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Mr. Swire: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are consistently undermining the Belfast agreement by conceding time after time? In May 2000 the IRA said that it was ready to decommission its arms. Now that it has had concession after concession over the ensuing period, surely it is for the IRA to explain why it is not happy to do what it originally undertook to do. It is not for the Government to respond in advance and always on the back foot.

Mr. Robathan: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government repeatedly give way, having received nothing in return, except a few arms which are described as significant and which were handed in or destroyed in some manner. We can discuss till the cows come home how important X number of Armalites is, but the truth is that there has been concession after concession. That is appeasement, in anyone's book.

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Loyalist terrorists are also covered by the extension of the deadline. Loyalist terrorism is a serious problem. It is exactly as bad to be shot, knee-capped or beaten up by a loyalist terrorist as by a republican terrorist. The truth is, however, that they are less significant, and the Government know that.

First, loyalist terrorists do not form part of the Administration in Northern Ireland. Secondly, from when I was involved in such matters I know that they are pretty much infiltrated by intelligence and security forces in a way that, very understandably, the republicans are not. Thirdly, loyalist terrorism is essentially reactive. Loyalist terrorists exist because the IRA exists. They are just a bunch of unpleasant thugs who are probably more interested in criminality than politics. They are not significant players, and to keep harping on about loyalist terrorism is a diversion.

Lembit Öpik: Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that loyalist paramilitaries direct a huge amount of activity at the nationalist community, and that for that reason it is very much in our interests to give them the space to decommission as well—if only we can get them to do so?

Mr. Robathan: I disagree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, who made a speech with one foot on each side of the fence, as usual sitting neatly on it before jumping off and leaping to the Government's defence and then into bed with them. Loyalist terrorists, like everybody else, should have decommissioned their weapons already. That was the point of the Belfast agreement. The hon. Gentleman might care to read it. Indeed, half of them are not now even on ceasefire; the Government have said that it is not recognised. I want an equal crackdown on the thugs who are so-called loyalist terrorists and the thugs who are republican terrorists.

I turn to the subject of dissident republicans, who are also covered by the extension of the deadline, which raises a certain disingenuity. The IRA terrorist movement is fairly fluid. It would be interesting to know what information and intelligence the Government have about how many people in the so-called Real IRA or Continuity IRA drift in and out of Provisional IRA discussions. That is not as clear cut as anybody would try to pretend. It certainly seems to me that the groups are moving among each other.

I am certain that members of the IRA, including Martin McGuinness and others, will know the players in the Real/Continuity IRA and what they are doing. It would be extraordinary if they did not, having grown up and worked with them for 20 years. I am sure that Government intelligence would confirm that—even though we continue the fiction that dissident republicans are entirely separate and form organisations totally different from the Provisional IRA. Such groups may disagree with the Provisional IRA, but they are pretty close to them in many other ways.

The lack of a deadline has also led to a rise in support for more extreme parties. I do not want to upset the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), but he illustrates the fact that his view is much more "no surrender" than that we must reach some pragmatic agreement, which we must if we are to achieve peace—and God willing we will. Much more important than the rise of the Democratic Unionist party vote at the election

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at the expense of some of the official Ulster Unionists was the rise in the Sinn Fein vote at the expense of the sensible, moderate, nationalist Catholic—whatever one likes to call it—vote.

People turned from the Social Democratic and Labour party to Sinn Fein, which is inextricably linked to the IRA. Part of that is the Government's responsibility because Sinn Fein have shown that it can deliver, stand up to the British Government and get what it wants. It can stick with the fiction of being removed from violence but get what it wants, carrying an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other.

I would have thought that everybody in the Committee, including the Minister, would be greatly distressed at the fact that an enormous number of perfectly decent people in Northern Ireland are now prepared to put a cross against Sinn Fein on the ballot paper. I am sure that most of them are perfectly decent and could explain why they did so were they here, but it is largely because the Government have given Sinn Fein such credibility.

I should like to ask one more thing about the extension of the amnesty, and perhaps the Minister might address it too. What further plans do the Government have to extend the amnesty to Irish terrorists who have committed crimes on the mainland but may not yet have been charged, identified, accused or convicted? Will the amnesty be extended to become all embracing in relation to all such people, including those who were responsible for the Canary Wharf and Bishopsgate bombs? I care about that and I think that most people in London care. Perhaps when the matter comes a bit closer to home, people in London and England as a whole might care a little more about what happens in Northern Ireland.

5.45 pm

I have spoken for quite long enough, but I should like to say that a deadline must be a deadline. One of my colleagues suggested that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was talking about a roll-over deadline. That is what it has been. Nothing has happened and it has meant nothing.

Mr. Barnes: Two comments have been made about the term "rolling deadline", which was obviously produced as a paradox and was part of the general analysis in which I was engaged. With regard to people who have only simple-minded, yah-boo views on the matter, what I was saying goes well beyond such views, as it does in respect of the two hon. Members who have referred to the issue.

Mr. Robathan: If one has a deadline, one has a deadline. One can roll it around as much as one likes. The hon. Gentleman is not a fool, but neither am I, and I reckoned that a deadline of two years up to May 2000 was exactly that: a deadline. We have now reached January 2002 and we are looking at five more years.

The lesson that the Government have not learned is that the end does not justify the means. We want to see peace in Northern Ireland, but extending the amnesty deadline will not ensure it and will only be further appeasement for the thugs and terrorists who do not want to see peace in Northern Ireland unless they are in charge of the place.

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Mr. Baron: As one of those who has served in Northern Ireland—I did so as a platoon commander—and having seen at first hand the atrocities caused by terrorists, I firmly believe that the Bill in its unamended form is a big mistake. Nobody is keener than me for the peace process to succeed, but the Bill, which allows paramilitaries up to a further five years to meet their decommissioning obligations under the Belfast agreement, is completely wrong as it sends out the wrong signals to the various terrorist and paramilitary organisations.

Decommissioning is the one element of the Belfast agreement that is lagging behind very badly. To suggest through the Bill that terrorist organisations can take their time—indeed, it says that they can have another five years—will not help the agreement's chances of succeeding. I hold that view for two reasons. First, the Bill will reinforce the feeling among Unionists that this is a one-way process—a point to which the hon. Member for North–East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) alluded—and will generate problems for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party and the Assembly in general. Secondly, the Bill also does not help the Belfast agreement because it delays one of the key ingredients that is essential to its success—decommissioning. Rather than speeding up decommissioning, the Bill has the opposite effect and will slow it down.

The Secretary of State and the Minister will know that there is a habit in Northern Ireland of taking everything to the wire. In other words, as anyone who has been to Northern Ireland knows, giving terrorists another five years means that they will take another five years without thinking about it. Sinn Fein-IRA are dragging their feet because that increases pressure on the British Government. The Government are allowing that to happen, which is plain for the world to see—except, of course, the Government themselves.

Meanwhile, the people of the Province continue to suffer. Violent riots continue while the paramilitary beatings, maimings and murders carry on. We are even building new walls in Belfast, while there has been no further progress on decommissioning. All that puts a tremendous strain on the Army, which is caught in no man's land, where a peace process is allegedly making progress while the violence continues unabated. It is not as though the other parties to the agreement have not kept their side of the bargain. The UUP was prepared to share government with Sinn Fein-IRA; the Irish Government have changed their constitution; and the British Government have legislated for devolved government. Meanwhile, the terrorist prisoners were released within a two-year time frame, which was not part of the agreement, in the hope that decommissioning would also follow within two years.

The Conservatives tried to link prisoner releases with decommissioning, through amendments to the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill in 1998, but we were defeated by the Government.

Sinn Fein-IRA are now holding up the Belfast agreement by refusing to decommission totally, and all that the Government can do by way of response is to give them another five years. That is a shameful policy, and betrays both the good intentions of those who have served in Northern Ireland and, above all, the people themselves.

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As a country, we send troops to Macedonia to disarm warring factions, yet we cannot disarm terrorists in our own country. We have, rightly, played a leading role in putting together a globally co-ordinated fight against terrorism following the atrocities of 11 September, yet we bend the knee to terrorists in our own back yard.

The time has now come for Sinn Fein-IRA to deliver on their promises about decommissioning, and for the Government to ensure that they do so. That is why I support the amendments.

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