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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Cook: If hon. Members will allow me, I will return to my speech.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: I will.

Kate Hoey: Can the Leader of the House point out exactly which page and paragraph of the Belfast agreement talk about giving Sinn Fein Members who had not taken the Oath entry to the House of Commons?

Mr. Cook: The Good Friday agreement commits us to a parity of esteem for both traditions in Northern Ireland. It sets us out on a process. If my hon. Friend wants that process to succeed, she must recognise that it will involve different steps along the way, whether or not they are specifically written down in the document of three years ago.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Cook: I will continue with my speech.

All four of the Sinn Fein Members elected to the House are full Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. They regularly attend that body without any problems of security in the Assembly. There is no logic in saying to them that as a result of the peace process, to which we are party, they can attend, speak and vote in Belfast, but in Westminster they cannot get past the door.

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One of their number, Martin McGuinness, is the Minister of Education in Northern Ireland. He has a pledge of office, which committed him to using only democratic, non-violent means. He sits in the Executive Committee with representatives of other parties, including the Unionists. He not uncommonly meets my colleagues in the United Kingdom Government. The House has initiated a peace process that involves him and his colleagues in the peaceful administration of public services in Northern Ireland. The question now is whether the House is willing to play its part in engaging Sinn Fein in political activity.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): In view of what the right hon. Gentleman said about Martin McGuinness committing himself to purely democratic means, presumably the right hon. Gentleman will accept the amendments tabled today to require such an undertaking from those four people before they are allowed in here.

Mr. Cook: The position that I am putting before the House, which is clear within the motion, is that those Members who have not taken the Oath should be entitled to access to the precincts, in the same way as they were before 1997 and before progress had not been made on the peace process.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Can the right hon. Gentleman try to explain to my constituents in Eastbourne, who saw one of their previous MPs murdered by the IRA, why we are now proposing to give the benefits, privileges and facilities of this place to some of the people responsible for his murder?

Mr. Cook: Ian Gow was tragically and appallingly murdered during the year in which Gerry Adams was a Member of this House and had precisely the access to the precincts for which the motion provides. The whole point of the peace process is to prevent future murders of that kind and to ensure that we proceed by political activity, not by violent confrontation. I do not understand how the hon. Gentleman imagines that we can draw Sinn Fein into political activity if he will not even allow it anywhere near Westminster.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Leader of the House referred to the pledge of office that people have to take to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and there are similar new pledges in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Will he help the House by saying whether, as part of his welcome modernisation programme, it is in his mind that we should amend the law on the Oath, which not only is of interest to people elected from Northern Ireland, but would be widely welcomed in many parts of the House and would facilitate many people living with their consciences as well as serving their constituents?

Mr. Cook: If the hon. Gentleman and any other substantial body of opinion in the House wish to raise the question of the Oath that Members take, that is a matter that we can explore at another time.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): A majority does.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having his finger on the pulse and his assurance on that point,

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but at present I do not anticipate that giving a commitment to changing the Oath would assist me in the present debate. As I was saying, the peace process is a process, not a single event. A process requires parallel progress on both sides.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr. Cook: No, I will not.

Amendment (q) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition would prevent any part of this motion from being implemented until all of the decommissioning has been completed. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) confirms that point.

Mr. MacKay: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on the specific point of decommissioning?

Mr. Cook: If the right hon. Gentleman lets me get a word in edgeways, I will talk about decommissioning. Both sides of the Chamber want to secure more decommissioning and want it to continue until it is completed. There is no difference between us about the need for further decommissioning by the IRA, but we are more likely to secure further decommissioning if we demonstrate that we are willing to maintain momentum on our side. I would ask all of those in the House who want more decommissioning, including the right hon. Gentleman, whether they really believe that they would make it more likely by voting down this motion tonight. I will happily hear the right hon. Gentleman's answer now.

Mr. MacKay: The answer to the question is simply that the very limited decommissioning that we have had so far resulted entirely from our taking a strong stance, and not from appeasing in the way that the Leader of the House is today. He attempts to pray in aid the limited amount of decommissioning as the reason for this dreadful motion. Will he remind the House just what the terms of the Belfast agreement were on decommissioning, and will he tell us when all decommissioning was supposed to have been completed?

Mr. Cook: The Belfast agreement committed all parties to use their best endeavours and the right hon. Gentleman is right that the original timeframe provided was two years. He is also right that it is only very recently that we have received what General de Chastelain—whose judgment I trust possibly more than that of the right hon. Gentleman—described as a significant event. I find it strange that he should say that that happened when we played tough and stood our ground, because I do not remember him saying before the October act of decommissioning that the Government deserved praise for standing firm and refusing concessions. We secured decommissioning because we have a peace process in being, and we will secure further progress only if we keep that process alive.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Cook: I wish to make some progress.

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The step that the House is being asked to take is a limited one. It will restore access to the precincts and Commons services that existed before the election in May 1997. It will not confer any right to take part in proceedings or to vote. It will not provide a salary or pension for Sinn Fein Members. It will not provide any Short money for Sinn Fein as a party. [Interruption.] Yes, it will extend the entitlement to constituency allowances to Sinn Fein Members on the same basis as any other elected Member. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. As I said last week, this is a sensitive matter, but it does not help when hon. Gentlemen shout across the Chamber.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) rose

Mr. Cook: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Duncan: The only person who could possibly have claimed allowances in the past was Gerry Adams, because the others who did not take their seats were disqualified. He did not claim. Since then, the allowances have dramatically increased from near zero to about £100,000. In addition, there is a legislative Assembly in a devolved Ulster, whose Members also get about £50,000. Given that dramatic change, how can the Leader of the House argue that his motion today is a return to the status quo ante?

Mr. Cook: In respect of the access to the precincts and services, it is precisely that. [Interruption.] If I may say so, and if the hon. Gentleman is listening, that is precisely what I said and have just conceded. In respect of the allowances, the motion introduces a new situation.

Mr. Duncan: New?

Mr. Cook: Yes, it is new. I have never sought to disguise that. It will provide constituency allowances to the four Sinn Fein Members, and any other hon. Member who does not take the Oath, on the same basis as to any other elected Member.

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