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Dr. Reid: In deference, there has been no loyalist decommissioning with the exception of a small number of guns that were handed in at the beginning by the Loyalist Volunteer Force. I accept that, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to imply that there is not a huge way to go. I do not mean to separate one side and weigh it in the balance; I am merely saying that, given the problems that we have to address with decommissioning, we have a huge road to go. We have achieved a historic step, even though deadline after deadline has been passed, and we have done so in particular international circumstances. However, this concerns not just the Provisional IRA; a large number of groups, even those on ceasefire, have a huge way to go in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Blunt: I understand why the Secretary of State could not be present throughout the whole debate. However, Opposition Members have concentrated on the holding of weapons by loyalist terrorists and a number of hon. Members in the debate spoke of the need for decommissioning on all sides. I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that hon. Members have properly concentrated on all the parties that illegally hold weapons.
I understand the concerns expressed by right hon. and hon. Members. When the original decommissioning legislation was passed in 1997, we all shared the hope that full decommissioning would be achieved within the five years for which it provided. Perhaps that was the euphoria of the agreement; perhaps it was the wish that our dreams and hopes would be fulfilled. Obviously, I am disappointed that that has not proved possible.
When the Belfast agreement was signed in 1998, we all took heart from the aspiration of all the signatories that decommissioning would be completed within two years of the referendums endorsing the agreement. Now that five years are drawing to a close, I share the regret that our expectation has not been fulfilled. However, I ask the House to consider the enormous progress that has been made towards securing a permanent resolution to the problems that have blighted Northern Ireland for decades. I have already said that I do not believe that the process has been all one way; nor do I believe that it has been a process of concessions.
We should ask ourselves whether we should countenance measures that would in any way lead, on balance, to the possibility of squandering the gains that we have made. I do not believe that anyone in the House thinks that we should do so. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said that we operated more in hope than in expectation. We certainly have more cause for positivity now than we had in 1997 because at that stage the IRA was not even on ceasefire. Truly historic progress has been made.
In the midst of all the passions that these issues raise, Members of this House who have been involved in the great measures of the past few yearsI do not refer to myself, because, like most Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, I am a fairly transient figure; there is a rapid velocity of turnover in Northern Irelandwhatever their misgivings, should not diminish the capacity that they have displayed and the results that they have achieved in terms of changing Northern Ireland. Let us remember what it was like 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
I understand when people say to me, "Yes John, but not peace at any price". We do not have a perfect democracy or a perfect peace, but let us never diminish the historic steps that we have managed to take. If we are to make progress, whatever our frustrations, we must provide the legal framework for further decommissioning by republicans and loyalists. We must work to bring within the process even those dissidents and rejectionists who are currently outside the process. The police on both sides of the border continue to be successful in frustrating their attacks. I am sure that hon. Members will wish to join me in congratulating the Garda Siochana on the recent arrest and charging of the six individuals associated with dissident republican activity. There has been some success, but I say that without any complacency, because I fully understand that one terrible successful attempt by those dissident republicans would have appalling consequences. However, I congratulate the police services on both sides of the border on the sterling work that they have done to protect the people of Northern Ireland from that dissident republican activity.
I hugely regret that decent, ordinary citizens in Northern Ireland are still open to the threat of such attacks and to the sort of violence that we have seen this afternoon. I regret to tell the House that it has flared again this evening, with burning barricades, the use of petrol bombs, a crowd of some 300 attacking the police line and the firing of plastic baton rounds. Sooner or later, those people will come to realise the futility of their position and the destructiveness of their actions. When they do, we will provide the means by which their weapons can be put beyond use once and for all.
I am the last to think that the process is easy for anybody in the House. Peace is not won easily and democracy is not built quickly. It is a long, messy and slow process that, precisely because of its imperfections, gives rise to a natural desire to have those imperfections removed. The Bill provides part of a framework that can address the building of peace and democracy. If it can do so, both are great undertakings to continue, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Quentin Davies: It was a characteristically generous and warmhearted gesture by the Secretary of State to start by wishing a happy new year to all of us and to the people of Northern Ireland. We of course reciprocate those wishes. I have never suspected that anything was amiss with the right hon. Gentleman's intentions and I have no doubt that he wants to do the right thing and is energetic and conscientious in trying to do it. However, I am concerned by some of his methods and I begin to wonder whether the problem stems from some fundamentally muddled thinking. There were three glaring examples in his speech, and although I do not wish to be controversial, I must draw his attention to them.
The Secretary of State mentioned concessions. He said that the peace process was not a process of concessions and that many of the things that had been donehe mentioned human rightshad been properly done on their own merits and should have been done anyway. I agree, but that is to misusenot deliberately, I acceptthe concept of concession. A concession is something that is done, not on its intrinsic merits, but as a price for something else. I hope that the Secretary of State does not think that the premature release of criminals with blood on their handsmultiple murderersshould be done on its intrinsic merits. He would not suggest that other serial murderers held in our jails should be let out much earlier than those who have committed more minor crimes. The right hon. Gentleman cannot seriously suggest that early release was not a concession. It was a concession. It is muddled thinkingthough I do not consider it anything worse than thatto assume otherwise.
Equally, I do not believe that the Secretary of State, in his heart of hearts, thinks that changing the rules of the House to accommodate Sinn Fein-IRA MPs was justified on its own merits. Had that been the case, the Government should have introduced the change as part of their parliamentary reform measures after 1997. They could have said that people who do not want to take their seats and be here all the time should have some other status, because that would be a good way to run our democracy. However, the Government did not say that. We all know that they had no intention of introducing the change on its own merits, but that they did so as a concession.
The failure to see that distinction is a fundamental failure of straight and clear thinking. If the Secretary of State believes in new year resolutions, I hope that he will try to introduce greater rigour to his thinking. That would benefit us all.
A second and striking example of the Secretary of State's thought processes was revealed when he criticised me for being absurd in supposing that deadlines would always and necessarily lead to success. However, I did not say that, and I never suggested it. I noted that the right hon. Gentleman used the words "always" and "necessarily", as I wrote them down when he was speaking.
When moving the first group of amendments this afternoon, I explained at considerable length that we did not believe that deadlines were some sort of panacea. Deadlines do not necessarily achieve a purpose, and I said specifically that many factors, pressures and influences determined decommissioning. I said that that was true of the very welcome act of decommissioning carried out by Sinn Fein-IRA in late October.
The Minister of State is no longer present, but she mentioned the American and Irish influences that have a bearing on the matter. The Secretary of State has also referred to those other influences. The deadline is therefore just one of many influences.
Our debates would be clearer if the Secretary of State examined the questions put to him, and I should be happy to give way to him on this matter. I said that deadlines have an influence which is exerted in one direction. In other words, a longer deadline will not shorten the time taken to perform the obligation in question. By the same token, a shorter deadline may cause the necessary action to be performed sooner.
In many cases, of course, deadlines will be missed, but they have an influence, and it works in only one direction. In so far as it has an influence at all, a shorter deadline will have the effect of making more rapid the conclusion of the necessary task. Lengthening the deadline may make no difference, but if an influence is exerted it will be in the direction of ensuring that the task or action takes longer.
I do not want to embarrass the Secretary of State by quoting again his remarks on Second Reading, in which he acknowledged that people go "down to the wire", to use his phrase. However, I think that the right hon. Gentleman wants to intervene.