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Dr. John Reid: I shall intervene, but only to take advantage of the hon. Gentleman's invitation to benefit from his intellectual rigour. The hon. Gentleman said that deadlines work only in one direction. Does that mean that he thinks that there are no circumstances in which the public declaration of a deadline might make the action that he wants to be taken—in this case, decommissioning—less likely to be taken?

Mr. Davies: Yes. I do not believe that shorter deadlines in the Bill would mean that—

Dr. Reid: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for applying his intellectual rigour to a question that I did not ask. I did not ask about the length of the deadline. The hon. Gentleman has said three times, categorically, that deadlines can work in one direction only. Let us assume, for example, that the hon. Gentleman wants a person to act in a given manner. Will he say whether he thinks that there are any circumstances under which the public declaration of a deadline to be imposed on that person could have the effect of inhibiting that person from acting in that manner?

Mr. Davies: It is possible that the deadline will have no effect. I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that shortening a deadline—[Interruption.] That is a different question about deadlines. Let me be specific. There are certain situations—and this may be what the right hon. Gentleman is driving at—in which a deadline is not an appropriate instrument to use and will not help to achieve the objective. In those circumstances, it is better to have no deadline. However, when a deadline is used, longer deadlines will lengthen the completion time, whereas shorter deadlines, if they have any influence at all, will shorten the performance of the action required. Is that an answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question?

Dr. Reid: It is not. As the hon. Gentleman has an amazing capacity for intellectual rigour, the problem must be my phrasing of the question. I will attempt to phrase it again. I am not asking about situations in which there are no deadlines or about shortening deadlines. I thought that it was quite plain that I was asking the hon. Gentleman to apply his renowned mind to the following question: are there any circumstances in which the public

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declaration of a deadline to be imposed on people whom we want to act in a given direction will cause them to be less likely to act in that way?

Mr. Davies: The answer to that is yes, and I have acknowledged that already. I have said that there are circumstances—

Dr. Reid rose

Mr. Davies: I have given the right hon. Gentleman the short answer, which is yes. I am about to give him the explanation for that answer, which is not much longer, and then I will give way to him again.

I repeat that there are circumstances in which a deadline is not an appropriate or sensible method and imposing one will have a counterproductive effect. That is the first category. The second category is when deadlines are appropriate and will have an effect. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman unambiguously that if a deadline is an appropriate mechanism and if the object of the exercise is to advance or accelerate performance, it is sensible to have a shorter deadline. If the object of the operation is to lengthen performance, it is sensible to lengthen the deadline. Is that a clear answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question?

Dr. Reid: The first answer was extremely clear. The hon. Gentleman finally answered my question about whether there are circumstances under which the public declaration of a deadline can actually inhibit or be counterproductive, and he said yes. Will he therefore reflect on his earlier statement that deadlines work only in one direction? As a deadline can, by his own admission, encourage action towards the desired end or be counterproductive and move action away from the desired end, it patently can work in both directions. I would like the benefit of the hon. Gentleman's intellectual rigour here.

Mr. Davies: This is a very interesting discussion. Indeed, it is more like an exercise in formal logic, but I am happy to pursue it. This is a two-stage process; there is nothing complicated about that. The first stage is to decide whether a deadline is an appropriate instrument to use. The answer to that may be yes or no. It is a binary system, and very simple really.

David Burnside: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: As I am involved in a logical argument, I suppose that I had better pursue it, after which I will give way.

There are only two stages here. The first is to decide whether a deadline is appropriate. If not, it will have a perverse effect and may damage the objective. When one has decided whether a deadline is appropriate, one has to decide whether it is intended to lengthen or shorten the process that one is trying to influence. This seems so intuitively sensible that I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman is making such heavy weather of it. I think that everyone outside the House listening to the debate—if anyone is at this time of night—would agree that if a deadline is appropriate and the intention is to accelerate the required action, it is sensible for the deadline to be

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shorter. If the deadline is made longer, and in so far as it will influence the time within which the process is completed, the time taken to complete the process is likely to be extended. That is the simple argument that we put when we debated amendment No. 1.

David Burnside: During the past, confused, 10 minutes, the English Front Bench might have been confused with the Scottish Front Bench.

Is the reason there is so much confusion in the debate on deadlines that neither the Government nor the Opposition have defined what sanction they would use to impose pressure to meet the deadline? What sanction do the Opposition recommend against Sinn Fein in government, if there is no progress on decommissioning during the next six months?

Mr. Davies: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why I shall come on to deal with sanctions or counterweights.

I want to take up with the Secretary of State a third matter in which there is an element of muddled thinking. The right hon. Gentleman twice told the House rhetorically—he may not have expected an answer but he is about to get one—that if the deadline of summer 2000 for the completion of decommissioning under the Belfast agreement had been taken seriously, there would have been no decommissioning in November and the peace process would have come to an end. That is known as the all-things-being equal fallacy. It has a Latin name but we will not go into that.

That is a simple but important practical fallacy to fall prey to, because of course other things would not have been equal. We made it absolutely clear that, after the signing of the Belfast agreement—as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Conservative party has been consistent in its support of that—we wanted to make sure that prisoners were not released until and unless there was progress on decommissioning. We would have linked the two and used that element of leverage—to refer to the question put by the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside). We would certainly have used those sanctions.

The right hon. Gentleman was not the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at that time, so it was not his fault that his predecessors threw away that card—that instrument of leverage. We were appalled by that. My predecessor proposed an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill which, like all amendments proposed to the Government, was discarded without its merits having been properly considered. Had it not been for the events in Colombia in August and in New York in September, there would probably have been no act of decommissioning.

The Government have persuaded themselves that although—on their own admission—the act of decommissioning was a result of those other unpredictable events, it none the less retrospectively validates the tactics that they adopted during the first two years of the Belfast agreement. However, they should actually draw the reverse conclusion: were it not for those fortuitous events—albeit utterly regrettable and tragic in the case of 11 September—they would not have achieved decommissioning yet. As sanctions or counterweights were absent from the Government's approach to

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decommissioning, they had no chance of using those tactics to ensure that the Belfast agreement was implemented.

That classic example of muddled thinking does not apply only to the right hon. Gentleman. As I pointed out, it was shared by his colleagues and predecessors. In practice, muddled thinking has led to a disastrous and regrettable result. It was tragic for the right hon. Gentleman to admit that the Sinn Fein-IRA decommissioning in November was largely brought about by factors beyond the Government's control; tragic, too, that he should regard that act of decommissioning as validating the Government's policies in the first two years of the Belfast agreement. That really is muddled thinking. We cannot afford muddled thinking. The stakes are far too high.

I wholly agree that, even at this 11th hour, we need to introduce a greater element of sanction, discipline and counterweight. This is not the time to go into the detail of that. However, the Minister of State challenged me to offer an alternative policy. She seemed rather surprised when I answered her question. Perhaps she was surprised because she was not expecting an answer. Perhaps she was surprised because the substance of my answer was new to her, but that shows that she does not listen to what the Opposition say.

Two or three times in the brief time I have played this role, I have said that it is necessary now, even at the eleventh hour, to try to negotiate a global package. I have called it a programmed process, leading to full decommissioning. Of course, it would involve the loyalist paramilitaries, Sinn Fein-IRA and the two Governments. It might also involve making some concessions that might need to be made, however unattractive, but no such concession should be made in advance of such a global agreement. I have said that several times in the House.

The hon. Lady has another bad habit common among those on the Labour Front Bench—she does not listen any more to what is said in the House. She has been sitting on the Treasury Bench when I have said such things several times, but she simply thinks, "Those guys have only got 165 MPs. We need not worry about them; they have no pressure in the Division Lobbies, so we can ignore them." It is a little like Stalin saying, "How many divisions does the Pope have?"

Neither the hon. Lady nor the Secretary of State thinks that way as a result of some personal temperamental predilection; they are not that sort of people. It is part of new Labour's culture—its arrogance of power and its knowledge that it can always override us in the Lobbies. Although Ministers may not treat us with contempt, they think that we can safely be ignored with impunity. So the hon. Lady did not know that I had already answered the question. She asked me a question rhetorically, and was rather surprised to get an answer.

I have limited myself—I do not wish to be more controversial than I have to be—to remarks that were directly called for by the Secretary of State's speech at the beginning of this debate on Third Reading, but I do not want to end on an antagonistic note. I am conscious, as he is, that we have had some extremely bad news from Belfast this evening. I did not know until he told us that policemen and women had been injured in north Belfast, but clearly there has been a serious riot.

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The only conclusion that we should draw is that we are sitting on a powder keg. We cannot afford any kind of complacency or any mistakes. We certainly cannot afford to lull ourselves into supposing that because an act of decommissioning, however extensive or otherwise it might be, took place in November, everything is fine and dandy and on the right rails. I know that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have never said or implied that, but I am concerned by people outside the House who seem to think that the worst is over and that everything will now be plain sailing. Clearly, that is not the case.

When such a crisis occurs, it is a good moment to reappraise the strategy. I know perfectly well that the Government will not explicitly accept any advice from us. Anything that I say will be dismissed because it is said by someone who sits on the Opposition Front Bench. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government may reappraise some of their strategy. I hope that they will accept that the general perception, even if it is not their perception, on both sides in Northern Ireland is that they are on the run. They are giving away endless concessions, and there is no rigour in the process whatever. Clearly, Sinn Fein-IRA have reached that conclusion; they simply ask for the next concession and expect that, if they ask for three things, they will get at least one and probably two of them. That has been the basis of that dialogue.

Equally, on the other side of the divide, as has been said by representatives of both Unionist parties here tonight, there is an enormous sense of demoralisation and cynicism in the Unionist camp, which feels that the whole process is a one-way street and that the Government simply have no natural stopping place, so the process of endless concessions will go on and on. Of course, those two things are directly linked to decommissioning, as I have said already during today's proceedings.

The Minister of State said today—it was the most despairing thing to come out of the debate—that the process may now take years. If that is true—and it may well be—it is clear that Sinn Fein-IRA expect to be able to buy an endless raft of concessions from the Government, by promising at least not to withdraw the prospect of an act of decommissioning and by saying that perhaps something will happen next month or in a few months' time. In fact, Sinn Fein-IRA have so effectively turned the tables on the Government that, as I have already argued, far from the Government putting pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA, Sinn-Fein-IRA now have no incentive to speed up the process of decommissioning. They have every incentive to hold on to their currency and to let it go as slowly as possible. That is most unfortunate.

The Secretary of State began his speech by referring to the Holy Cross school. It is a tragic situation and it is particularly tragic that, after the hopeful news that we had before Christmas, we are once again facing violence. It is obviously too early to apportion blame, to decide who started the trouble and to determine the circumstances in which it began.

I believe, however, that the whole House will agree when I say that anyone who starts violence or makes the decision to resort to violence puts him or herself fundamentally in the wrong. Whatever the grievances, problems or disputes, anyone who resorts to violence takes a terrible responsibility on his or her shoulders.

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I hope that no one will suggest that the siege of the school should now resume, because anyone who targets children in a political dispute puts themselves beyond the pale.

The tragic deterioration of the situation in north Belfast underlines, once again, the need to get the decommissioning process back on the rails. Of course, the Secretary of State is absolutely right to say—in the context of north Belfast, it is a particularly pertinent point—that progress in decommissioning must be made by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries. Let me quote the figures to the House to remind everyone of what happened last year. I understand—the Government will tell me if the figures are wrong—that Protestant paramilitaries are believed to have been responsible for 14 murders and that republican paramilitaries are believed to have been responsible for two murders in the Province.

One murder is far too many, but it is clear that, in terms of murders—I leave out the important issue of permanent maimings and the appalling beatings and shootings that take place—Protestant paramilitaries have been most bloodthirsty recently. I certainly do not underestimate the threat from them or the absolute need to treat them with the same kind of discipline and rigour as I want us to use on all paramilitaries and anyone who breaks the law in our country.

This has been an interesting debate. We have covered a lot of ground, and rightly so. Because decommissioning is at the centre of the whole peace process, we have brought in almost every other major aspect of the issue. Even if the Government do not want ever to say this in public, I hope that they will listen to what is said by Opposition Members and, if it is possible to even a minor degree, that they will consider some of the things that have been said in the debate. They might even think again about the reporting requirements of the international commission when we renew its mandate as I fear, if the Minister of State is right, we shall have to do next year.

I hope that the Government will accept the need to adopt a slightly more determined line as regards the way in which they deal with Sinn Fein-IRA. If the statements that I and others have made tonight make it easier for the Secretary of State to tell Sinn Fein-IRA that he is under considerable pressure in the House not to give them any further unreciprocated concessions, our debates will not have been in vain.

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