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Mr. Swire: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the remarks that he made in a press release in August last year? He said:

Is it the official Liberal Democrat position that the party is satisfied or not satisfied?

Lembit Öpik: We are very satisfied that decommissioning has started. As I said, on judgment we conditionally feel satisfied that the Government are putting forward a reasonable agenda specifying a period during which we decide every year whether it is acceptable to proceed with the amnesty. I stress again that this is not a one-off debate between now and 2007. If I understand the Bill correctly, there will be another debate in 12 months, when we must return to the matter, assess what progress has been made and consider the reasonable concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and his colleagues. We are arguing about the best process and various details in that respect.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The hon. Gentleman spoke about hard-nosed politicians and the perception in Northern Ireland. Does he recognise that the slithering that has been going on has caused greater disillusionment among ordinary people in Northern Ireland? Is it not time that they were considered, as well as hard-nosed terrorists?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this matter previously on the Floor of the House. He is right, and I was going to deal later with

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those very reasonable concerns. Unionist politicians in particular have expressed repeatedly in the Chamber and outside exactly the same concerns about disillusionment in the Unionist population. They have been described by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, and no doubt they are shared by all colleagues on the Unionist Benches. The issue needs to be addressed, but I suspect that the Bill in its current form will not help to reassure the Unionist population. Can the Minister of State provide some sort of reassurance that this very salient point will be taken on board? Although I have been criticising the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford in respect of other matters, I know that he has consistently and correctly raised the issue in the Chamber and outside. It is reasonable for the Committee to expect some reassurance from the Minister.

In the context of a gradual step forward, let us remember what the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) said on 22 November 1999, which is a long time ago. Speaking about the Mitchell review, he said:

So, even two years ago we had a Secretary of State who made it clear that a gradual approach was the most likely solution to matters in hand, and I feel that we need to give ourselves the chance to enable that gradual process to move forward.

4.30 pm

I hope that the tragic events of 11 September do not have to be replicated for further movement on decommissioning, but a series of international or national initiatives relating to Northern Ireland either directly or indirectly, in the context of terrorism, may be needed to prompt the process to move forward. The Bill as it stands simply means that we have five years to do that.

Another point on which I take issue with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is whether we have already had a substantial time—whether five years is a substantial time for decommissioning. Let us remember that we are dealing with an issue that, depending on how we define it, has existed for decades, for almost a century, or for several centuries—one's historical perspective will determine which time scale one chooses. In that context, five years is not a long time. If we look at where we started and where we are now, we realise that those five years have generated more progress than the previous 30 years. That is a reasonable ground on which to give ourselves the space to allow the process to carry on.

When one thinks about such things, it is always appropriate to ask, "What would I do if I were in the position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?" [Interruption.] I hear cheers of approval from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. Clearly he is thinking of defecting, as others have recently done—the door is always open.

All of us, if we were in that position, would unquestionably start with the idea of outcomes. We would not focus on process, but would try to be clear what we were trying to do in the job—and surely that is to secure the peace and to stabilise and normalise the lives of the

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ordinary people in Northern Ireland. If one concentrates on outcomes, the process is simply a tool, not an end in itself, and I believe that one would end up making pragmatic decisions along the way, not always with everyone's support.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford talked about "subterranean goings on" at Weston Park. I share his suspicions, and I think, although I am not sure, that there probably have been some informal agreements—perhaps even some talk about extending the amnesty. However, even if those discussions did take place, if, ultimately, they stabilise Northern Ireland and make it a more peaceful place, surely it is the Government's responsibility to take those risks and make those decisions.

I remind Conservative Members that, to his great eternal credit, when John Major was Prime Minister he was negotiating with the IRA when it was not even on ceasefire. That was a much riskier and more dangerous thing to do in the political context, in terms of the potential for sending signals to terrorists that they could bomb and negotiate at the same time. We must not forget that that initiative, which I personally supported even at the time, was Conservative sponsored.

I am sure that the Committee is now clear about what the amendments are intended to do, and we all understand that this is simply a debate about timing—or rather, not even about timing as such, but about how many times we can come back and discuss whether to extend the 12-month amnesty period again. I would like to think that it will all be over by 2003 or 2005, but I am not confident enough about that to be sure that we do not need the leeway to come back again until 2007.

For those reasons, and although I respect others' right to differ—I also recognise the great pressures, to which I have already alluded, on Unionist and Democratic Unionist politicians in particular—I think that we have to bite the bullet and recognise that we have been here before, with two Governments of two different colours, and that every time we have made substantial breakthroughs, it has been because somebody on the Government Front Bench has taken a substantial risk.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The amendment fails to recognise that things move on in politics, and that new positions are reached. If this were an amendment about a hard and specific deadline, in the context of the past situation, I would often have been associated with such a position. However, because we have passed a previous deadline—which, although it changed, was eventually met—we are now in an entirely different situation. There has been an event of considerable significance in the putting beyond use of a number of arms by the IRA. Aspects of a deadline have, therefore, already been met—not, I think, because of the deadline but because of other factors. That helps to change the position. The Government have not moved away from the deadline position, but they have wavered a bit in connection with it. They now support something that could be called a rolling deadline. That allows for avenues of manoeuvre, depending on future developments.

As the Conservative spokesperson said, the change that led to the putting beyond use of those arms did not come from the pressures of a deadline, but was the result of other political considerations by Sinn Fein and the

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Provisional IRA. They were under tremendous pressure from America following the events in Colombia, and then the events of 11 September. They also clearly had in mind the political considerations concerning their standing in the Irish Republic, and whether they were going to be a political force at the coming general election. As the Conservative spokesperson also said, there could be further moves, because they have to try to accommodate themselves within that political situation. They are very hard nosed, politically, and are now willing to advance their own position entirely through the ballot box, if that avenue gives them the better chance, rather than by other means. These matters must be considered when we determine the deadline.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): I would suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the Government have indeed moved away from the concept of deadlines, because here we are today, debating a Bill that will allow the deadline to be extended for a further five years. That will lessen the potency of any future deadline, because there is always the risk that if we do not meet that deadline, there will be others to follow. The hon. Gentleman is, therefore, completely wrong: the Government have significantly moved away from the concept of deadlines.

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