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Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The hon. Gentleman said that there would be a political price to be paid. The reality is that the main parties in this House would not have to pay that political price, because they do not stand for election in Northern Ireland. Does he recognise that, despite his placid idea that people are against violence, there is now more criminal and terrorist violence in ordinary everyday life in Northern Ireland? The shops on the Lisburn road are attacked day after day, but the police and security forces cannot deal with it. The clear-up rate for crime has been lower over this last year than ever before. Is it not time for him to come down from cloud cuckoo land and deal with reality?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman's point is exactly the one to which I hope that the Minister will respond. He expresses a genuine and sincerely felt concern that things are getting worse in the Unionist communities in an area of Belfast that I know something about, having lived there myself, although not for some time. Regardless of the perceptions of those of us who think that things are getting better, we have to build confidence in the

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communities in which people think that things are getting worse. He says that I am living in cloud cuckoo land. I accept that I am an optimist—and, as a Liberal Democrat, perhaps even an idealist—but I do not have time to fantasise to that extent. I dare to think that the points that I am making are practical enough to warrant a significant response from the Minister, and the Unionist community, in particular, deserves a response to the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

It is possible to put forward a case, on the basis of principle, that we should not extend the amnesty for decommissioning—there has been at least one speech to that effect—but that is not the argument that I heard from Conservative Members tonight. In the interests of consistency, therefore, I suggest that it would be wise for Her Majesty's official Opposition to do in 2001 what they did in far less favourable circumstances in 1997. In the absence of anyone in this or any previous debate in the last few years coming up with a better alternative to decommissioning than the content of the Good Friday agreement, I suggest that voting the Bill down would simply close a door without providing an alternative to the Good Friday agreement and the de Chastelain procedures. The Conservatives were right to introduce a very similar proposal to this in 1997. The Liberal Democrats think that it would be right for them, and for us, to support the same proposal, for very much the same reasons, in 2001.

6.40 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I agree with a great deal of what was said by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), especially in connection with the need to respond to Unionist concerns without throwing the Bill out. That would not respond to those concerns. However, the speech of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), the shadow Secretary of State, was quite amazing. He huffed and he puffed a great deal, although I may have misinterpreted him, because his style rather obscured the content. For about three quarters of his speech, I thought that he had jettisoned any last remnant of bipartisanship and moved into the No camp and alliance with the Democratic Unionist party, although it became obvious that he is not in that position.

The hon. Gentleman supports the reasoned amendment, which means that he wants the Government to attach a different timetable to the Bill. Although the arguments for amendment can be made on the Floor of the House, they can also be made in Committee, so all the strident opposition turns out to be almost nothing—a minor position that ties him in with some views that the Conservative party held in the past—and Unionists of different persuasions should not be misled by all the noise that he made in producing that particular view.

The hon. Gentleman seems not to realise that water has flowed under the bridge as certain measures have proceeded. My strong opinion is that the Government should not have been involved in the prisoner release programme in the way that they were without digging in and using that involvement as an avenue to gain movement on decommissioning by loyalist and republican paramilitary groups. Unfortunately, that was not done and we have to consider that reality of the current situation.

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More water has flowed under the bridge, because a certain number of arms have been put beyond use by the IRA. Of all organisations, the Provisional IRA, because of circumstances round about it and pressures from different areas, has jettisoned one of its distorted principles, to which many of its members said they would always adhere. That change needs to be taken into account.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The hon. Gentleman mentions the prisoner release scheme. He is aware that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 provides for prisoners to be returned to prison should they default on the terms of their release licence. Does he agree that the Government should consider extending that provision to cover paramilitary organisations that breach their ceasefire or whose ceasefire has been declared null and void and that the Government ought to consider a measure to return to prison all prisoners associated with such an organisation should it fail fully to reinstate its ceasefire and decommission its illegal weapons?

Mr. Barnes: Perhaps there should be greater surveillance of the activities in which released prisoners become involved. They may not strictly re-enter fully fledged paramilitary activities, but introducing measures on association with organised gangsterism and other stuff that goes on in Northern Ireland should be considered seriously. I am in favour of being tough in connection with the rules that have already been determined.

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman has a long and honourable record of trying to find a new dialogue in Northern Ireland, but does he not think that his position and his criticisms of the Conservative party are essentially a triumph of hope over experience? The experience following the Belfast agreement is of giving way, giving way, giving way—on prisoner releases, as he says—yet we have received nothing. What is his determination of when all weapons must be decommissioned by organisations such as the IRA and loyalists who are currently, allegedly, on ceasefire? Is it 2007, 2010 or 2020?

Mr. Barnes: It is not correct that there has been no progress in pushing back the position of Sinn Fein and its links with the IRA. Many measures have been introduced and we have just discussed one on the Floor of the House: the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill is directed almost entirely against Sinn Fein's manipulative activity at the ballot box and we in the House should be proud of its introduction and development.

Perhaps it needed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to produce a report and press for the measure, and pressures had to be placed on the Government to respond, but the Bill has been introduced. It is clear that Sinn Fein was benefiting most from electoral fraud. We took that on board and some of us are keen for the Bill to function properly, so we shall look to see whether it is strong enough to push back the Sinn Fein position, as far as it manipulates in the political game. I have no illusions about the techniques and tactics that it will be involved in.

An interesting exchange took place between the Secretary of State and his shadow on the matter of Sinn Fein and the IRA. My right hon. Friend argued that, although those organisations are not identical, that does not rule out the argument that they are inextricably linked.

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He used the interesting example of the link between the Labour party and the trade unions. That analogy can be carried so far, and it has relevance to the situation involving the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. Provisional Sinn Fein came out of the Provisional IRA; it is the political wing of the organisation that was established in order to act.

The analogy falls down in respect of the Labour party, because the trade unions were not the only organisations involved in its development. Political manipulators, organisers and activists such as Keir Hardie in the Independent Labour party also had a considerable say. When Labour came out of the trade union movement, it changed, although many of us would say that there is now a problem with how far the trade unions are involved.

Interestingly, the Labour party altered, and if the Sinn Fein party comes out of the Provisional IRA, we may be at the start of a process of change, which means that, in time, those close links and what is seen as identity will begin to disappear. It is likely that the Provisional IRA and those left in it will move to Mafia-type activity and manipulation of their own and away from the political game. We must hope that, as a result of being more and more involved in the political process, Sinn Fein will detach itself from those activities.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Is not the whole point of the Belfast agreement that Sinn Fein can deliver the Provisional IRA. The worst thing that could happen would be for Sinn Fein to become divorced from the Provisional IRA and for a split to occur? Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are one and the same, but on the hon. Gentleman's assumption, a split would leave the Provisional IRA as an armed terrorist group able to go back to violence.

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