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David Burnside: The hon. Gentleman has referred to one Sinn Fein office in west Belfast. Is he aware that there are now 18 such offices in west Belfast? Does he agree that the Government's decision to allow fundraising and to make Sinn Fein an exception from the other political parties in the House has allowed the financing of one of the strongest organisations in western Europe?

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am out of date. I did not know that there are 18 offices. That surely makes my case. Fundraising is still allowed in America and, more terrifyingly, British taxpayers' money will be funding the offices of a terrorist organisation. Surely that should worry us all. It is disgraceful, shameful and dishonest. All Ministers should recall from their days at school, if they learned any history, that we do not buy peace by paying danegeld, and that is what we are doing tonight.

8.21 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I apologise for the fact that I was unable to be present at the beginning of the debate, but I had a previous engagement elsewhere in the House. I think that the entire House respects the views of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on these matters, especially given that he served in the armed forces in Northern Ireland, although I think that by overstating his case he has undermined it somewhat.

I turn to the underlying analysis of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). He quoted the statements that were made by my right hon. Friend the

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Secretary of State a few weeks ago that for Unionists, Northern Ireland had become a "cold house". There is much truth in that. Many of the examples that the hon. Gentleman quoted are evidence that it has, indeed, become a "cold house".

I accept that people such as Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Mitchell Mcloughlin and many others have made the psychological adjustment from terrorism to politics, but the activities of the IRA have not necessarily always followed that course. That is all the more regrettable because I believe that, certainly in the case of Martin McGuinness, and almost certainly in the case of Gerry Adams, they have the authority within republicanism to deliver what was meant to be delivered in terms of decommissioning in the Good Friday Agreement.

It is a matter of regret that, for whatever reason, they have not been able to use, or have chosen not to use, that authority to exercise the leadership that is undoubtedly theirs within republicanism—especially in terms of the IRA, with which they are intimately connected—to deliver everything that was promised. There is an interesting contrast between the way in which they behave on decommissioning specifically and the leadership that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has exercised as the leader of his party.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann has often been some way ahead of his party in this context. He has been willing to accept difficult situations. He has also been willing, often with a great deal of reluctance and a great deal of concern, almost to take a leap in the dark. He has been willing to accept stepped progress as it moved forward. That has often been difficult for him within his party, and it has certainly been difficult for him in acting as a spokesman for Unionism within Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, he has done that in a party structure that is far more democratic than the structures of republicanism, and in a climate of public opinion that has often been doubtful, afraid and worried. He has kept the process together. So far as he was capable of delivering all of the things that he was meant to under the Good Friday agreement, and so far as he has been able to provide leadership as First Minister, he did so and has done so.

That record stands in marked contrast to the leadership of republicanism. As I have said, I accept that it has made the psychological shift from terrorism to politics. However, it seems not to be able to make the organisational shift that all of us believe is necessary.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East made a good speech that was based on a long involvement in politics in Northern Ireland and on an intimate knowledge of all of the events that we are discussing, but he was not able to provide an answer to the "What if?" question: for example, what if we did not extend tonight the legal framework within which decommissioning can take place? What would happen next?

There is much criticism of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about some of the activities that have allegedly been carried out by the IRA since the time of the Good Friday agreement. Specific allegations have been made about certain incidents of violence, which have been well recorded and well documented. The hon.

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Member for Belfast, East alluded to the continued so-called punishment beatings. The word "justice" is used, which I find bizarre.

Mr. Pound: Community justice.

Mr. Howarth: Yes. Community-administered justice is a bizarre way of defining justice.

There have been occasions on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had to consider extremely carefully whether to specify organisations in relation to which some of the activities that were taking place were close to the line. I know that that was true of my right hon. Friend's two most recent predecessors. There were times when the determination as to whether the IRA could continue to be regarded as being on ceasefire was on a knife edge. The hon. Member for Belfast, East was right to point out that those incidents are of great concern.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who played a constructive role in Northern Ireland during his time in office. He chided me for not answering the question, "What if?". The House has already decided that question in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, when it determined that there would be a consequence if parties associated with violence did not commit themselves to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The answer to the question, "What if?" is that they are put out of government.

Mr. Howarth: I acknowledged that that was the case just before giving way to the hon. Gentleman. I made the point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the two Secretaries of State preceding him came close to acting on that basis. Indeed, my right hon. Friend has specified one of the loyalist organisations and, as far as I am aware, that still stands.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that that power is available. I was not chiding him; he knows that, although I do not agree with him, I respect the view that he and his colleagues share as a view within the Unionist community that needs to be discussed. If I had to choose between different political grounds of Unionism, I would go with that espoused by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann every time, because his approach is more constructive and, in the long term, more likely to bring about peace. However, it is important that we are aware of the different views within Unionism and, indeed, the wider community in Northern Ireland.

I come back to the question, "What if?". What if my right hon. Friend or one of his predecessors had excluded Sinn Fein from the process? They made a careful study of the facts available at the time before determining not to do so; it was not an easy decision to make. Had they excluded Sinn Fein, it is possible that the peace process in which we are involved, imperfect as it is—and I entirely accept that—would have been derailed, and the consequences of that are too horrendous to imagine.

I would not have wanted to do what we are doing tonight 12 months ago or at the time of the Good Friday agreement; I do not think that any of us would. I am not absolutely certain that, by approving the Bill tonight, as we are being asked to do, we shall ensure that everything is delivered in the specified time, but I hope that that is

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so. The fact that I can still hope that it will deliver is sufficient reason for me to support the process. I honestly believe that it would be dangerous to take any course of action that results in someone saying, "Too late. We are not accepting decommissioning unless you decide to do it voluntarily—and then we will consider what action we shall take in recognition." All those things are uncomfortable and difficult; nobody pretends otherwise.

I do not wish to chide any hon. Member from any quarter of the House, and I am making this statement because I believe it to be true: frankly, there is not another way available to us. I shall therefore vote for Second Reading without any difficulty, not because I have infinite trust that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or anybody else will now walk a rose-strewn path to a better tomorrow—they may choose at some point not to do so, although I do not think that they will—but because I do not think that there is a viable alternative.

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman may be pleased or perhaps surprised to learn that I respect him also. However, if he believes that decommissioning is important—it is in the Belfast agreement—when should it take place? There has to be a deadline, the purpose of which is to achieve an objective by a certain time.

Mr. Howarth: One reaches a point in one's career where praise from any quarter is welcome; I like and admire the hon. Gentleman, and his praise is well taken. He asked me when the deadline for decommissioning should be. I am somewhat detached from all the discussions that are taking place, although I have seen a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing on the subject in the past, so for me to specify a time would not be helpful. The only answer that I can give the hon. Gentleman is not a satisfactory one, but it is the best that I can give: decommissioning should happen as soon as possible. There cannot be a balanced political system in Northern Ireland while one of the major political partners in that system is still intimately involved with an organisation that has a large quantity of arms available to it. If I were a member of the Executive or the Assembly in Northern Ireland, I would still look with suspicion at Sinn Fein because of that connection and the continued existence of those arms.

Imperfect though it is, and unable though I am to give a realistic deadline, the proposal before us is better than any conceivable alternative that I or any other hon. Member could offer.

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