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Mr. Quentin Davies: The explanation is simple. Much to our regret, we have found it impossible to support or, often, even to understand Government policy in recent weeks. They have made no attempt to explain it to us either privately or in the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman has heard me ask questions that go to the heart of this and other proposals for Northern Ireland to which we have not had responses. It is not the case that we have walked away from bipartisanship because of this issue, or, indeed, that we have walked away from bipartisanship at all. The Government have made it impossible for us to be bipartisan. This is just one of a series of endless and apparently uncontrolled concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA.
Conservative Members always have a free vote on House of Commons issues, and this is essentially a House of Commons issue. It is, however, one of the many contexts in which the Government have given us great grounds for anxiety about the course on which they are launched in negotiating the completion of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Lembit Öpik: That serves to confirm that either the hon. Gentleman is not aware of his pronouncements in the press or that he is choosing to redefine what a free vote means. He specifically stated in the press that Conservative Members were walking away from the bipartisan agreement explicitly because of the decision that they anticipated would be made tonight.
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to say that he speaks for the Conservative party. As I am a Liberal and enjoy an eclectic political approach, perhaps I should join the Conservative party. It seems that a free vote is not a free vote and that Front-Bench Members can say whatever they like because the free vote really belongs to them.
Mr. Davies: I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is quoting, but he is not quoting me. If he had listened to what I just said, he would understand what our policy is. If he has some other quotation, let him put it to me. There may be some speculation about my position, but whatever has been said is not a direct quote from me.
Mr. Quentin Davies: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to correct what the Leader of the House has said. The right hon. Gentleman did not quote my words, which are quite properly quotedexcept for one wrong wordon page 4 of The Daily Telegraph. The words in inverted commas are properly attributed to me, except for one, and I stand by them. I am not responsible for any press comment on that interview or anything else.
Lembit Öpik: I knew that the anti-terrorism legislation was pernicious, but if it is so powerful that the Government have managed to win over the heart and mind of The Daily Telegraph, that is indeed worrying. I have made my point, the hon. Gentleman has tried to respond and the House can draw its own conclusions.
I assume that to walk away from bipartisanship does not mean walking away from the shared goal of peace. I hope to convince hon. Memberson the Liberal Democrat Benches and elsewherethat, at heart, the judgment that we should make tonight is whether the motion will so help peace and improve the chances for a sustained and normalised political environment that it is worth the risks and the emotional costs involved. The real debate is thus whether such a precedentit is indeed a precedentis acceptable in the context of the big picture in Northern Ireland that we must always bear in mind.
I hope that the House will accept the following point in the spirit in which it is intended. The debate has thrown into sharp focus for the entire House a matter that is often debated by a small and experienced number of Membersperhaps 20 or 30who are often in the Chamber. We are really discussing a snapshot of the point that we have reached in the peace process. The discussion of the need to do things in a new way is not a new principle.
Having criticised the Conservatives for walking away from bipartisanship, I now offer the House three examples of momentous precedents set by the Conservative party in the pursuit of peace. Hon. Members will remember the stress and the history of the Anglo-Irish agreement. Although we all accept the strength of the relationship that now exists between Dublin and Westminster, let us not forget that it was almost non-existent before the advent of that agreement.
The Anglo-Irish agreement was instituted at a time when the Dublin Government claimed a constitutional hold over Northern Irelandthat they had a constitutional mandate to reunify Ireland. Who was the person who pushed through that agreement? It was Margaret Thatchernot regarded as a republican icon in any quarter. Why did she promote the agreement? Because in her judgmentand to her creditand in the judgment of her Government, the potential loss of popularity was more than outweighed by the benefits to the peace process.
The second precedent was created by another former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. He picked up the phone and spoke to the IRA at a time when they were not even on a ceasefire. When he was holding those conversations, which had beenas we have already heardgoing on for some time, the IRA were bombing, maiming and killing, and destroying property as part of what they considered a war.
Was John Major an apologist for the IRA? Absolutely not. The reason that he took what turned out to be a courageous and laudable decision was that, in his judgment, it was the right one to secure the ultimate goal of peace. I said during our debate last nightas I have said many times in the Chamberthat John Major's great contribution to the House was the series of decisions that he took, initially in private, which he then made public, to negotiate with individuals who had never been involved in the decision-making process.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and I am most impressed by his argument. However, can he offer me a single instancejust oneof evidence that the important change that we propose to make tonight will produce the kind of result that he is talking about?
Lembit Öpik: I am describing unique and unprecedented incidents and arguing that the proposal falls into the same category: it is a new and unique opportunity to set a further precedent. I fully accept the hon. Lady's implication: a risk is involvedas there was on those previous occasions. However, I want to show the House that whenever we have taken such risksalthough they may not have been justifiable at the timethey were worth it in the longer term.
David Winnick: When a Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a statement regarding contacts with the IRA, I do not recall that any Conservative Member objected to what was being proposedperhaps hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench would care to listen to my remarks. Is not it true that the only Conservative who resigned from a Government position over the Anglo-Irish agreement was Ian Gow, who was to be foully murdered by the IRA? No other Minister considered it appropriate to resign.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman's intervention simply serves to show that, to the credit of the Conservative party and others in the House, it was decided that the interests of Northern Ireland exceeded the party political gain to be made from taking an opportunistic shot at the then Government. Furthermore, they were vindicated in taking that decision.
The third example closely relates to what happened last night. In 1997, when John Major was still the Prime Minister and Conservative Members occupied the Government Benches, they passed an amnesty on handing in weapons under which paramilitary organisations and terrorists would not be prosecuted for handing in their guns. Let us remember that that took place in a political vacuumthere was no Good Friday agreement, nor any guarantee that there would be any lasting ceasefire, yet, once again, John Major set a precedent in Northern Ireland's recent history. He did so because he believed that the risk of setting that precedentletting people off
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I have been following my hon. Friend's argument carefully, and I agree with much of it, but does he not agree that it would be much to the benefit of the House if some of the issues raised so far in the debate were taken forward by the Leader of the House, particularly those relating to the Oath, Members' interests and the possible reimposition of the terms of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 on the financing and management of Northern Ireland parties?