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Jane Kennedy: I would like to take the opportunity to offer my personal good wishes for the new year to you, Mrs. Heal, and to all hon. Members. Sadly, for hon. Members who are engaged in this debate, with their particular interest in Northern Ireland, the new year has not started as we would have wished, because I should report to the Committee that there has been further trouble, which I understand is still continuing, at the Holy Cross school in Ardoyne. Obviously, we in the Chamber do not have the full details, but I understand that so far two police officers have been injured.

May I test your patience, Mrs. Heal, and invite hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen to join me in appealing for calm, and saying that, as we have witnessed in the past, confrontation and violence do not help to resolve such problems? Dialogue is the only way of resolving the grievances felt on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.

I pay tribute to the work that the officials of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have put into resolving some of the grievances, and to my own officials, too. Let us not allow the children to be made victims again, and have to endure unnecessary trauma because of the failure of adults to live peacefully together. Those comments are entirely outwith the context of the debate, but they serve to remind us of the seriousness of the issues that we are dealing with.

This has been a good and interesting debate, which has centred on the principle of deadlines. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) rightly reminded us of the importance of the language that we use and how we use it, and at the beginning of the debate the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) quoted what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I take us back to that debate, and quote from a different column of Hansard.

My right hon. Friend set out our view of the deadlines and what they mean. He acknowledged that, as many hon. Members who have taken part in the debate would accept,

and then added:

the deadline that we are discussing today—

My right hon. Friend said that pressure had come from several sources and he listed several of them, some of which have been referred to today. He continued:

that is, the peace process—

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I would like to use that as my starting point in replying to this thoughtful and probing debate. I know that the amendments are not probing amendments in our usual sense of that term, but are a genuine representation of the views and feelings of the Opposition parties, and I hope to be able to deal with some of the concerns that hon. Members have raised.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is not listening at the moment, but he and I have shared many debates and debated many issues for what, for me, is becoming far too many years in this House. I am disappointed to hear that he believes that we seek to be diversionist. In my view, he downplayed the importance of loyalist terrorism, and I was sorry to hear him suggest that I was being disingenuous in supporting the Government in introducing the Bill. That is not my intention, nor the Government's intention.

Mr. Robathan: I did not downplay the importance of loyalist terrorism, but its significance. It is just as important if someone has their leg blown off by a loyalist bomb as by a republican bomb, but the fact is that loyalist terrorism is not of the same significance and importance in the political debate. I think that the hon. Lady is aware of that.

Jane Kennedy: Obviously, the hon. Gentleman and I have often disagreed in the past, and I am sure that we shall not agree tonight.

Of course the Government accept the necessity of keeping the pressure on all paramilitaries to disarm, but we believe that that is best done through the political process. In order to be permanent, decommissioning must be voluntary, and our strong view is that imposing deadlines implies that it will be forced. Hon. Gentlemen have talked about sanctions, but I do not believe that a forced initiative will secure lasting peace, which is, I know, what we all seek to achieve.

Mr. Trimble: I find it a bit difficult to reconcile what the hon. Lady has just said with the Secretary of State's comments that she quoted earlier, in which he referred—and she endorsed the reference—to a series of pressures that had produced decommissioning. The decommissioning was not voluntary; it was a result of a series of pressures, and the Minister will know that underlying this debate is the concern about whether it will continue, as originally envisaged. It would do a lot of good if she would say exactly what the Government propose to do now, and in the forthcoming weeks and months, about that issue.

For example, the Government have a programme of normalisation measures. Will they continue that programme even if it is not matched by a programme of decommissioning? Will the normalisation programme proceed, so that pressure is not put on the terrorists? Will the Government not take the lesson that, as the Secretary of State himself said, a series of pressures is needed? One of those is, of course, the deadline, but others are actions that the Government can take—or will the Government do as they have done before, sit back and do nothing, and let other people do the work?

Jane Kennedy: The right hon. Gentleman has made a fair point—at least in the first part of what he said.

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Obviously, I do not accept his suggestion that we sit back and do nothing, and let other people put the pressure on. Working with him and with others, including the international community, we seek to maintain that pressure. Perhaps he made a fair point about my earlier comments, but the pressure that led to the act of decommissioning was precisely the combined pressure mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and others. It was a combination of, for example, international pressure to decommission, plus the right hon. Gentleman's own action in resigning. Working with all the others engaged in the process, we must maintain that pressure to take the process further.

Mr. Trimble: May I take the hon. Lady back to the specific point that I mentioned? The Government have a programme of normalisation measures; some of them have already been taken and some have not. Will she turn her mind to any future normalisation measures that are in the Government's mind? Could not the Government consider linking those with a decommissioning programme? That in itself would be an immediate pressure, although not a big pressure. The Minister might not find it politic to be too explicit about doing that, but may I urge the Government seriously to consider linking that programme to a decommissioning programme? That is immediate pressure that could be brought to bear.

6 pm

Jane Kennedy: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. He probably will not like my reply, but this is not about deadlines, or about concessions. It is not even about bargaining our way through this process. It is about changing hearts and minds, and we can do that only by continuing with our objective of implementing the Belfast agreement.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford led on the issue of deadlines in moving the amendment, but at no point—apart from oblique references by other hon. Members to sanctions—have we been told what he would do if, regrettably, there were no progress over the next year, and the deadline that his amendment suggests were in place. We have not had a coherent argument from the hon. Gentleman about what he would do in those circumstances. That is a genuine question that he needs to consider when dealing with these issues, and when probing the Government on the question.

Mr. Quentin Davies: It is my approach to opposition politics that one should always be prepared to answer such a question, and I believe that I have set a good example in doing so. I have stated clearly what I would do, and I shall return to that matter if I have the opportunity to do so on Third Reading. I have said that we should attempt to negotiate a programmed process, and that we should give no further concessions whatever to republicanism, except when the Belfast agreement has been fulfilled or in exchange for incremental specific acts of decommissioning. I would not have given away the prisoners. I endorse entirely the view of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that the

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normalisation and further measures now under consideration should be closely linked to progress on the vital question of decommissioning.

Jane Kennedy: That was useful, and I will look again at the hon. Gentleman's comments when they are published in Hansard and read them carefully. I shall look forward to debating them with him in the House. This debate will run on throughout this evening, and a number of points will be raised in relation to the amendments and the new clause, and again on Third Reading. I do not wish to go over the same ground too often.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that extending the deadline—that is the phrase that we are using today—for one year only would put more pressure on the paramilitaries, but I do not believe that that would be the case. He must remember that the Bill extends the legal amnesty for only one year, after which, if we need more time, we must come back to the House for the issue to be debated and voted on again. That is the actuality of the case. I know that hon. Members are not being disingenuous in tabling the amendment, but to suggest that we are putting in place a five-year deadline is profoundly wrong.

The hon. Gentleman said that the last Conservative Government introduced the existing decommissioning legislation in 1997 in hope rather than expectation, and that the context is now different. I wholeheartedly agree. The situation has changed. We have achieved a blueprint for permanent change in Northern Ireland—the Belfast agreement—and I acknowledge his continuing support for that. We have begun to implement every aspect of that agreement and, crucially, we have achieved a real and tangible start to decommissioning. We are, therefore, introducing this Bill in expectation rather than in hope—the opposite of what happened before—because we expect the Bill to play an essential part in the decommissioning process and feel that we have more reason than ever to provide a proper legal framework in which decommissioning can take place.

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