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8.51 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and I concur with everything that he said. It is very sad—disappointing is too weak a word—and I am appalled at the fact that nearly four years after the Good Friday agreement, the IRA-Sinn Fein and other paramilitary organisations continue to hold the threat of a return to violence. I sincerely believe that we must stop being weak, and show resolution. We must show that we intend to treat people who act, or threaten to act, with violence as the criminals and gangsters that they are. We need a much stronger approach from the Government, but we are clearly not getting it.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) spoke about the momentum of decommissioning, as if the amount of weaponry decommissioned in October represented a momentum. I do not believe for a moment that we would be in this position today had it not been for the atrocities of 11 September. The IRA-Sinn Fein clearly knew that, for political reasons, they had to do something. They had to present an image of wanting to decommission so that we would believe them to be sincere. I do not believe that they are.

We need to show that we mean what we say, and that weakness is not the way to defeat terrorism, or to encourage those who hold weapons to decommission them. I speak in this debate with a heavy heart for the future of Northern Ireland, because I fear that the Bill will set a precedent that will send a dangerous signal to those who bear arms there. The British Government appear to be too weak to stand up to those people, and too afraid to call their bluff. There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about historic moments. The Prime Minister spoke of "the hand of history" on his shoulder at the signing of the Good Friday agreement, yet the true markers of historic significance do not come with such agreements, but with the effect and success of their implementation.

There is no doubt that the peace process has moved forward since the mid-1990s. There is now an open dialogue among parties that would not even have

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acknowledged one another as having a vaguely relevant case 10 years ago. Indeed, since the Belfast agreement was signed, most sides have kept to their part of the bargain and significant changes have occurred. I can think of three: Northern Ireland has certainly gained devolved government, terrorists have certainly been released early from prison and, shamefully, the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been abolished.

What is not certain is the status of decommissioning, which remains dubious at best, as limited decommissioning has occurred only under duress and following extreme political pressure. Furthermore, it is important to note that even when such decommissioning takes place—that in October, for example—it is further rewarded through the dismantling of British military structures such as the observation tower at Sturgan mountain in south Armagh, an observation tower at Camlough mountain and many others.

I appreciate that good will needs to be shown, but the decommissioning episodes by Sinn Fein-IRA in October, supposedly part of a reciprocal deal, were delivered late, given the sacrifices made by the Unionist community and the Governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. There is a limit to how far good will and trust between groups with no fundamental reason to trust each other can go. We must not forget that ceasefires have been broken before and that hopes have been shattered.

I shall never forget the disappointment and anger that I felt in 1996 when the IRA broke its ceasefire and planted a bomb in docklands, killing two people and injuring many more. Indeed, that very day, I was at South Quay station an hour before the bomb went off. I shall remember it for the rest of my life. There was so much hope for peace in Northern Ireland, and, most significantly, the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties were starting to believe that real progress was being made—a bit like now, as the position today is similar.

There is hope for the future, but so long as full decommissioning is continually delayed and the message goes back to those who hold weapons that the Government will keep moving the deadlines, we cannot know what might happen as a result and we shall betray those who acted in good faith, believing that decommissioning would happen.

Lembit Öpik: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he think that the Conservative Government were correct to introduce the original amnesty in 1997?

Mr. Rosindell: I shall not comment on what Conservative Governments did; I have never been part of a Conservative Government. I shall speak about what this Government are doing today. Over many years, there has been not so much a peace process, but a process that seems to appease those who act violently. The situation must not be left open ended. The time has come to deal with it and show paramilitaries on both sides that the Government will not be forced into continual compromise, and that they will stand firm.

I knew two Members of the House who were killed by the IRA—a former Member for Eastbourne and a former Member for Enfield, Southgate, who was killed in the

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Grand hotel in 1984. I was there that evening. Such events leave a scar, and we cannot go on compromising with these people. At some point, we must make it clear that the vast majority of law-abiding people in Northern Ireland are the people whom we shall defend. Compromising with the men of violence will not result in true peace in Northern Ireland.

Groups on all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland are determined and passionate about what they believe in, and violence has been used for decades as a way of articulating those beliefs. The consequence of that has been the deaths of thousands—3,321 according to the latest statistics published by the Northern Ireland Police Service. The violence and intimidation continues. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau estimates that, following terrorist threats, more than 1,000 people have been forced to move to the mainland since the Good Friday agreement was signed, with a further 2,519 families having to be rehoused since 1998.

It has also been reported that the ceasefire years have seen some of the most intense and sustained vigilante campaigns of the entire troubles. That does not necessarily mean that there will be a return to the widespread terror and violence of the past, nor is it likely that the better known groupings will recommence their campaigns of violence. However, the threat from the dissident groups remains high. It would be extremely naive to ignore those threats, and to allow the weapons used as central to them to remain in use or ready to be used.

It is particularly bizarre that, when there is so much action against terrorism and so many precautions being set, the Government should introduce a Bill that potentially gives those capable of more terrorist atrocities a further five years, when they have already had nearly five years to hand over their weapons. I do not believe that any Member of the House would have argued in favour of giving international terrorist groups such a long time to remove from bank accounts moneys raised for terror campaigns. It was right that extra moves were made to freeze such assets immediately. Little international credence would have been given to the suggestion of giving the Taliban seven years to hand over Osama bin Laden before military action was to commence. Immediate action was taken to deal with that serious threat.

I appreciate that decommissioning of arms in Northern Ireland is a matter of delicate political negotiation. I understand that some give and take is necessary to build up some semblance of trust. However, I urge Members to recognise that there is a clear threat. So long as those weapons exist, there is no guarantee that they will not be used. So long as others, such as the Unionist community, make sacrifices and receive nothing in return, whatever trust has been established will soon fade.

Indeed, the Northern Ireland Assembly has already been suspended three times due to lack of progress on decommissioning. That signals that faith in the agreement has already sunk. If we permit the Bill to extend the lack of progress, how many more times will the Assembly have to be suspended? How many more times will Northern Ireland Ministers have to resign simply to force a tiny show of decommissioning? How long will we have to extend the deadlines beyond 2007, if full decommissioning has still not occurred.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) argued that the Government have tied their hands behind their back by permitting the early release of terrorists without any reciprocation. The Bill destroys any remaining sense of urgency.

The Bill is soft on terrorism at a time when, in every other respect, the civilised world is being hard on terrorism. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to oppose the Bill, and send a message to the holders of arms in Northern Ireland that we will not tolerate this threat any longer, and that we will not keep on extending deadlines year in, year out until the whole agreement has been utterly undermined. The agreement can work only when all parties stick to their side of the bargain. If we do not send out that message, we shall be permitting the scenario to continue indefinitely, and setting a precedent that the British Government will always back down.

9.5 pm

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Before I begin what will be a fairly brief speech, in view of the time, let me apologise for having had to pop out for about 20 minutes. Although I was here for the beginning of the debate, I had to stand in for Father Christmas earlier. If there are any small bits of white fluff clinging to my head, they are what remain of my hair rather than the beard—but I must not extend this suspension of disbelief too far.

Let me say this to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) and the hon. and gallant Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). I doubt sincerely whether the cause of Northern Ireland is best served by speeches such as theirs—the Manichean descriptions that we have been hearing. I observed some Northern Ireland Members almost wincing when the lines were trotted out yet again.

It is very easy in this life, and in this place, to play the plastic Palmerston and hurl the bombast on the Floor of the Chamber. It is very easy to come up with marvellous expressions of undiluted negativism. I have slightly more respect for the hon. and gallant Member for Blaby, who has worn the Queen's uniform and knows a bit about the realities of life on the streets of Northern Ireland; but too many of us seem over-keen to establish what we think it should be, rather than what it can be.

History, as we know, is written by the winners. History is not a matter of black and white. It is not a matter of people beyond redemption. It is not a matter of someone remaining as they are for ever. I understand the pain and distress that are felt when those who in the past have either espoused the cause of violence directly or been associated with it become part of a democratic process—I can imagine what has been described tonight as revulsion—but we have been here before.

Politics is a business for grown-ups. We all know that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned as a terrorist. Menachem Begin—a close associate of a former Conservative Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher—was a member of the Stern gang back in the 1940s, and a member of Irgun, the organisation that slaughtered British army sergeants in Jerusalem and was responsible for the massacre at the King David hotel; but when that group made peace, did anyone in this place say "We will never treat with Menachem Begin, because he has been a member of the group that directly murdered our soldiers in what was then the Palestine mandate"? No, we did not say that.

I am not trying to make comparisons between Palestine and Northern Ireland. The late Golda Meir was asked precisely that question: whether an analogy could be

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drawn between the two states. She said, "The problem is that in Israel and Palestine there are two sides who are both in the right, whereas in Northern Ireland there are two sides who are both in the wrong." I do not happen to agree with that analysis. I think that there is a future in the north of Ireland, which lies before the eyes of those of us who visit the Province regularly.

Let me say something about the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). Almost against my expectations, I have come to feel considerable respect for Northern Ireland politicians over the years. I have not had a great deal to do with loyalism and Unionism in the past—that is no secret—but I have worked with those politicians. I have sat in Committee Rooms with, and talked to, Members such as the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), whose home was blown up around his ears less than 30 years ago.

We are talking about something very serious—far too serious for bitter, nonsensical talk of appeasement from the safety of London seats. When the hon. Member for Belfast, East, who I suspect was not educated by Jesuits, talks of his meeting with General de Chastelain and applies Occam's razor to "If we said it was this, would you say it was that?", I begin to doubt whether he is not too close to the situation to be truly objective.

It is presumptuous of me, from the safety of my London constituency, to claim objectivity in this matter, and I would not even begin to do so, but I can see why decommissioning is not the be-all and end-all of the process. It is the process that matters. If every single piece of ordnance in the entire Province were destroyed tomorrow, would peace suddenly arrive on the wings of a dove with the dawn? Would there be no rearming? Would nobody bring in arms from Libya? I do not think so.

What makes the verifiable act of decommissioning so incredibly significant—to use General de Chastelain's word—is simply the fact that it happened. For years, I have begged republicans and nationalists to give up that one bullet or that one ounce of Semtex, and they told me that I could not even begin to understand what would happen in the republican community if they did so. They talked about the pikes in the thatch, about 1690 and about the fact that the IRA was called "I Ran Away" after 1968. They said that if they started to hand in their weapons, the cohesion among the republicans who are signed up to the peace process would be destroyed and we would see a hundred so-called Real IRAs and a hundred groups of murderous, inward and backward-looking people. Yet somehow republicans have gone beyond that stage and committed themselves to a verifiable act of decommissioning. I do not think that we in this House should underestimate for a moment the immense significance of that act. We have to pay tribute to it.

Hon. Members have said that this is all part of a charade, and the hon. Member for Belfast, East talked about the decommissioning of the two sites as a stunt. If this is a charade or a stunt, what is it for? The Irish Republican Army had an virtually limitless supply of finance and so-called volunteers. It has been described tonight as the most successful organisation of its type in western Europe. We are told that 11 September changed all that, and people are no longer able to occupy themselves in that way.

If that is the case, why has not ETA started decommissioning? Why is there not a peace process in the Basque country? Decommissioning is not about

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11 September; it is not about the nonsense in Turkey or the farce in Colombia. It is part of a much longer process. Anyone who spends time studying the evolution of republican political thought in Ireland will see that decommissioning is part of a movement away from violence and towards engagement in a political process. That is the result not of a suspension of disbelief but of very careful analysis.

Why on earth would the IRA want to take part in the decommissioning process if it was not serious? Anyone in the Chamber who has had anything to do with the process knows that a member of Sinn Fein who stands up at a meeting anywhere in the United Kingdom now will be attacked by someone in the hall saying that Sinn Fein are the appeasers who have sold out, who have betrayed the glorious history and who are turning their backs on the terrible beauty of 1916 and all that sad, bitter, old music that we have known for so many years. Decommissioning has not been easy for republicans; it has been desperately, desperately hard.

I am not, for a moment, trying to make a case for the IRA. If there is one thing that has made me deeply respect those Northern Irish Members to whom I have spoken, it is the fact that they have never failed utterly to condemn ruthless gangster murders, even when they are committed by people in their community against people in that community. I take second place to no Member of the House in recording my respect and admiration for those Northern Irish Members who have had the courage to utter that condemnation.

I will not seek to defend the IRA or Sinn Fein, but to those Members who have tried to convince us that the process should be derailed, because Armalites have not been fed into angle grinders or smelters, I say that the de Chastelain commission, in which the House has expressed its confidence, has witnessed those acts and that has to be good enough. If we want to make a judgment on that, we should look at the impact within the republican communities. It is a sad fact that I have addressed myself to the speeches made by Northern Ireland Members in particular, but we are debating a Conservative amendment to the Bill. The fact that the Conservatives have come to the House tonight with no alternative, no plan B and no great vision for the future of the political process—nothing but bitter negativism—is a terrifying indictment of their political immaturity on the issue.

Politicians in Northern Ireland have the right to say what they think; they have earned it. We know that they represent their communities and that they must speak according to their own beliefs. The Conservative party appears to be playing the old trick of party politics on an issue that should be above it. The amendment says nothing; I am sorry, it says one thing. It says no. That is it. I feel sad. I also feel a certain amount of contempt for Her Majesty's official Opposition, who chose to try to derail a process that is not perfect but is the only game in town and the only possible avenue in which any hope exists or in which any chance is identifiable. Yet tonight they say simply no.

Other hon. Members wish to speak and I will conclude by saying that I hope that we will pass the Bill tonight and reject the amendment. If I have caused any offence to any Northern Ireland Members, I bitterly regret that.

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As someone who comes from an entirely different community, I have come to hold you in considerable respect. As long as there are people like yourselves—

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