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8.46 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): First, may I say how pleased I am that the Conservatives have abandoned what was bound to be a short-lived policy of pulling out of the cross-party agreement on Northern Ireland? I understand why they did so, although more than anything else, I suspect that their position was unsustainable.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I do not know how many times I have had to correct the hon. Gentleman on that point. The Conservative party never gave up on the Belfast agreement. It never gave up on the bipartisan approach in so far as the agreement was being followed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will finally get off that tack.

Lembit Öpik: I apologise to the Conservatives for so profoundly misunderstanding their position in the past. I offer my complete and unequivocal apology. Goodness knows how I got that impression.

I shall take the hon. Gentleman at his word. It is great to hear the Conservatives reaffirming their commitment to the bipartisan agreement. I need say no more on the

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subject—the record is clear as to what the hon. Gentleman and I have said. That is a matter of celebration because some of us were confused—at the very least—as to the Conservative position.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): If the hon. Gentleman is confused, may I refer him to his remarks last week, as his words are becoming repetitive? He said:

I hope that clarifies the hon. Gentleman's memory, if nothing else.

Lembit Öpik: The words are repetitive only because the hon. Gentleman has repeated them. He will of course be aware that they were spoken during an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. The good news needs celebration in an even more public context because I am sure that I was not the only person in the United Kingdom who was unclear about the Conservative position. Let us put the matter to rest; it could not be clearer, from the exchanges of the past few minutes, that the Conservatives are expressly involved in the bipartisan agreement in a positive and strategic way. There can be no one in this place who is not pleased about that.

However, the Conservatives still paint a fairly gloomy picture of where we stand as regards the Northern Ireland peace process. Surely, no one can deny that things are better than they were 10 years ago, despite the underlying level of violence in the communities—a point that has already been mentioned.

No one can question the seminal importance of the work of former Prime Minister, John Major, as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland rightly pointed out. As I have said in other speeches, there is no doubt that John Major kick-started the current peace process by taking significant risks as Prime Minister and straying beyond what might have been regarded as the safe path in respect of Northern Ireland. No one can question whether the Good Friday agreement, for all the strains on it, exists and was signed by the majority of parties in the Province.

Those unquestionable facts, which have come to pass in the past decade, have served considerably to reduce the level of conflict in the sense of an organised campaign of terror in Northern Ireland and, indeed, on the United Kingdom mainland. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have raised a number of concerns, as they are entitled to do, and I should like to explore two of them—their criticisms of past political activity by the Government and their predictions for the future.

As for the former, it strikes me as ironic that a number of activities, such as prisoner release and the apparent non-enforcement of the decommissioning conditions, are so heavily attacked by the official Opposition. It seems to me that the Conservatives have set a great many of the precedents with regard to Northern Ireland political decision making. Their past approach tends to imply that we must allow the flexibility for a Government to make those kinds of tough choices.

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For example, the Conservative party decided to launch the Anglo-Irish agreement. We must remember that that agreement was tremendously controversial at the time, not least in the Province itself, yet if that decision not been taken then, it would have been much less likely that the south of Ireland would have renounced its constitutional claim on the north.

Hon. Members have already mentioned the secret talks between John Major and the active terrorist organisation, the IRA, at a time when there was no ceasefire at all. I heard what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said in response to my intervention on that, but I take a different view. I feel that there is a great deal of similarity in making that kind of decision at the beginning of the 1990s and some of the decisions that have been taken to try to give the peace process momentum now. Obviously, I respect other hon. Members' right to differ on that issue.

Mr. McNamara: Does the hon. Gentleman recall of course that those three great steps forward were taken under Mrs. Thatcher?

Lembit Öpik: Indeed, some hon. Members may be even more surprised that Mrs. Thatcher, who was no friend of terrorism—no one would suggest that she was—presided over some comparably or perhaps even more controversial decisions in government than those that we have seen subsequently. There is no point in discussing in detail which decisions were more controversial; the crucial point is that successive Governments in the United Kingdom have found themselves operating in a way that one might regard as outside the norm of mainstream political activity in this country, but, at the same time, that seems to have delivered some results.

Of course another example is the introduction of an amnesty. Again, that concept was inspired by the Conservatives, not by the current Government. I do not say that to condemn the Conservatives in any way. In fact, I praise them for making those difficult decisions, and the only reason to discuss them in this context is that I believe that what we say in the House materially influences public opinion, not just on the United Kingdom mainland, but in Northern Ireland. To that extent, our self-restraint in accepting the risks that the Government are taking and not seeking to make it more difficult for those decisions to be played out in Northern Irish politics is an important aspect of what we can do to influence the process positively.

A responsible Government take difficult decisions, and a responsible Opposition reflect that. Certainly, speaking for the Liberal Democrats, we try to respect, from our position of opposition, what the Government are attempting to do. We make our concerns known publicly as well as privately, but we do so in the sense that, at heart, we are all trying to achieve the same thing and therefore that these are matters of judgment, rather than of principle, when we try to go in that direction.

I also heard the Conservatives' concerns about predictions of the future. Perhaps the most worrying predictions involve the 2003 Assembly elections in Northern Ireland.

If I understood correctly what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, he would be implying that an anti-agreement party on the unionist side—a loyalist

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party—and Sinn Fein on the nationalist or republican side could, in their prediction, be the two largest parties in Northern Ireland. That may be possible, but who are we to predict aloud and to think that it will not have a material impact, to some extent, on the fortunes of parties in Northern Ireland? There is an interrelation in that sense.

Even more crucially, were that analysis correct, there is a contradiction in the argument that we heard. This is the contradiction: if we assume, for the sake of example, that Sinn Fein becomes the largest party on the nationalist or republican side, and if we impose further restrictions that prevent it from being able to function within the Executive, we are basically saying that we would be willing to disfranchise all the people in the community who chose to vote democratically for the voice of Sinn Fein. How could that benefit the process?

Much of the time we have sought to bring these organisations—the paramilitary background is intimately linked with an organisation such as Sinn Fein—into the peace process. In effect, we have tried to say that there is a better, peaceful, democratic way to achieve outcomes than the paramilitary way that has been tried previously. I do not feel that using the stick of excluding such organisations from the Executive will have any effect other than, first, strengthening support for them in the communities that they represent, and, secondly, providing a degree of pressure within those organisations that makes it even less likely that we will manage to resolve these issues.

Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: I shall do so in a moment, as I want to say one more thing.

There must be a limit. We cannot keep writing a blank cheque and retreating, allowing these organisations to do anything they want and to disrespect completely, in this case, the Good Friday agreement. I worry, however, that the threshold is being set rather low by those who feel that we should take the approach of wielding a very large stick and a relatively small carrot.

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