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7.42 pm

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): The official Opposition have indicated their extreme distaste for making special provision for Sinn Fein. In his speech, which was, as ever, thoughtful and thought-provoking, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) expressed similar reservations. I, too, feel extreme distaste for making special provision for Sinn Fein. However, I see a solution to the anomalies different from the one suggested by Conservative Front Benchers.

I also feel extreme distaste for many of the compromises that have had to be made in relation to the Good Friday agreement, particularly on prisoner releases. That hardly needs explaining at a time when we are involved in an international campaign against terrorism. But when I compare the Good Friday agreement with the decades of violence that came before it, I am certain which is the lesser of two evils. I would go further—I am certain that it is a positive good. Of course, it needs to be improved on, and we must work to improve on it. Of course, Sinn Fein in particular must do much more, especially on decommissioning and on ceasing all the remaining violence in which it is involved, as must all the paramilitaries. When I listen to some Sinn Fein spokesmen, I could wish for fewer demands and more in the way of delivery.

I was disappointed to hear Conservative Front Benchers talk about deserting bipartisanship. In response to the pertinent intervention of the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), they seemed to imply that they might edge away from saying that they would give up bipartisanship. I hope that that is the case, because bipartisanship remains fundamentally important.

Even so, I have been disappointed over the past few years that Conservative Front-Bench Members have on occasion given the impression of being prepared to support all the popular bits of the Good Friday agreement but of opposing all the difficult bits. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said that there are difficult choices. One gets the impression that on occasion those on the Conservative Front Bench have been dodging the difficult choices. If we are going to talk about cherry-picking, as the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) did, it sometimes seems that Conservative Front Benchers have been guilty of that.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is hard to see what might change if the Conservatives abandoned that bipartisanship? They seem to have been happy to vote against a raft of legislation that has gone through in previous months, and I am at a loss to know what they mean by abandoning bipartisanship.

Mr. Savidge: I would be happy to have guidance from Conservative Members on what they mean.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): This party has supported the Belfast agreement but has, for a considerable time,

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reserved the right to criticise its implementation when things go badly wrong or are handled badly. I refer in particular to prisoner releases and the absence of any reciprocal concessions in terms of decommissioning from Sinn Fein.

The press has decided that we are walking away from bipartisanship; we are not. The Government have walked away from bipartisanship because of the way in which they are carrying out the process. It is perfectly proper for us to do our duty in this place and criticise the Government when they deserve it.

Mr. Savidge: I think that it has been accepted in earlier exchanges that bipartisanship has always involved the possibility of some criticism. However, I thought that it was agreed that we would leave the decisions on decommissioning to General de Chastelain. He has made his decisions; decommissioning has started, and we wish to see it progress rapidly.

Mr. Alan Duncan: Given that the motion is not part of the Good Friday agreement and that there has been no consultation—it was simply imposed on the House when it was announced last Wednesday or Thursday—how can the actions of the Labour party be described as bipartisan?

Mr. Savidge: Whatever our disagreements on this issue, my request to the official Opposition is that they try to maintain basic bipartisanship on as many issues as possible.

I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford on one point. He drew a distinction between not taking the Oath and not taking seats. He made the point that Sinn Fein Members say that, irrespective of any change to the Oath, they do not intend to take their seats. However, it is perfectly proper to say that, although the motion refers to not taking seats, not taking the Oath is central to the debate. The 1997 ruling by Speaker Boothroyd specifically referred not to whether Members took their seats but to whether they took the Oath.

I wish to concentrate on the Oath. I believe that we should review the Oath without regard to Sinn Fein. Indeed, I would go further—I believe that the House might have reviewed the Oath if it had not been for sensitivities over Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein.

Mrs. Dunwoody: As that is not what my hon. Friend is being asked to decide, will he tell us whether he intends to support the Government or not?

Mr. Savidge: My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that I shall come to that point in due course. To sustain interest, I shall try to leave the point until later in my speech.

It should be remembered that the Oath of Allegiance does not, as most of the public probably believe, derive from the old feudal oaths of fealty of the House of Lords. The excellent research document in the Library shows that it derives from three oaths, all of which stem from the reformation. They are the Oath of Supremacy of 1534, the Oath of Allegiance of 1605 and 1609 and the Oath of Abjuration of 1701. All those oaths related to the maintenance of the Protestant monarchy and the

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Protestant succession. At various stages, they also included other disqualifications or discriminations on religious grounds.

During the 19th century, those disqualifications were gradually reduced to permit Catholics, Jews and members of other religions to become Members of Parliament without difficulty. Then, of course, after the famous case of Charles Bradlaugh, those of no religion were permitted to become Members of Parliament. Until 1997—as the Leader of the House pointed out—that did not mean that people who were fully and properly elected were refused other things. They were allowed to sit below the Bar of the House, although not to speak or vote.

Although the 1997 ruling took account in one respect of a previous decision in 1924, it was in effect a new ruling and was understandable in the circumstances. There was no ceasefire and it was judged that there was a real terrorist threat. There were valid reasons for the fears expressed at the time by members of staff—fears described earlier by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. Those fears persist to this day. The ruling was understandable at the time, but in some ways, it was temporary and unusual. It was made before the Good Friday agreement and the ceasefire.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the hon. Gentleman consider that, in the light of continuing republican extremist terrorist activity, there is no threat at present? Is he really prepared to tell the House tonight that there is no terrorist threat anywhere on the mainland?

Mr. Savidge: There is a terrorist threat from those bodies that are not party to the Good Friday agreement. Most people would agree that there is a threat from the Real IRA and various dissident groups.

I repeat that, in some ways, Sinn Fein and Northern Ireland have delayed the whole issue of review of the Oath. The Oath is an anachronism: it grew wholly and solely out of the European wars of religion—the wars between Catholics and Protestants that disfigured Europe for two and a half centuries, but which have been over for more than two centuries.

Some of us have the impression that the House sometimes takes a while to respond to change—just as some of us have the impression that its lifts take a while to respond to the button. However, it might not be unreasonable—after two centuries—to start thinking about changing our rules. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made eloquent and perceptive interventions earlier—one is always inclined to flatter people who make an intervention that is almost exactly the same as one had planned to make, but who express it better. He asked whether, if a Member—not necessarily from Northern Ireland, but from any part of the country—who is properly elected to the House happens not to be a monarchist but a republican, it would be proper for us to say that they should not be allowed to take their seat.

I have a clear view on that question. Indeed, I should go further: in our population, there are a certain number of cranks, oddballs and nutters. They have a right to be

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represented—[Hon. Members: "They are."] No doubt many people would say that they are over-represented in the House.

Jeremy Corbyn: They are certainly well represented.

Mr. Savidge: As a brief aside, the new Leader of the Opposition has not been paid sufficient credit for one of his first great achievements: at a stroke he managed radically to reduce the number of bizarre extremists on the Conservative Back Benches. However, I digress.

If an eccentric were to be properly elected to this place—for example, someone who was a passionate Jacobite or someone who, for some other reason, did not agree with the present succession to the monarchy—surely he should have a right to be here. I go further: even for those of us who, as democrats, believe that we should remain a constitutional monarchy for as long as that is the wish of the majority of the population, it can still seem strange that one's first duty here should be to declare—or appear to do so—that one will look after the interests of the monarch rather than those of one's constituents and of the common good of the whole population.

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