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Lembit Öpik: I am grateful for the opportunity to consider the issues raised by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). I listened with great interest. His crucial point, which he kindly confirmed in response to my intervention, is that we are considering something that is a matter not of principle, but of practicality. That is a tremendously important and helpful clarification. However, let us bear in mind the fact that the Conservatives pulled out of the cross-party agreement not on a matter of principle, as we now find out, but on a matter of practicality. I find that surprising. In my judgment, a matter of practicality alone does not warrant a response of such enormity.
Mr. Quentin Davies: I must intervene, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking my intervention. He has made two important errors. First, the Opposition did not pull out of bipartisanship: the Government walked away from the basis of bipartisanship. That basis was the Belfast agreement and its implementation. When the Government went beyond that and, even before Belfast had been implemented, said that they would start throwing out new unilateral concessions, we said, "Wait a moment. You have left the territory on which we stood together. You have withdrawn from Belfast."
Secondly, as I tried to make clear in my earlier remarks, the matter might be a practical one, but it has the profoundest consequences for the future of the entire process. It is not, therefore, a minor issue, and it would be extremely regrettable if it were considered in that light.
Lembit Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and invite him to intervene again if he feels that I have misrepresented his remarks. He says that, in the view of the Conservatives, the Government walked away from the Belfast agreement. Let us be grown up about the matter. It was the hon. Gentleman himself who made an absolutely clear statement that the Conservatives were taking the proactive decision to walk away from the cross-party consensus.
We had a substantial debate about the way in which that had been reported in the press at the time, but at that time I did not hear the hon. Gentleman questioning my interpretation that the Conservatives were indeed pulling out of the cross-party consensus. If I have misunderstood
Mr. Davies: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He has indeed misunderstood. I shall therefore try again. Our position has not changed. We support the Belfast agreement; we have always supported the Belfast agreement. We believe that it should be implemented. We believe that it is quite wrong, before it has been implemented and before all sides have fulfilled their undertakings under it, to consider further movesfurther concessionsgoing beyond it in favour of any parties to the Belfast agreement.
When the Government decided to take that course, we said that we could no longer support them. The Government have an opportunity in the debate this afternoon to pull back from that position. I sincerely hope that they will do so and say in future that the Belfast agreement must be implemented, decommissioning must be completed, and only then can we consider any further concessions to any parties to the Belfast agreement which have yet to implement it.
I cannot make our position clearer than that. It has been clear since the Weston Park agreement, which has never been debated in the House, that the Government were launched on a new course. The first measures that the Government introduced in accordance with their new strategy were those that we debated before Christmas. I made it plain then that we could not support them in that new and irresponsible departure.
I continue to reiterate that position. I have said the same thingin different ways, admittedlythree or four times in the debate this afternoon. When the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) reads Hansard tomorrow morning, he will know unambiguously where the Opposition stand.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has managed to provoke two very long interventions. Perhaps we might now narrow in on the specifics of the amendment before the Committee.
Lembit Öpik: I certainly wish to focus on the amendments, Sir Alan, and I am grateful for your forbearance as we clarified that point. I believe that it is relevant to the debate, because understanding the Conservatives' motives in supporting the amendments will help me to provide a response to them. However, I shall not dwell on the matter. I shall do as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford says and study Hansard in great detail. I shall conclude from what he said that it was only a partial withdrawal from the cross-party consensus. I am encouraged by that. The hon. Gentleman also said that the amendments had been tabled on a matter of judgment, not on
Lembit Öpik: I shall not incur your wrath, Sir Alan, by pursuing that point, but I simply say that it sounds to me that one can be rather more optimistic that the hon. Gentleman, who is by nature a very pleasant and consensual man, is perhaps pulling back from what I incorrectly interpreted last year as withdrawal from the cross-party consensus. That is tremendously encouraging.
Returning to the issue of principle versus practicality, it strikes me that, as I hope we can agree the hon. Gentleman said, at the core of the debate there is a matter of judgment: whether the proposal in the Act is more or less appropriate than that in the Bill. It all boils down to how long we should enable the amnesty to continue.
I should from the outset say that the Liberal Democrats feel on balance that it is likely that the Government's proposal will make sense. It is probably helpful to the peace process to extend the amnesty in the way described. Let us remember that even the provisions of the unamended legislation must be debated and approved every year; otherwise the amnesty will fall. Therefore, we are talking about a rather detailed point: whether the opportunity to renew the amnesty should be allowed to continue on an annual basis until 2007 or for a shorter period. For that reason, we need to look at some pragmatic considerations.
On several occasions when Conservatives have opposed relaxation of provisions and various steps forward, those steps have led to significant progress in the peace initiative. For example, there was great scepticism on the Conservative Benches and expressed by the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), about the prospect of any decommissioning, yet it came about. Therefore, as one's judgment on Northern Ireland matters has evidently been flawed in the past, surely one needs to be cautious rather than vitriolic about the certainty with which one objects to the Government's proposals in the present.
The hon. Gentleman said that he felt short deadlines tended to concentrate the mind, but if they are too short they can become meaningless. For example, the Prime Minister made a mistake in saying that there was no plan B in the Northern Ireland peace process. In fact, when no result was achieved, there turned out to be a plan B and the Government's credibility was slightly harmed by the decision. I suspect that as long as the peace process is moving forward there will always be a plan B, a plan C or a plan D.
We are not dealing with idiots in northern Irish politics; we are dealing with some of the most sophisticated politicians anywhere in Europe. I am very aware of those sitting on the Benches behind me when I say that, and I hope that they are nodding. [Interruption.] I was of course referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), as well as to those on the Unionist Benches and Democratic Unionist party Members. Let us not pretend that a deadline that is very likely to be
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Would the hon. Gentleman care to mention how close it was to the deadline before the IRA took what has been described as a significant move towards decommissioning? I recall that it did so well beyond the deadline.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. There were four deadlines. Each of them was challenged and some fell, while some were exceeded. However, the fact of the matter is that the process continued not because of the deadlines or because those involved were frightened to break them. As he said, we went way past the original deadline. That happened because of internal matters relating to Northern Ireland and external matters relating to 11 September and the terrible own goal that the IRA scored in Colombia. Those matters were outside our control, but within our control was the provision of a sphere of opportunity in which initiatives could be taken if some external or internal matter might prompt them. Incidentally, I should say that Sinn Fein scored a remarkable triumph of public relations in turning that tremendous own goal in Colombia into a public relations success. That underlines the fact that we are dealing with very hard-nosed politicians who understand the game and will not be fooled by superficial deadlines that will be exceeded and have been in the past. There is a precedent of exceeding them not only under the existing Government, but under the previous one.