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Mr. Quentin Davies: I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman with great attention and in great agreement. Does he agree that if the Government abdicate their proper duty to take the lead in pressing for decommissioning and applying pressure using whatever instruments are available, rather than simply throwing them away as has too often been the case up to now, pressure will need to be applied by himself or the new institutions in Belfast, which will guarantee a series of political crises that could destabilise those institutions every time a new act of decommissioning is needed? Surely, that would be a fatal recipe for achieving the peace, stability and decommissioning that we all need.

Mr. Trimble: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. If the Government reflect on the matter,

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they will realise what a bad thing it is for the development of the political process to have these recurrent crises. Those are not good for the development of the Administration or of confidence in it. One has to ask why the Government are sitting back and adopting the approach that they will do nothing until a crisis occurs. A responsible Government should be acting in advance, particularly as the development of such a crisis is clearly predictable and should be anticipated by them. It is not responsible government, nor is it desirable, to bring about a situation in which such a threat to the political process in Northern Ireland is inevitable.

I find the Government's attitude disappointing. They know that people in Northern Ireland compare the supine attitude that the Government have adopted to events there with the hyperactivity that we see on other fronts, and they are not encouraged by it. If the Government wanted to increase confidence and a sense of community in Northern Ireland, they would address the disparity between their domestic policies and their international policies. The continued gap between those approaches deepens the crisis of confidence in Northern Ireland, and a sensible Administration would not allow that to develop.

Our experience in dealing with republicans reinforces the need for clarity and firmness. We are dealing with an organisation that does not operate on the normal principles that we understand; it does not reciprocate; it never displays any generosity; it acts only when it has to; and if given an opportunity to wriggle out of anything, it will do so. There is a clear need for firm lines. That need is based on pragmatism, but it should not just be based on that. There are principles here that have to be vindicated. In terms of the level of confidence within the community in Northern Ireland, the Government must show that there is no moral vacuum in their approach to the issue, that they understand the basic principles and that they will be firm on them. Those basic principles come back to the underlying point of the Good Friday agreement; that it is there to support peace and democracy and to support the democratic process.

The comments made by the hon. Member for North–East Derbyshire on electoral fraud were significant and I hope that the Government listened and will act. We must support the democratic process, but the objective at the end of the day is to produce a normal society in Northern Ireland that operates by normal, peaceful and democratic methods. That necessarily means an end to paramilitarism; we should be clear about that. Weapons decommissioning is part of the process, but that process must continue with the dissolution or the transformation of the paramilitary organisations into something that is entirely peaceful and democratic.

We may find that some elements, individuals or even organisations are not prepared to make that progress and wish to continue racketeering. As the hon. Member for North–East Derbyshire knows, the Official IRA started a ceasefire in 1972 but, 25 years later, we discovered there were still elements of it in parts of Newry and West Belfast, simply in order to maintain rackets in which they had been engaged over the years. There will be a need to deal with racketeering, and the Government have come across a good example of how that can be done in recent weeks. I hope that the response is positive.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has pointed out, there is a need to tackle the criminal activity that has developed; again,

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probably largely from former paramilitaries who are now lining their own pockets. All those things need to be done to produce the situation that we want, but we will not be able to move paramilitary organisations down this path unless a firm framework is put in place and it is made clear to them that they need to move that way. Essential to that is the setting of some form of target date. The Government have failed to do that, and for that reason I am afraid that this measure, which would otherwise have been a technical one, has to be opposed.

7.22 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): It is a privilege to be called to speak in this debate, which represents the latest incremental step in what has been a long progress towards normalisation in Northern Ireland. I am aware that many hon. Members here tonight have a detailed knowledge of the subject at hand, particularly those Members with constituencies in Northern Ireland. However, they, too, will be aware that many of us with constituencies outside Northern Ireland have constituents with a great deal of interest in the subject. My constituency is no different.

That makes the comment of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth)—that the Labour Government have nothing to lose in Northern Ireland—seem a bit cheap, given that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) spent several minutes saying how large the responsibilities were of the Labour Government in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I did not miss the point. The hon. Gentleman said that the Labour Government had nothing to lose in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Martin Smyth: In an intervention on the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), I said that there was no political price to be paid by the parties in this House because they did not stand in Northern Ireland. I was talking about parties, and not the Government.

Mr. Joyce: I appreciate that, but the Labour Government have a great deal of responsibility in Northern Ireland and therefore a great deal to lose in terms of the interpretation of constituents, including my own, of what happens in Northern Ireland.

The technical purpose of the Bill is to extend the Northern Ireland arms decommissioning process and associated amnesty, initially for a year, in order to maintain the momentum of the decommissioning process. It is essentially a technical Bill.

Of course, on one level it is disappointing that this measure is required at all. We might think that, in an ideal world, the violence, and the arms that have represented the means for maintaining it, would have disappeared from Ireland by now, but that would be a false construct since in an ideal world the violence would not have started in the first place. We should temper our disappointment with the knowledge that, for most people, not only is Northern Ireland a far more hospitable place to live today than it was 10, 15 or, indeed, five years ago, but that, in the more immediate sense, there has been some real progress recently in the decommissioning process.

It might not always be the wisest thing for a politician to apply the term "optimism", as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) did in relation to Northern Ireland. I would not go that far, but there is room for a real sense of progress when we reflect on the historic

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act of decommissioning, witnessed by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and reported on 23 October of this year.

That single act of decommissioning may or may not have been modest in terms of volume—it certainly satisfied the commission—but its significance lay in the fact that it represented an acceptance by people formerly of violent intent that their methods had to change for good. I would not wish to say today that these individuals do not desire the same political ends as they ever did, but the important thing is that their recent action serves as powerful evidence that they recognise they can pursue their objectives only through peaceful and democratic means. That is why it would be a wholesale failure of peaceful governance if the decommissioning momentum—achieved, most notably, in recent months—were not maintained by means of the legislation under debate this evening.

Of course there will be other objections to the extension of the decommissioning process. One objection is that, in negotiations of any kind, it is sometimes useful to be able to put those on the other side of the table under some form of time pressure, or constrain them to given time horizons. That is the essence of the amendment tabled by the Opposition today and supported by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann.

But surely it is clear that, in the circumstances that pertain today, even if all paramilitaries agreed tomorrow to decommission, it would not be possible by February 2002. That is not a practical proposition, and it should lead us to the not unreasonable conclusion that what is important is that things are steadily moving forward, rather than to attempt to present artificial and unhelpful time frames.

Indeed, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann agreed with the broad principle that artificial time frames are unhelpful in 1999 when he said

Another objection sometimes made is that the act of decommissioning witnessed by General de Chastelain and his colleagues was somehow bogus—a very weak objection indeed. Like all of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I take the integrity of the members of the commission as axiomatic and I would suggest that people who wish to doubt it prove by their very approach the wisdom of removing from the political arena the physical process of verification itself.

A wider objection is to argue—as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has done before today—that the IRA has control rather than peace in mind, and would simply return to violence if the Good Friday agreement as a whole did not provide acceptable outcomes. That objection seems to miss the point that, in a democracy, people and groups can have whatever objectives they want, provided the means by which they pursue them are peaceful and lawful.

The objection also ignores the way in which the world has changed, even since the events of 11 September, so as to make a return to the bullet and the bomb

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unacceptable to all but a tiny splinter of people who will, in due course, be mopped up by sound policing in the Province and elsewhere.

Our concern this evening should rest with progress in the short to medium term. This debate is not so much about the ultimate constitutional structure that is to pertain in Northern Ireland, but rather with the processes that ensure that, however the people of Northern Ireland choose to order their affairs, guns and explosives have no part in the public, or indeed private, discourse. The recent history of Northern Ireland has sometimes been characterised by the rejection of arguments based on process on the grounds that they could lead to political solutions not in accordance with the views of one group or another. However, in the 21st century, and post-11 September, that is not a view that even many former paramilitaries find sustainable.

Indeed, 11 September, when a similar number of people died in one day as have died in Northern Ireland in 30 years, is likely, through its apocalyptic scale and effect, to have helped to force the hand of the Provisional IRA by closing off the remnants of support for terrorism in any form that may have existed outside Britain or Ireland. It is true that that argument allows for the fact that without the violence in New York some in Northern Ireland—other than the splinter groups I mentioned earlier—may still have considered violence to be a feasible option. It is also fair to say that Ministers must make fine judgments regarding who among the several groupings in Northern Ireland with a history of violence is to be specified and who is not. At the end of the day, the finer points of detail surely have to yield to common sense. The bare fact is that there has been progress, and there is good evidence to suggest that it will continue. It is therefore now time for loyalist paramilitary groups to enter the decommissioning process, too.

Specification is not a one-way street and the decommissioning process is therefore a most fundamental part of the process of ensuring that competing visions of Northern Ireland's future are reconciled in democratic, rather than lawless, fashion. It is essential that all sides are able to press their cases, and it is fairly clear that if loyalist groups are to come on board, there is no real possibility—as hon. Members on the Opposition Benches know full well—of the process being completed before February. That is why the Bill is so important in helping to ensure a peaceful future for the people who live in Northern Ireland. It is pity that some hon. Members cannot see that and prefer to put up mindless opposition for its own sake.

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