed the Belfast agreement, and that is a statement of fact, not of opinion.

Mr. Davies: Fortunately we in the House have the institution of Hansard, so we need not spend any more time on that issue. I sincerely hope that when I read my Hansard tomorrow morning I will find that the Secretary of State is as fully aware as other reasonable and experienced people in Northern Ireland of the fact that the distinction between Sinn Fein and IRA is a complete fraud, and that when he speaks to any representatives of either organisation he is probably speaking to individuals who hold positions in both organisations and represent them both.

Mr. Robathan: May I take my hon. Friend back to deadlines for decommissioning? Is it not true that when an organisation determines to give up its weapons, that can be done relatively quickly? In Macedonia recently, there was a 30-day limit, and I recall that 20 years ago in Zimbabwe—an enormous country with fighters out in the bush—there was a two-month limit. If an organisation is determined to give up its weapons, surely it does not need a rolling five-year programme?

Mr. Davies: I totally agree. It is ironic than on a day when we have discussed sending 1,000 British troops to Afghanistan to participate in a peace process—the decommissioning of what remains of the Taliban and the establishment of peace in that country—that is supposed to be completed in a matter of months, we are extending by a further five years the deadline for getting rid of terrorist arms in our own country, and doing so apparently thoughtlessly and on the basis of an extraordinarily sanguine acceptance of Sinn Fein-IRA propaganda about its operations and structure.

The Secretary of State would be extraordinarily naive to think that offering an extending deadline is likely to get the action he requires sooner. He made an absurdity of that notion when he said that everyone in Northern Ireland tends to go to the wire, but it would be absurd in almost any context. Suppose that the right hon. Gentleman wanted to buy a house, and he thought that he might get it for £100,000 and the most that he was prepared or able to pay was £150,000. Does he think that he would be more likely to get a bargain, or more likely to get any deal at all, if he signalled to the vendor that if pressed he would go to £500,000? That is precisely what he has done by offering five years. It is thoroughly reckless.

It is deplorable for another reason. I said that there were two reasons, and the second is a matter of even greater concern than the first. The right hon. Gentleman has sent

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the wrong signal to those who have to decommission—Sinn Fein-IRA, the loyalists and other paramilitaries. He has also sent the wrong signal to the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland who are peace loving and law abiding and desperately keen to get the gun and Semtex out of politics in Northern Ireland. They are now being told that after all the sacrifices, all the delays, all the disappointments of recent years and all the enormous concessions to paramilitaries, they must wait a lot longer. They must wait for another five years. That is the time they were told in the first place would be required for the framework to get the process started and completed.

It is an extremely depressing signal to send to the people of Northern Ireland. It can only undermine people's confidence and their hopes in the peace process producing the dividends for which they all hope. The signal will inevitably have a particularly devastating effect on morale in the Unionist community. That concerns me very much.

The Secretary of State may recall that when I responded to his statement on 24 October I said that we should take into account

A few weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman made a speech about Northern Ireland not becoming a "cold house" for Unionists. I welcome his use of that phrase. I welcome also what appeared to be the spirit behind it. Although the right hon. Gentleman managed to say a few words in the right direction, however, it is easy to say a few words. After the tragedies of the past 30 years in Northern Ireland, we can hardly expect words to be sufficient to influence anybody very much.

Apart from that easy declaration, what have the right hon. Gentleman or his predecessors done? There has been an endless stream of concessions. There have been the release of prisoners and the abolition of the RUC—extremely difficult concessions for Unionist sentiment to accept. We have said and I have said that we must accept those moves, reluctantly of course. There is no question but that they stick in the gullet, but they are a necessary part of the process.

It is important that the Belfast agreement is implemented. I have done my best to counsel patience and forbearance. What has happened? The Government have gone endlessly further. As if the release of prisoners and the implementation of the Government's obligations under the Belfast agreement were not enough, they went to Weston Park and made a new raft of concessions that were not required under the Belfast agreement. In recent weeks, they seem to have gone almost berserk with the concessions that they are offering.

We have before us the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, which includes a proposal to remove the royal coat of arms from new courthouses in Northern Ireland and to abolish the loyal oath for judges. Those concessions are deeply offensive to Unionists. They are deeply worrying to anybody who takes seriously the idea, as at least we all do on the Opposition Benches, that we are part of one kingdom in this country.

The matter has not stopped there. At Northern Ireland questions on 5 December, I put to the Secretary of State the article that had been written by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). I will

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put to the Secretary of State his right hon. Friend's predictions, or assertions. The article stated that the Government were proposing

That is in the Weston Park agreement, but it had no basis of approval from the House. The article refers to

As I said then, there was no suggestion of any inquiries into other people's misdeeds or atrocities.

The article also refers to "further changes"—I underline "further" again—

In response, the Secretary of State did not deny that at all; he did not deny any suggestions that new concessions were to be made. I greatly regret the fact that he came close to being disingenuous by saying that the measures were not new; he said that I was wrong to say that they were. I emphasised "further inquiries", "further changes" and the phrase

If "further" and "on top of" do not mean incremental—something added to what is already there—and if that is not fairly described by the word "new", with which the Secretary of State took issue the other day, he will have to spend his retirement revising the Oxford English dictionary.

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