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Mr. Barnes: I am not completely wrong, because I recognise part of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I said that the Government have moved to what I described as a rolling deadline. Instead of there being a hard, specific deadline, which might in any case have to be changed by subsequent measures, a measure is to be introduced to allow different stages at which the provisions could, perhaps by statutory instrument, be extended in line with the contents of the Bill.

That is a change, but it has been made because the situation has changed considerably and dramatically. At one time, those of us who were trying to press Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA into some response were desperate. There was nothing we could do except lay down a deadline and say to them, "You will see what will happen if you don't conform to that deadline." The Ulster Unionist party challenged them on a number of occasions in connection with that deadline.

Many of us who proposed that deadline were willing to chance the situation; we were that desperate. We were saying that the situation might break down entirely, and that the whole agreement might go, but we believed that the people who would fail in those circumstances would be Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. They would be condemned for having operated in that way and for not having met the deadline.

Sinn Fein-IRA have now taken a dramatic step in their history by putting a certain number of arms beyond use. The traditionalist argument of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein has been destroyed. Sinn Fein is involved in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the Parliament in the Irish Republic, and it has taken up accommodation in this House. That is a dramatic change from its previous position. We must consider that situation. We should not jettison the notion of a deadline, but be a bit more accommodating, because other possibilities exist.

We have learned that the greatest chance of achieving full decommissioning will come from various political pressures being brought to bear. Pressures from the

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Government, the Irish Republic and the United States are dominant in achieving change. That is why we need the flexibility provided in the Bill, not the amendment, which takes us back to yesterday's position as if nothing had altered.

Ulster Unionists Members have made important points. There is massive disillusionment in Unionist communities; something must be done in response to those concerns. We must show that action is being taken as forcefully as possible to bring about the decommissioning that people want. Other steps need to be taken to calm the fears in those communities.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and I have tabled early-day motion 616, which refers to exiles. Paramilitaries on the run will not now be chased, but will be allowed to return. If that is on the agenda in the general framework, pressure should be brought to bear to get a response regarding the people who have been placed in exile by organisations such as the IRA and are not allowed in any circumstances to set foot in Northern Ireland for fear of their lives. That should end.

It is not correct to say that Sinn Fein and the IRA are always being placated. We recently discussed legislation that seeks to tackle the problem of electoral fraud by Sinn Fein: it was directed against that organisation.

Things change, and pressures can be brought to bear in different directions. I urge Ministers to deal with problems such as the return of exiles, and there are some signs that that is happening, which is welcome. We should not go back to the situation before this significant move took place, which was forced on the Provisional IRA. We should force on that organisation more changes and require it to make more concessions. It should get out of its paramilitary activities entirely and into purely political action. I do not support its present political objectives. We need to tackle the abuses that it is engaged in, such as having a record of where its money has come from when it stands in elections. The money has often come from the most obnoxious sources in America and elsewhere. At least the American Administration have finally come to terms with this issue, and are seeking change.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman graciously giving way on that point. The Government brought legislation before the House that let the IRA off the hook as regards declaring financial contributions from elsewhere. Is it not time that the Government and the House started to put pressure on the IRA, rather than leaving it to the Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland or to the American Government?

4.45 pm

Mr. Barnes: That is a valid point. When we discussed entry into the House and the use of its facilities by Sinn Fein Members, the question of the Register of Members' Interests arose. Should Sinn Fein Members have to adhere to the requirement for MPs to record the source of any substantial contributions they have received for electoral purposes? Perhaps that requirement could be tightened, and used in connection with checking particulars relating to Sinn Fein.

I am not opposed to the putting of many pressures on the Government to be tougher in many respects, but it should be borne in mind that that sometimes prompts favourable responses. We should accept the gains that are

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made, and not complain all the time. The amendment returns us to a position that I occupied in the past, but have now departed from. My attitude has changed, because circumstances have changed. The Committee ought to recognise those changes, and I feel that such a recognition is reflected in the position of the Government rather than that of the Opposition.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I listened to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) with great interest, as all Members always do, but I quarrel profoundly with the thesis on which he based his opposition to the amendments. He argued—I think I quote him correctly—that the decommissioning event of last autumn was a significant move forced on the IRA. In a limited sense, the timing was significant because of the significant 11 September dimension; but that, I think, is only part of the argument. We must understand the full argument to understand why the amendments should be supported.

The hon. Gentleman overlooks one of the consistent strains of the entire so-called peace process: the Provisionals' explanation that they will decommission one day, that decommissioning forms part of the final solution, and that decommissioning will come when the causes of the conflict have been removed. Far from decommissioning being the sort of significant event that the hon. Gentleman might have us consider it, the token event of last autumn was in fact an acknowledgement that so many concessions had been made that, to a significant extent, the causes of the conflict had indeed been removed.

That brings me to a point also made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). Of course the situation changes; of course there is movement, if we continually make concessions to the men of violence. But the movement that arises from a democracy's giving ground to terrorist intransigence is not, I suggest, a movement of which hon. Members should be particularly proud.

My speech will be short, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has fully explored the salient points of the argument. I merely want to emphasise one or two of his observations, and I do so with some happiness. I do not always agree with my hon. Friend about the Belfast agreement, but here we are discussing practicalities rather than the fundamental principle, and I think he has analysed those practicalities correctly.

I believe that the Belfast agreement should have involved a firm decommissioning timetable all along, with consequences for non-observance. I also believe that it should have involved firm links between decommissioning and places on the Executive, and between decommissioning and prisoner release. I agree with my hon. Friend about that.

David Burnside (South Antrim): There was a clear agreement on the total completion of decommissioning by May 2000, strengthened by and linked to the Prime Minister's promise to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—the leader of the Ulster Unionist party—on the day of the Good Friday agreement. That was the only reason why some of us supported the agreement, which would have excluded Sinn Fein from

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government without decommissioning. It is the failure of Her Majesty's Government to live up to their commitment that has disillusioned the Unionist people.

Mr. Hunter: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. On previous occasions, we have found common ground on that point. It is a fact that the Prime Minister went to Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign and made pledges that plainly misled the people of Northern Ireland into believing that there was that linkage—the commitment that men of violence would not have a part to play in the future governance of the Province.

The most telling point that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford made was that the potential extension of the amnesty for five years amounts to a surrendering of initiative to the Provisional IRA. The pressure should relentlessly be on the IRA to decommission. Extension of the amnesty period will mean that the pressure is potentially lifted. Instead of the pressure being on the IRA meaningfully to decommission, the Bill presents it with leverage to make further demands in return for more token decommissioning gestures.

I am reminded of a general prediction. Many commentators anticipate that the next phase of token-gesture decommissioning by the Provisionals may come in the run-up to the Irish general election. I do not know whether that is the case. We will find out in time but the Bill unamended will enable decommissioning before the Irish general election, if it is to happen, to be token, just as it was token last autumn. Pressure is being lifted from the IRA, allowing it leverage to bargain for more concessions in advance of further decommissioning.

Another point was made by several hon. Members during the Second Reading debate; my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford alluded to it. The Bill unamended gives out entirely the wrong signals. A strong argument for the inclusion of the amendments is that those false signals will be corrected. False signal number one goes to the terrorists. It confirms that they can buy more time through procrastination, deviousness and orchestrated delays. It is telling them that they need do nothing until February 2007. I recall the words of my hon. Friend on Second Reading, who said that it is as though we are saying,

The concept of extending a deadline to speed up decommissioning is manifestly absurd.

The second wrong signal goes out to the law-abiding majority of Northern Ireland. The Bill without these amendments is effectively saying that to all intents and purposes decommissioning is open ended. In particular, it is saying that decommissioning is being moved further and further down the agenda. Indeed, implicitly it is acknowledging that it may never happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said that he thought that the Government were being sucked into a modified position, retreating from such demands as there are in the Belfast agreement. I am not sure that I share that interpretation. Moving the decommissioning issue down the agenda has all along been the Government's intention. It appears to have been one of the assurances that the Prime Minister gave to the Provisionals soon after the 1997 general election, because

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it was one of their demands for imposing a second qualified ceasefire. According to some republican sources, the assurance that decommissioning would be pushed further down the agenda was given to Mr. McGuinness and Mr. Adams shortly before last month's Second Reading debate.

I argue, along with my hon. Friends, that it is wholly wrong for the Bill to be allowed to proceed with such a diluted, lax timetable and without a more demanding deadline. As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said, it is a fact of life that deadlines focus attention and clarify positions. The Government are surrendering a strong, almost moral high ground on decommissioning by not accepting the amendments. I strongly support the amendments.

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