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Dr. John Reid: The hon. Gentleman is incapable of following a logical argument. I did not say that Sinn Fein and the IRA enjoyed the same relationship as the trade unions and the Labour party. I said that it is possible to be interlinked but not the same, and I gave as an example of that phenomenon the Labour party and the trade unions.
The Secretary of State referred to dissident republicans and rejectionist loyalists, saying that they were the true enemies of Northern Ireland, opposed by all the people of Northern Ireland, but his remarks did not persuade me that the Bill is aimed at them. Five years ago, when the timetable was discussed in Standing Committee, Ulster Unionist party Members tabled an amendment in support of their argument that five years was too long. The position of the then Government was that a shorter timetable would be far more appropriate for the Provisional IRA, because there was supposed to be a prospect that that organisation, through Sinn Feinthe other side of the coinwould become involved in the process. In resisting that amendment, Sir John Wheeler, then Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, made it clear that
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) challenged the Secretary of State to say that, if no decommissioning takes place within a year, he will not propose another extension in February 2003. The Secretary of State simply replied that he could not predict the future. The problem is that we are dealing in signals. General de Chastelain said that the decommissioning that took place was significant as a signal of IRA decommissioning, and it was accepted and welcomed by the Opposition as a signal. The signal that the Bill sends is the wrong one. It ignores the law-abiding majority in Northern Ireland. It is a signal of pressure being taken off the Provisional IRA.
The Bill is another concession in an endless series to Sinn Fein-IRA. The Government's concessions have not been to constitutional politicians. Instead, they have always been to those who are illegally holding arms. To introduce another five-year Bill in precisely the same terms as previous legislation, which was introduced in an entirely different situation before the ceasefire and before the Belfast agreement, is a message that the process will be endless. There will never be closure.
It is time for the Government to seek to achieve a return to normality. It is time for them to show some commitment to achieving normality and not to hide behind the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. That is what our reasoned amendment seeks to achieve, and that is what I hope the House will support.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. It mellowed into an interesting discourse on the moral dilemmas facing us, as a Parliament and as a Government, as we grapple with progress in moving from armed conflict and terrorism to a fully democratic and peaceful Northern Ireland.
The Bill simply provides a legal framework to allow decommissioning to happen; no more and no less. It mirrors closely the Bill that was introduced by the Conservative Government in 1997, which was supported by the then Opposition. It extends legal immunity from prosecution for one year only. Any further extension requires the approval of the House.
Contrary to what may have been understood if someone had wandered into the debate, the framework that the Bill provides will assist in the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms, both loyalist and republican. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said that there is little between us, I think. He criticised the Bill's timing and the period in respect of which it is designed to provide legal immunity. Timing could always be better, especially with hindsight, and, as I said, the legal framework will last for one year only. I am sure that we will debate that issue further when we come to consider the Bill in Committee after we return from the Christmas recess.
I hope that we are all agreed that we want to achieve decommissioning. The original Bill was introduced in 1997, five years ago. The political context has been transformed since then. No one could have predicted then where we would be today, five years later. Would we have
If I may pay tribute to him, in a powerful and incisive speech, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) touched upon the courage and vision of the then Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. The hopes and aspirations of the Conservative Government in bringing forward a Bill five years ago have been vindicated by the progress that has been made subsequently.
The point made by the hon. Gentleman is the more powerful because when the Conservatives took their measure forward, the Provisional IRA was not even on ceasefire. Its ceasefire had ended in February 1996 and was not restored until the summer of 1997. The hope and aspirations fully justified the extension of the principle that the Conservative Government introduced and that we supported. We have made huge strides over the past five years. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined many of those at the beginning of his powerful speech, when he laid out the strong reasons why we are bringing the Bill forward now.
I say to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that Conservative Members do not have a monopoly on distaste. I understand and share the view that is held by many people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere that the early release of those convicted of terrorist offences was profoundly distasteful. However, without prisoner releases we would have had no agreement; we considered that that was a prize worth taking risks for.
I am grateful to many of my hon. Friends who participated in our debate. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), and welcomed his contribution, which was based on his extensive knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland and, as was acknowledged, the constructive role that he played there.
I shall deal with points made by other Members in our debate. I heard a lot about concessions to the IRA. We are not in the business of making concessions. Our concern at all times has been to create a society in Northern Ireland in which both sections of the community can feel a sense of belonging and in which all political aspirations are recognised. That is why we now have devolution, which gives real power to Northern Ireland politicians; the principle of consent, which establishes Northern Ireland's position as an integral part of the United Kingdom; and the removal of the Republic of Ireland's territorial claim to Northern Ireland.
David Burnside: Since no concessions have been made and none are planned, does the Minister expect the Government of the Irish Republic and Fianna Fail to be consistent with the British Government in keeping Sinn Fein out of a coalition Government if, after their election in May next year, Sinn Fein does not give up the private army within the state, which is unconstitutional under the Irish Republic's constitution?
Jane Kennedy: Equality for all and individual human rights are being promoted. How those fundamental aspects of the Belfast agreement can be conveniently overlooked or presented as somehow pro-republican is beyond me. They are good things in their own right that clearly demonstrate our commitment to promoting peace, stability and democracy for all.