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Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Just before Christmas, we were informed by the Secretary of State that, in the

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mind of General de Chastelain, decommissioning to date was significant—although we were never told what "significant" actually meant, for reasons that I can understand. If decommissioning to date really has been significant, why do we need to discuss extensions to the process of one, two or five years?

Mr. Davies: My hon. Friend's logic is irrefutable. If "significant" actually meant large progress—[Interruption.] If the Under-Secretary of State wants to intervene, I shall be happy to give way.

If "significant" means that progress has been so great that a substantial proportion of the ground has already been covered during the past five years—or rather the three and three quarter years since the Belfast agreement—why do we need a further five years? If it is logical to suppose that "significant" means that 50 per cent., 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. of the ground has been covered, we should hardly need five more years to complete the process.

My hon. Friend touches on an important matter that goes to the heart of the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland in the whole process: the transparency of the process and the extent to which people can follow what is going on. If I catch your eye when we discuss new clause 1, Sir Alan, I hope that we can go into that matter in more detail.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether he and his party object to the extension on principle, or is a limited extension acceptable? In that case, we are simply discussing how long the IRA should be given.

Mr. Davies: Strictly speaking, the argument is one of practicality and pragmatism rather than of principle. I tried to make it clear when I began my remarks that there is no difference between us and the Government on the principle that decommissioning is required. It is a good thing and it should be advanced as much as possible. However, there are important differences of judgment between us as to how we can maximise its progress. Those are important issues of practical judgment.

There is no difference between us as to the desirability of decommissioning or, as I have already made clear, as to support for the Belfast agreement and for the process itself. Decommissioning is an essential part of that. So if the hon. Gentleman has in mind the analogy of Bernard Shaw and the actress, we are just talking about amounts. We are talking about a year or five years, which is the purpose of debating the amendment, but that may make a material difference to the incentives applied to the paramilitary organisations that need to decommission, in relation to the amount of time that they take to carry out that process.

4 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for leading me naturally to the heart of the argument—there is such a difference of judgment between us, and Conservative Members believe that deadlines are important and that they can influence people. That is true generally; it is true of the way in which the European Union, businesses and many human institutions work. It is certainly true of Northern Ireland's history. No one with even a passing

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familiarity with its history could deny that deadlines have played an enormously important part in the progress that has been made there—including, of course, in negotiating the Belfast agreement.

We believe that deadlines are in themselves very important factors, but of course they are not the whole story. Other influences, pressures, incentives and disincentives will apply to people, but all other things being equal, we have no doubt that whether deadlines exist and what those deadlines are make a difference. I notice that no Labour Member has sought to intervene to dispute that proposition.

Let me make a second proposition, to which the Conservative party also holds. It is very simple: shorter deadlines tend to concentrate people's minds. Shorter deadlines tend to make the implementation process shorter; longer deadlines do the opposite. They tend to dissolve any sense of urgency, and they tend to extend the time that people take to complete the tasks to which they are committed. Again, that sounds like a simple proposition, and no Labour Member has sought to catch my eye to contradict it.

The remarkable thing is that the Secretary of State agrees precisely with the logic of what I am saying. He acknowledged that, perhaps inadvertently, in the House on 17 December. I shall observe the normal courtesy by citing the Hansard column reference. He said:

This is the important part of the quotation. He continued:

So the Secretary of State accepts that the Provisionals and other people in Northern Ireland take matters to the wire. I shall give way to him if he contests this interpretation of his words, but it is blatantly clear that the phrase "taking matters to the wire" simply means that people take advantage of whatever deadlines exist. It follows inexorably that if a deadline is extended, the time people take to complete the task for which the deadline has been set is extended; and if a deadline is reduced—all other things being equal—the time they take is reduced.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): The hon. Gentleman keeps regretting the fact that no Labour Member has leapt up to intervene on the specific points that he makes, but does he accept that I am listening very carefully to him developing his argument, and I hope to address some of those points in responding to this debate? He said earlier that, in principle, there is nothing between us and that we are debating the practicalities of the proposals. Does he also accept that the practicality and usefulness of deadlines per se divide us?

Mr. Davies: I am grateful to the Minister for that point, and I shall listen with equal attention to her remarks. I have already said—I totally accept this—that we are talking about practicalities, but judgment about practicalities is absolutely at the heart of competence and effectiveness in government. It is at the heart of what we should be discussing in the Chamber. We cannot allow

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the Government unthinkingly to renew the Bill with a five-year deadline because, as I have suggested, there was a five-year deadline before. It is clear to us that a deadline of five years is utterly inappropriate to a process that is already overdue by more than a year and a half.

In response to the Minister's point, I repeat that we are talking about practicalities and about a judgment as to what is a sensible, businesslike and responsible approach to a vitally important problem. There is the practical issue, which is vital, of the rate of progress of decommissioning and the date on which decommissioning will be complete. I hope that we shall have an opportunity later to focus a little more on that subject. However, there is also the issue of the confidence that is created in the meantime on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland—confidence in the reality, integrity and transparency of the process and in the extent to which people can take seriously the prospect of moving to a democracy free from the threat of the gun and Semtex.

Although such issues are practical, they are enormously important to the peace process as a whole. All the policies that may be devised to achieve peace in Northern Ireland can be brought to naught if we are not extremely careful each time we deal with such a delicate matter as decommissioning and the regime to bring it about. We must be careful to structure the pattern of incentives and disincentives that will be applied to all who have to take part in the most rational and effective fashion.

I have made it clear that we believe that deadlines are important, and the Government have not contested that. I have made it plain that they have got it quite wrong in allowing another five years and, so far, we have not heard any justification for that. The Minister promises that there will be some justification, and let us hope that that is so. We will listen to what she says. However, at the moment, we are extremely concerned about the whole drift of Government policies and about what we think is an important misjudgment that has been expressed on the face of the Bill. However, it can be corrected and I hope that it will be corrected by the Committee accepting our amendments.

I have already carefully said that deadlines are important, but they are only one aspect of the process. They are only one—although an important one—of the pressures that can be applied to ensure that we have earlier and more certain decommissioning and that it is less probable that it will never be completed or will take longer.

As I said on Second Reading, I believe that it is likely that there will be further acts of decommissioning. I said on that occasion—I stand by my judgment—that there is a reasonable expectation that Sinn Fein, for reasons connected entirely with its prospects in the Irish elections in May, may feel it necessary to make at least a symbolic further act of decommissioning between now and then. There is no doubt that the Americans played an absolutely critical part in securing the act of decommissioning that took place at the end of October, and the timely application of pressure from that quarter may bring about another act of decommissioning at some time.

Of course, other instruments can be applied—and not necessarily by us. The two instruments that I have just mentioned are a function either of Irish domestic politics

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or of the policies of the United States Administration. However, it is our responsibility to make sure that the instruments that are in the hands of the British Government and the British Parliament are used most effectively. That is where our concern lies.

I wish to make a final point about a matter that has concerned me the more in that I think that the Government have not sufficiently recognised a certain danger. It is sensible in life to put oneself in the shoes or, as far as possible, in the mind of a particular opponent or counterpart in any negotiating process. I wonder whether the Government have done that effectively because, in the case of Sinn Fein-IRA, if they had they would realise that there might be reasons for them to decommission, some of which I have mentioned. However, one strong reason, which unfortunately has been greatly strengthened by the Government's recent conduct, for spinning out the process and not completing decommissioning until the Greek calends is that that tactic is an effective way of securing concessions.

Lamentable though the situation is, far from the British Government being able to put pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA, the fact is that Sinn Fein-IRA sit on their weapons and do not implement their obligations under the Belfast agreement. The Government then go to them and say, "Look. There is no progress on Belfast. We are very worried about that. What can we do to increase momentum and help you?" Naturally, Sinn Fein-IRA ask for concessions, which the Government give.

Sinn Fein-IRA still do not decommission, however, or, if they do, it is a minimal act. They wait the maximum amount of time before doing anything else because they expect the Government to offer more concessions. That is the history of the past few months—of Weston Park and of the lamentable concessions that we made to Sinn Fein-IRA MPs to come here on the basis of special status. I repeat that I would be only too glad if they took their seats on the same basis as everyone else, but that is not want they want to do and not what is happening.

The Government have sadly got themselves into a position in which they are negotiating in the wrong direction. Instead of using the instruments that are available to them to put pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA, they throw them away, in the same way as they release prisoners willy-nilly despite no progress in decommissioning. The Government then allow Sinn Fein-IRA to turn the tables on them and say, "Right. You want more decommissioning? You think that you've already paid for that in the Belfast agreement, but no: we both accept that you've got to make more concessions on top of Belfast. So we would like the next one please." That has been the history of the subterranean negotiations over the past few months between Sinn Fein-IRA and the Government.

All the public manifestations of those negotiations are regrettable and some of them are discreditable. We have debated them in the House, especially in the two debates before Christmas. I beg the Government, in the interests of Northern Ireland, the peace process and any value that they share with me, to think again and stop this nonsense. They need to start saying to Sinn Fein-IRA, "We are sorry. We have an agreement. You must implement it in full before any further concessions are made or before we are prepared to talk about making any further moves on our side."

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I put it to the Government most forcefully, and believe that I am right to do so, that there is no purpose in having an agreement with anyone if the other side is not going to implement it and asks for more concessions before it carries out its share, as outlined in the initial agreement. That is a hopeless way to conduct a negotiation in any context of life. It is especially regrettable and irresponsible when so many important things are at stake, such as people's lives and peace and democracy in a part of our country.

The matter is not technical, but practical. It relates to a practical judgment about how to conduct a negotiation in such circumstances. It has enormous consequences that will concern everyone in the country and it is important that we get it right. The debate is crucial. We shall all listen with bated breath to the Minister and I hope that even at this eleventh hour she may have had a slight change of mind.

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