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Mr. Mark Prisk accordingly presented a Bill to make provision about self-employment: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 April, and to be printed [Bill 79].
'(3) Subsections (2)(b) and (3) are omitted.'.
'(3A) Subsections (2)(b) and (3) shall continue to have effect in respect of offences listed in the Schedule to the 1997 Act relating to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, with the words "later than 27th February 2005" substituted for the words "more than five years after the day on which this Act is passed".
(3B) In respect of other offences listed in the Schedule to the 1997 Act, subsections (2)(b) and (3) are omitted.'.
Mr. Davies: I wish the Secretary of State and his colleagues a happy new year also, and we all hope that the people of Northern Ireland will have a happy new year. They certainly deserve a good new year after many years of difficulties and sacrifices, as well as continued disappointments in the implementation of the Belfast agreement, which is one of the matters with which we shall deal this afternoon.
I welcome the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, to the Front Bench today and I am glad that she will conduct the case for the Government. She is a competent and experienced parliamentarian, although she will find that her pitch has been somewhat queered by a most extraordinarily and no doubt inadvertently frank statement on the subject of deadlines by the Secretary of State on Second Reading. I shall have occasion to refer to that point later.
It is common ground between the Opposition and the Government that the Belfast agreement should be upheld and implemented urgently. Of course, it is not common ground that the Government should have chosen to go beyond the Belfast agreement and, before it is even implemented, to make a whole raft of new unilateral, gratuitous concessions. We are concerned that, by so doing, the Government have moved away from the basis of bipartisanship in Northern Ireland to which we are much attached. It is common ground that the Belfast agreement must be supported, and we wish to do everything possible to ensure that it is implemented.
I believe totally in the Government's sincerity in wanting to bring about the implementation of the Belfast agreement. However, it is very much a matter of judgment as to whether they have conducted themselves in a very intelligent way in seeking to ensure that their influence maximised the chance that the Belfast agreement was implemented earlier rather than later. Moreover, if decommissioning was going to come about within the two-year time scale laid down in the Belfast agreement, was it sensible to release all the terrorist prisoners before even a start had been made on decommissioning? That too is a matter of judgment.
We have been over that ground already, and will return to it. I think that history will be much less kind to the Government in that regard than they like to be to themselves. Nevertheless, it is very much common ground that decommissioning is essential, and it is one of the pillars of the Belfast agreement. All those who want peace and normalisation in that part of our country are obliged to do everything possible to ensure that decommissioning comes about, and that it does so earlier rather than later.
The amendment goes to the heart of the Bill. If we want the rapid implementation of the Belfast agreement and the completion of decommissioning, is it more sensible to bring forward a Bill now that extends by five years the special regime of amnesty for decommissioning, or should the extension be for a lesser amount of time? We suggest that the extension should be for one year.
The amendment turns on that question, as does the whole debate in this House about the Bill, as there is no argument about the fundamental necessity of achieving decommissioning. Although our approaches and methods may differ, I am sure that the willingness to complete the difficult but vital process of decommissioning is sincere among hon. Members of all parties.
However, is it more sensible to set a deadline of five years rather than of one, and will that five-year deadline make the best possible contribution to rapid progress? Those questions must be asked, as the matter is somewhat counter-intuitive. One can never be certain of achieving anything in this life, least of all in Northern Irish politics at the present time. I shall therefore go through the only possible justifications for the course adopted by the Government in bringing to the House a Bill that extends the amnesty regime for five years, even though some of those justifications are merely theoretical.
I should not be at all surprised to discover that the Minister of State, when she reads the briefing notes for her speech in response to this debate, will say that the Government are obliged to extend the deadline and that it is not realistic to suppose that decommissioning will be completed by 27 February. We concur with that, even though the Belfast agreement specified that decommissioning should have been completed more than a year and a half ago. I expect too that the Minister will say that the Bill that established the regime to enable decommissioning to take placeby providing the necessary amnesties and so forthwas also designed to last for five years. I expect that she will ask why the Government should make a change and renew those provisions for a shorter length of time.
The answer is very simple. Five years ago, we were right at the beginning of the decommissioning and peace process. Indeed, the Belfast agreement had not been secured at that time, nor anything like it. The Bill that became the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 was introduced, probably more in hope than in expectation, by the previous Conservative Administration, and was supported by the then Labour Opposition. The idea was to create a framework so that if it were possible to get an agreement, decommissioning could take place and the modalities, the international commission and the appropriate legal regime could be established.
If a Bill is introduced in that waymore in hope than in expectationto provide a framework for a process that had not even begun or led to an initial agreement on decommissioning, quite a long time has to be provided. It was sensible and responsible to provide a framework for five years, renewable on an annual basis. I do not think that anyone would have quarrelled with that approach at the time, and I certainly have no quarrel with it in retrospect. However, the situation today is profoundly different.
The Belfast agreement, now in place, provided for the whole process of decommissioning to be completed within two years, by July 2000. Yet we are now a year and a half away from that deadline and more than three and a half years away from the Belfast agreement itself. There has been only one small act of decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA and one small act, right at the beginning, by one of the loyalist paramilitary organisations. There has been nothing else to show for it in three and a half years.
In those circumstances, to come back to the House with a Bill that provides a deadline of five years seems extraordinary. The Government seem to be saying, "We don't mind that no progress has been made over the past five years. Let's simply start again." That is an extraordinary approach, which would not be taken seriously by anybody who looked at the matter objectively to decide whether the Government were acting in a business-like and sensible fashion.
The second argument for the Bill has been put forward in the media. The Government have used it in their background briefings, as did the Secretary of State, at least by implication, in his introductory remarks on Second Reading. The argument is that this is not a five-year deadline but a one-year deadline, renewable up to five years. To make that statement would be to risk not being taken seriously in the House, when we know that the procedure for dealing with statutory instruments is an unedifying farce. When the Government, with their large majority, introduce a Bill that provides for a new regime for five years and say that it will be renewed at the end of every year and could theoretically be thrown out by Parliament under the statutory instrument procedure,
Even more important than the credibility of such a measure in the House is its credibility outside the House. In Northern Ireland, specifically among the paramilitary organisations that need to take part in and complete the decommissioning process, only one conclusion can be drawn from the signals that the Government are sending by the way in which they have drafted the Bill: they are setting a final deadline of five years. We started with a five-year regime, which is now being renewed for a further five years. As I said on Second Reading, that sends the paramilitary organisations the simple message that there is no great urgency about decommissioning, that they can take their time about it and that the Government do not expect them to make rapid progress.
It seems thoroughly regrettable and reprehensible that the Government should be sending such signals. It is deeply disappointing to all those in Northern Ireland, in both communities, who have been told ever since the Belfast agreement that the sacrifices they made would at least mean that the gun, the bullet and the arsenals of Semtex and weapons would be taken out of the system within a specific time. That is not happening and the deadline for that to happen is being extended.
If that explanation is true, and I am increasingly fearful that it is, it is extremely depressing: the five-year deadline the perverse signal that is being sent to the paramilitariesdid not come about owing to a fit of absence of mind or to naivety, but is part and parcel of a process that the Government were, perhaps involuntarily, sucked into during their negotiations, especially with Sinn Fein-IRA.
Before Christmas, I did what I could to draw the attention of the House to part of that lamentable process whereby, even though the Belfast agreement has not been implemented and so little progress on decommissioning has been made, the Government decided that it is sensible to start offering a whole new set of unreciprocated, unilateral concessions to republicanism in Northern Ireland, and to Sinn Fein-IRA in particular. One of those concessions is the award of special status for Sinn Fein-IRA MPs to come to this place and enjoy some of the facilities of the Palace of Westminster as well as public money, without taking their seats. Other concessions were set out in the Weston Park agreement: for example, the promise of new inquiries and of amnesties for on-the-run terrorists.
Against that background, it was decidedbecause the general policy is to go soft on Sinn Fein-IRAthat it would not be nice to tell them to hurry up with decommissioning, and that that would be unfriendly and hostile. It would actually make a demand of them rather than giving them a concession. It is part and parcel of that policy of appeasementa word I use advisedly, as I fear that is indeed what the policy isthat the Bill sets out a five-year deadline that is difficult to explain on any rational basis.