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9.29 pm

Lembit Öpik: We now have only half an hour left of the debate. I know that the Minister of State wants a couple of minutes to reply and that at least two Members on the Benches behind me want to speak. I shall therefore try to keep my comments brief, not least because the key points have been made, and made a number of times by some individuals.

If the debate is about anything, it is about trying to stop the violence that is going on outside Holy Cross school. We have to focus on the outcome. This is not an esoteric debate about principle; it is about life in Northern Ireland and what is best to normalise its community. If the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen were in the IRA, would they be more or less likely to decommission if the British Government played hardball, despite the fact that decommissioning started in the context of an amnesty? It is obvious that in the world of human nature and practical judgment the hardball playing that the Conservatives propose would be wholly counterproductive.

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Furthermore, we have established that the proposal is not a matter of principle for the Conservatives, but a matter of practicality. Let us consider that in detail. They are not concerned about the principle of the amnesty because they introduced that idea five years ago when they were in government. They are not even concerned about the principle of extending the time because their amendments would have extended it to 2003 or 2005, which in the latter case means that we are arguing about two years' difference. That is a matter of judgment.

I am confused about what logical argument convinces the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that what was right in much more dangerous circumstances in 1997 is no longer right, even though the Conservatives accept that the policy was successful in moving things forward. When I asked the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading whether he accepted that it was a greater act of faith to have acted in that way back then, he said:

What has changed? What logical justification is there for the Conservatives to shy away from a lesser act of faith than the one that they took back then? Despite the hon. Gentleman's intellectual formidableness, I am sorry to say that I was not convinced that his point was consistent.

The hon. Gentleman also said that longer deadlines do not create shorter implementation periods. I would go further and suggest that plenty of evidence shows that shorter deadlines create a longer implementation period. When this Government have called the bluff of terrorists and others, the terrorists have simply said, "Forget it. We are not going to do it that way."

In addition, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that in an earlier and happier time the former Prime Minister John Major was willing to be much more sensitive to the genuine need to bring such people to the negotiating table without threatening them with a stick. Why else would he have phoned terrorists, who were not even on a ceasefire, to begin to move things forward? Why else did the former Conservative Government take the risk of an amnesty when there was not even such a thing as the Good Friday agreement? There is a strong inconsistency in what we heard from Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen.

In the same debate, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said that I

That test was so successful that it actually delivered some decommissioning four years later. What was the logic for having a five-year amnesty instead of a two or a 10-year amnesty? It was an arbitrary call. I challenge the Conservatives to think seriously about that if they expect us to take seriously the argument that they have some insight into the future and into the mind of a terrorist and that changing the amnesty period from five years to one, which is the most extreme change that they propose, would be acceptable.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) summed up the matter for me. He said that he could create a deadline of his own, and I think he is right. Of all the people in the Chamber, he is in the strongest position to

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cause movement on that, but how can he if decommissioning is a criminal offence and someone who walks in with guns and bombs is prosecuted? How will he do that without an amnesty? It does not add up.

The deadlines threaten a period after which there will be a greater barrier to decommissioning. The deadlines are based on the assumption that after a certain date something will happen that will make decommissioning more likely, or people will be so frightened of that date that they will decommission beforehand. However, all the evidence suggests otherwise.

How do we know whether decommissioning is even worth while? How important is the quantity of weapons that have been handed in so far? The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) was right to say that any meaningful statistic must be expressed in terms of proportion. In reality, we have no way of being sure how much decommissioning has taken place. That extends beyond the IRA to the other organisations. Why do we not trust John de Chastelain, a man who has generally been praised by all sides in the House, when he provides what he believes to be a strategic and useful contribution on the question of significance?

I have said before and I say again that I would take the Conservatives' argument much more seriously if they specified the proportion that they would find acceptable. I fear that whatever proportion was offered, it would not be enough. The only reference that I have heard from them in the past was to total decommissioning, yet that is not a realistic expectation, even in their eyes. They wanted to extend the period so that there would be an on-going process of decommissioning.

In conclusion, it seems clear to the Liberal Democrats that the deadlines are not about increasing the pressure; all the experience of the Northern Ireland peace process tells us that—they are about removing the barrier that I mentioned. If I became the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I would leave the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford with this question: if we look past 27 February 2002, and if he had his way, which is presumably to vote down the Bill tonight, what would he do the following day? How would he push the process forward? If the hon. Gentleman has no plan B, I strongly recommend that he think about supporting plan A, which is before us tonight, as the Liberal Democrats intend to do.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: With respect, the hon. Gentleman had an awfully long time earlier, and I must leave time for others to catch the Speaker's eye.

I conclude with a request to Her Majesty's official Opposition. The Liberal Democrats believe that the Bill is about leaving the door open and keeping one barrier out of the way while other forms of pressure are applied for decommissioning to take place. The Conservatives seem to think that the harder line approach is appropriate. History will say who is right and who is wrong, but I sincerely hope that before Conservatives vote against the Bill tonight, they will remember that they asked for much greater acts of faith when they were in government. In fairness, they were rewarded for taking the risk. It would be a shame if they lost their resolve and their faith in the very strategies that they adopted.

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9.38 pm

Mr. Donaldson: I thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) for his brevity. It is appreciated.

The issue of decommissioning cannot be considered in isolation. One of the reasons why my party will vote against the Bill tonight is that we consider it inappropriate to extend the deadline as proposed. Like the official spokesman for Her Majesty's Opposition, we believe that lengthening a deadline means lengthening the process of decommissioning and making the prospects of achieving further substantive decommissioning highly unlikely.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I interrupt the hon. Gentleman's speech only so that there can be no possible misunderstanding. I understand how, as a matter of principle, he and his party may vote against the Bill for all the reasons that we set out today. However, I should make it clear that I have no intention of asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Bill on Third Reading, as it would be perverse to have no framework for decommissioning. Much as we would have preferred one with a one-year deadline, we would rather have some framework in place than none whatever.

Mr. Donaldson: The decommissioning issue was part of the agreement and part of a package. I took part in the talks at Weston Park last summer. We are now seeing the product of what the Government decided to proceed with after Weston Park. I want to make it clear, as a participant in those talks, that there was no agreement at Weston Park between the parties and the Government. However, the Government have decided to proceed with a number of measures. Extending the deadline for decommissioning is undoubtedly one of them, but there is another very important measure.

We have talked a lot about amnesty in these debates tonight. Another amnesty is being proposed as a result of the Government's initiative after Weston Park that it is important that the House appreciate, as it is the price that is being paid by the Government in return for some progress on decommissioning. It is the amnesty to be granted to those terrorists who are on the run and wanted for questioning by the security forces in Northern Ireland about serious terrorist offences, or who are fugitives from justice, having escaped from prison. Who are those people? Perhaps the House ought to know who some of them are.

A person such as Dermot McNally, who escaped with 38 other IRA prisoners from the Maze prison in 1983, is to be granted amnesty. A person such as Robert "Fats" Campbell, a member of the M60 gang that escaped from the Crumlin Road jail in 1981 having been sentenced to life, in his absence, for the murder of SAS Captain Westmacot, is to be granted amnesty. Liam Avril, who escaped from the Maze prison dressed as a woman during a Christmas party for prisoners and had been sentenced to life in prison for the IRA murders of two innocent Protestants in Garvagh in 1996, is to be granted amnesty.

Owen Carron, the former Sinn Fein-IRA Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, who gained his seat following the death of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was caught in possession of an AK47 rifle in the late 1980s, was granted bail, skipped bail and went on the run in the Irish Republic is now to be granted

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amnesty. Rita O'Hare, part of the Sinn Fein talks team that went to America in the mid 1990s, is wanted for questioning about IRA attacks in west Belfast and is now to be granted amnesty.

Michael Dixon, former British soldier and member of the IRA, is wanted for questioning about an attack on the British Army base in Germany and for the bomb attack on Thiepval barracks in Lisburn in my constituency, in which one soldier died in 1996, and is to be granted amnesty. Charlie Caufield, wanted for questioning about the explosion in Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday—the poppy day bombing—in which 11 innocent people were murdered, is to be granted amnesty; and so the list goes on. The other day I read in the Belfast News Letter that Dermot Finucane, the brother of Pat Finucane, has just been granted his freedom after 20 years on the run—granted amnesty.

We come to another individual, Joseph Patrick Blair, known as "Mutch" Blair. Mr. Blair is an interesting character. He was the main IRA bomber operating in the south Armagh area for a number of years. He is a lifelong friend of Thomas "Slab" Murphy, who is also known as the current chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. Together, they have been involved in terrorism since the early 1970s.

Blair was involved in the making of the mortars that were used in the attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary station in Newry in 1985 in which nine RUC officers were murdered, including, tragically, my cousin, Chief Inspector Alexander Donaldson. Blair was also involved in the murder of three police officers, who were gunned down in cold blood in the centre of Newry as they sat in a police car, by IRA gunmen dressed in butchers' clothing. I could go on.

Blair was also involved in the death of Constable Colleen McMurray in a landmine explosion in south Armagh which resulted in injuries to Constable Paul Slane. I should tell those Members who do not know of Paul Slane, one of my constituents, that he was the police officer who received the George Cross from Her Majesty the Queen at Hillsborough. Blair was responsible for that bomb.

I come to a more recent incident: the Omagh bombing. Blair is a member of the Provisional IRA and that bombing was carried out by the so-called Real IRA. The Secretary of State will be aware of a recent report by the police ombudsman on the police investigation of the Omagh bombing. In that report, there is mention of a police informer called Kevin Fulton. Fulton asserted that he met a senior republican in Dundalk a few days before the Omagh bombing. He further asserted that he smelt explosives on the person of that individual. I can tell the House that I am being informed by security sources that that individual was Joseph Patrick Blair, the IRA bomb maker. One therefore has to make the assumption that Blair, as a Provisional IRA member, was involved in the construction of the Omagh bomb.

That is why decommissioning is so important. These weapons have been and still are being used in Northern Ireland. I join those who have condemned the violence today in north Belfast. We all condemn it. Tonight, on the

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streets of north Belfast, weaponry is again being used. That is why decommissioning is essential. However, what is the message that is coming from this House tonight to people such as Joseph Patrick Blair, a member of the Provisional IRA who used his Semtex from the IRA arms dumps to give the Real IRA the capacity to explode the Omagh bomb that killed 28 innocent people? That is why decommissioning is so important.

I want to conclude with the words of Victor Barker, the father of James Barker, a young boy who lost his life in the Omagh bombing. Recently, Victor Barker, out of sheer frustration with some of the things that are happening, sent to the Prime Minister coroner's photographs of his dead son. Why would someone like Victor Barker have to do something like that? I shall explain why. He said:

That is why Victor Barker sent those photographs—to remind the Prime Minister. The association to which he refers is there in the person of Joseph Patrick Blair, a man who is a member of the Provisional IRA and who helped to construct the Omagh bomb.

I conclude by saying that that is why decommissioning is essential and must happen now. It should have happened and would have been completed by now if the agreement had been followed, but like the extension of the deadline and the amnesty that has been granted to IRA terrorists on the run, it seems that certain aspects of the agreement are flexible and can be changed as we go along. The problem is this: the IRA and the other terrorist organisations know that. They know that they have only to hold out and they will be let off the hook. We must not let them off the hook, for the sake of people such as Victor Barker, the families of the people who lost their lives in the poppy day bomb in Enniskillen and all the innocent victims on both sides in Northern Ireland. If we are to build a real and lasting peace in Northern Ireland, we owe it to them to ensure that the gun and bomb are removed from our politics. I am afraid that by taking the actions that we are taking tonight, we postpone the day when that will happen.

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