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Jeremy Corbyn: Will my hon. Friend reflect on the view of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that it may be better to have no oath at all? We would simply be elected to Parliament and declared elected by the returning officer. That would be the end of it; we would then get on with the job.

Mr. Soley: That is possible, although there may be value in showing a commitment to the parliamentary and democratic process.

Jeremy Corbyn: We could be nominated, then.

Mr. Soley: That might be enough, but dictators have emerged in Parliament; it might be a little easier for them to take over if people have not signed up to the democratic process. One can argue about whether or not such an oath is important; most of us who believe in a democratic process should not have any difficulty in taking it. Sinn Fein argues that it is in favour of the democratic process. One can question whether or not it—or, indeed, many Unionist paramilitary groups—has been in favour of it over the years, but it is moving towards that position. The fact that members of Sinn Fein are taking their seats in Stormont, when they said that they would not, and are serving as Ministers, when they said that they would not, indicates that that is happening.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): First, would it not be more intellectually honest of the Government to debate

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the Oath or whatever affirmation is required of Members of Parliament, and then come to the debate that we are now having? Secondly, would it not be more intellectually honest of them to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and refer not to the facilities of the House but step 54 of the peace process?

Mr. Soley: It would have been more intellectually honest of former Prime Minister John Major to say that he was having secret talks with the IRA. At the beginning of my speech I said that two things were being held up for judgment: the process by which people take their seats and receive support, and the question of Northern Ireland. I made it clear that although there may be problems with people taking their seats, taxpayers' support and so on, in such a situation we should do something that the British are good at. We should say, "In these circumstances, certain inconsistencies are involved, but there is a greater political gain because we are engaged in a peace process that is helping the people of Northern Ireland enormously."

That is profoundly important. If one sets the issue in that context, it is a mistake to get hung up on the absolutes of black and white, putting things in little boxes and insisting that they stay there. The issue could, by all means, be blurred; if one tries to run politics by logic alone, one inevitably ends up fighting, not least because one person's logic is another person's contradiction.

Mr. Gummer: I subscribed very much to the case that the hon. Gentleman has been arguing until he came to the question of how to solve the problem. If there is a genuine problem with the Oath, it should be addressed; otherwise, the issue is about dual Members of Parliament. We are talking about something serious; the wrong issue has been addressed to take the peace process further forward.

Mr. Soley: First, the issue is not big enough to get in the way of the wider interests of the Northern Ireland peace process. Moreover, the question of how to move on that is not critically important to the Oath. If members of Sinn Fein were here now and I asked them whether they would take their seats in the House of Commons if we changed the Oath so that they did not swear allegiance to the British Crown, they would say, "No, we will not, because we want to be part of a united Ireland, and this is the wrong place." They would say that, just as a relatively short time ago—perhaps four, five or six years ago—they told me that they would not take their seats in a Stormont Assembly set up by the British. Well, we set up the Assembly and they took their seats; they do their job, some of them are Ministers, and they work with the Unionists.

We must keep things in perspective. One cannot run politics by logic alone—at the end of the day, one has to make judgments about what is best. I shall leave my judgment with the House. We ought to change the Oath, because that would help to keep the process moving and would help us to put more pressure on Sinn Fein Members to take their seats, as I predict they will in a few years' time. We should change it because that is the right thing to do for the peace process in Northern Ireland and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said, there is no great principle at stake. I accept that there is a difficult question about the right thing to

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do with people who have stood for election on the basis that they will not take their seats. Although there is a messy argument about that, frankly, the problem is not big enough to justify great displays of opposition, breaking cross-party agreements and so on. I am not totally opposed to parties at times expressing opposition on Northern Ireland—it is sometimes necessary to do so, and I have done so myself—but we should not do so on an issue of such insignificance.

6.8 pm

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): I made my maiden speech in a debate on Northern Ireland. In the succeeding twenty-two and a half years, I have had the privilege of attending more Northern Ireland debates than most people in the House.

Virtually all those debates were characterised by the way in which the word "principle" came to dominate the discussion. Seldom do Members want to elevate their views to a matter of principle on virtually anything that we talk about in the House—except in Northern Ireland debates. We quickly got into matters of principle this afternoon; I should like to back out of that cul-de-sac as quickly as possible. I remind the House—I have no delusions of grandeur, so it will need reminding—that I was the first Minister involved in the peace process. On Valentine's day 1989, Tom King gave a speech in Belfast in which he said that he would ask me to initiate discussions with the political parties to see if there was any way forward. That was the start of the process. If I had stood up the following day in Belfast and said, "In 12 years, there will be a Northern Ireland Assembly, there will be an Executive, an Ulster Unionist will be the First Minister, an SDLP member will be the Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein Members will serve—perhaps uncomfortably, but serve—in that Executive", the Secretary of State would have withdrawn me from the process the day afterwards and put somebody else in my place, and both sides of the House would have acclaimed his wisdom.

Here we are, 12 years and two Governments later, with that process—that achievement—in place. That achievement necessitated the taking of risk. Most, if not all, of the parties in the House can legitimately put up their hands and say, "We played our part. We took risks in that process." Some of those risks worked and some did not, but more worked than did not, which is why we are where we are today. I played my small part in that process.

It helps to underline for the House why in opposition I have maintained my consistent support for the peace process and the Belfast agreement. I did so because of the bipartisan approach. It was enormously important that the people of the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland should understand that it did not matter who was in government at Westminster; there was a commitment to them and for them.

That is why I intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) to say that that principle seems to me—I have used the word, and I intend to use it only once—to be still of paramount importance. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) was right. He did criticise us when we were in government. He sat on the Opposition Front Bench and I sat on the

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Government Front Bench, and from time to time he was aggressive in his bipartisanship. We had a good healthy debate, but I did not call into question his fundamental commitment, and I hope that he does not call mine into question today.

I shall not vote in support of the motion tabled by the Leader of the House. There are problems associated with it. Had the Government wanted to move forward in the spirit that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, they could have done so, but they chose not to. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford is right. I have not taken many opportunities in the House to be critical of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but had he initiated some dialogue around the issues and offered some explanation, that would have helped the House immeasurably to come to a calmer judgment than is likely to be the case by 10 o'clock tonight or whenever we vote. However, the right hon. Gentleman chose not to do that.

The Government have made an even more fundamental mistake. There is no doubt that the subject of the debate is one of a number of issues that have arisen out of secret discussions between the Government and Sinn Fein. The Government are perfectly entitled—indeed, in my judgment it is right—to have secret discussions from time to time with political parties, particularly Sinn Fein. I have no problem with the fact that secret discussions have taken place. The problem arises from the fact that the Government have not told anybody what emerged from those secret discussions, much less tried to explain it.

Instead, the Government have adopted a salami approach to policy. They produce one measure which they know that the House will not much like, and they argue, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush has just argued, that that is not big enough to put the whole peace process at risk, so the House must support it. Just as the House holds its nose and supports the measure, along come the Government with another one—no explanation, no justification and no indication of whether it is No. 2 on a list of two, five, 10 or 20.

We go through the same motions. Hon. Members on both sides, but particularly on the Government side, say that the measure is not worth putting the whole peace process at risk, so the House is invited to support it. Blow me, before we get through that, the next one comes. It is rather like buses—one waits for ages and nothing happens, then they come one after another.

The Government have got themselves into difficulty this evening in part because they have not been willing to be straightforward and honest with the House. The House does not know what the Government's agenda is or what Sinn Fein's agenda is. If I may respectfully say so to the hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench—even worse, the House does not know what the combined agenda is. That contributes to the sense of alienation produced by motions like the one before us.

We have had much debate this evening about the Oath. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I do not intend to participate in that debate. I am just a simple Belfast boy. We have an Oath; it is a requirement for membership of the House. What may or may not happen in the future is, for the purposes of the motion, totally irrelevant. The Oath exists in its present form. I swore it,

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the Leader of the House swore it, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland swore it, my hon. Friend the shadow spokesman swore it—we all swore it.

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