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9.8 pm

David Winnick (Walsall, North): There are certain things on which we can agree. There remains in Northern Ireland far too much paramilitary violence, including punishment beatings and other acts of violence and hooliganism that are directed at both the majority and minority communities. When the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke about such matters, I intervened to say that the chairman of Sinn Fein should certainly have condemned terrorist violence. I am not aware of any Labour Member—certainly not those on the Front Bench, or any Back Bencher—who would take a very different view. We can also agree that the IRA has not turned itself into a pacifist or semi-pacifist organisation. No less than the hon. Gentleman, I would like Sinn Fein to urge the IRA to disband. Although I welcome the decommissioning, which took place under pressure, further acts of decommissioning would be welcome, and that includes decommissioning by the loyalists. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford

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(Mr. Davies) is right: we should recognise that there has been a lack of decommissioning by paramilitary loyalist groups and terror gangs.

It is easy to draw attention to what is wrong and what we condemn. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who now plays a leading role in Northern Ireland affairs, recognises that what he condemns, we condemn—on that, there is no divide. However, when we consider what has been achieved, we should accept that substantial progress has indeed been made since the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998.

For the first time since Northern Ireland came into existence as a separate state more than 80 years ago, a devolved Administration represents both communities. All the main political parties serve on the Executive, including the Democratic Unionist party, which has never accepted the Good Friday agreement. Surely it is progress that Northern Ireland is governed by elected representatives of both communities. That differs greatly from what happened there all those years before direct rule was imposed by the Heath Government in 1972.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to draw attention to the fact that far more people would undoubtedly have been murdered had the terrorist violence continued to the same extent. Surely that is progress. He mentioned what happened in 1972. Terrorist outrages, which did not occur only in Northern Ireland, took the lives of many innocent people, including members of the military and the police. They, too, were innocent, like the civilians who were killed. I have never questioned their innocence, and I have condemned IRA violence from the beginning, as hon. Members who have served in previous Parliaments know. There has been no ambiguity in my position, and I am not a lone voice; my party has always taken that position. The fact that lives have been saved from terrorist violence and murders cannot be ignored.

It has been argued—it is an unfortunate argument and not one that the Tory Front Bench makes—that only one side has won from the Good Friday agreement. We will hear it argued tonight that the nationalists and republicans have won and that the Unionists have lost out. That is a false argument, and it is not only the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party who employ it; too many people in the main Unionist party—including some hon. Members, although not the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, and constituency activists—argue that the Good Friday agreement has sold out the Unionist community. I see hon. Members nodding in agreement, but it is simply not true that only one side is a winner.

IRA and Sinn Fein had to recognise that terror would not force the United Kingdom to end partition. The IRA's standard argument was that terror upon terror would force a British Government to leave Northern Ireland. I am not aware that that has happened.

Before the agreement, Sinn Fein strenuously denied that Northern Ireland had any legitimacy. It said that Northern Ireland was a statelet, that it had no right to exist and that its existence as such should end. Now Sinn Fein Members sit, rightly, in an Executive in a devolved Administration. They have accepted the partition that they always refused to recognise. Is that in any way a sell-out of the Unionist community?

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Sinn Fein has had to accept that there can be a change in Northern Ireland's status only with the support and agreement of a majority of the community. That is democracy. That has been the view of Members on both sides of the House and of Governments for over 30 years during the violence. There has been no sell-out on that principle. For years, the constant complaint of Unionist politicians was that it was unacceptable for articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution to lay claim to Northern Ireland. Following the Good Friday agreement and a necessary referendum in the Irish Republic, those parts of the constitution have been dropped.

I do not see how it can be argued with any logic that the Good Friday agreement has been of benefit only to one side of the community. Some Unionist politicians simply cannot accept the whole concept of power sharing in Northern Ireland, the changes in the police force, which were long overdue, or the legislation to outlaw all forms of sectarian discrimination.

The shadow Secretary of State was absolutely right to say that we neglected Northern Ireland for years on end. He complains that there are not enough debates on the subject, and he may well be right. We should, however, consider the sheer neglect of Northern Ireland. There had been no change since 1920—a Protestant state for a Protestant people. There was a great deal of discrimination, and the minority community was treated in a shabby and brutal manner. That was the position for years, and we all ignored it, including Labour Members and Labour Governments. That has changed, and it is absolutely right that it has done.

There are those on both sides of the sectarian divide who are totally opposed to the Good Friday agreement. We know from the horrifying tragedy at Omagh that there are those on the republican side who believe that there has been a sell-out by the IRA and Sinn Fein; and, unfortunately, as I have said, there are those on the Unionist side who do not accept the Good Friday agreement.

It is essential that the agreement is defended in every conceivable way by hon. Members on both sides of the House. When we combated terrorism over the years we had a united House. I understand the Opposition's view that their support for the agreement does not mean that they should not be willing to point out the difficulties, as they have done today, and to recognise that certain things need to be done. However, what needs to be recognised, not only by Unionists but by Conservatives, is that some Opposition Back Benchers have never accepted the agreement.

I make an appeal, with all the sincerity that I can command, to Conservative Members, and in particular to the shadow Secretary of State: if we believe that the agreement is the best way forward for Northern Ireland and that significant gains have been made, we should stand together in its defence despite all the blemishes that have been identified, many of which have yet to be tackled. We should form a united front against the wreckers, who have but one objective—to destroy the agreement that was signed four years ago..

9.19 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): May I deal first with the statement from the IRA that has been referred to by a number of speakers? It has been

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welcomed by a number of people, but as someone whose family have lost two members, murdered by the IRA, both police officers serving in Northern Ireland—Samuel Donaldson, who was murdered in Crossmaglen in 1970 and his brother Alexander who was murdered in the mortar attack on Newry police station in 1985—I cannot see anywhere in it an apology for their murder.

No one should lose sight of the fact that the IRA is still playing a game in which it regards police officers and soldiers as legitimate targets. Gerry Adams, I remind Members, recently said of recruits to the new Police Service of Northern Ireland from the Roman Catholic community:

Of course, there was recently an attempted murder of a police service recruit in Ballymena—an attack that Sinn Fein refused to condemn. None of us should fall into the trap of giving legitimacy to a statement that still plays the game of claiming that police officers or soldiers are legitimate targets. My family have not received an apology from the IRA, yet their grief and sense of loss is as deep as anyone's. More than 300 police officers have been murdered over the past 30 years—their families deserve an apology as well.

But apologies are not enough. We have heard words from the IRA before. Every time we get those statements, they receive the same welcome and the pressure is relaxed. Surely, that is precisely the time to keep the pressure on the paramilitaries. If we are to move towards the real and lasting peace that the people of Northern Ireland want, we cannot allow the paramilitaries to set the agenda. Let us be in no doubt that that is largely what has been happening in the peace process. The Prime Minister, before the referendum on the agreement, set out in detail the criteria by which he would judge whether ceasefires were genuine and whether the commitment of paramilitaries was for real. At Coleraine on 20 May 1998, for example, he said that those who use or threaten violence would be

The Prime Minister went on to say:

Is not the reality, however, that the IRA, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have all committed acts of violence and continue to do so and to threaten violence, yet have benefited from the agreement? All their prisoners have been released and Sinn Fein is in the Government of Northern Ireland. Where is the Prime Minister's commitment now?

At Balmoral showgrounds on 14 May 1998, the Prime Minister went into even more detail, setting out a series of criteria by which he and the Government would judge whether the ceasefires were genuine. He talked about

the words "for good" are underlined—

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He went on to say:

and that there is to be


Then, crucially, he said:

But is it not the case that the judgment has become less rigorous over time, and that while the Secretary of State claims that there is no acceptable level of violence, violence today is at a higher level than it was when the agreement was signed? That is not my conclusion; it is the conclusion of the Police Service of Northern Ireland from its statistics, yet the Government say that the IRA ceasefire is still intact.

Using the same criteria, the Government announced that the UDA ceasefire had broken down. Is anyone suggesting that the UDA is guilty of a higher level of violence? Was it the UDA whose members were in Colombia developing new weapons? Was it the UDA that had three members convicted of running guns in a court in Florida? Was it the UDA that broke into Castlereagh police station? Was it the UDA that shot five Protestants in Belfast? Was it the UDA that was targeting me and other Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland?

Yet the IRA ceasefire, we are told, is still intact. I do not deem it to be intact, judging by the criteria laid down by the Prime Minister. Why do the Government differentiate between the UDA ceasefire and the IRA ceasefire? Of course, at the heart of the process are the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence, to which all the political parties in Northern Ireland without exception signed up. Those principles have been demeaned and broken on numerous occasions by all the paramilitary organisations.

One cannot help but conclude, therefore, that there are occasions and circumstances when the Government are prepared to turn a blind eye to the breaches of the Mitchell principles and of the ceasefire. I believe that we have reached a moment when decisions must be taken about the process. The evidence is clear. The IRA has not made a commitment to peace and democracy, it is in breach of its ceasefire and of the Mitchell principles, and Sinn Fein has failed to deliver on the undertakings that it gave in the agreement.

On 22 April 1998 here in the House of Commons the Prime Minister told us:

We are entitled to ask the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State why Sinn Fein Ministers are still in the Government of Northern Ireland when there is incontrovertible evidence that the IRA is continuing to use and to threaten violence on the streets and to engage in re-arming and in international terrorism.

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A deadline of 24 July has been set by the First Minister for the Government to act and to deal with those transgressions. Let us be clear that another form of words from the Prime Minister will not suffice. In my opinion, nothing short of the exclusion of the Sinn Fein-IRA Ministers from ministerial office will suffice. The promise to act in the future is not enough. We have had those promises before and they have been broken.

The Unionist community wants to see action taken against those who have transgressed. If we simply admonish them and do not follow that up with some kind of sanctions, what we are saying effectively is, "Colombia is okay. Castlereagh is okay. Florida is okay. What happened on the streets of Belfast is okay. Just don't do it again." But they will do it again. History has taught us that if we let the terrorists off the hook, they will come back to do it again. The idea that we can draw a line under Colombia, Castlereagh and the recent street violence in return for the paramilitaries making some kind of recommitment to the peace process is a non-starter. The agreement has been broken by the paramilitaries, and the Government must now act to hold them to account and to restore public confidence. That must mean altering the terms to ensure that we have effective exclusion mechanisms to deal with those who are in default. That is what the Prime Minister promised that he would do on 10 April 1998 and that is what he must now do. That is where I depart from those on the Government Front Bench. It is time for the Government to legislate to introduce powers for effective exclusion mechanisms. We have to send the signal that no level of violence will be tolerated and that the terrorists must adhere to the agreement, or there will be consequences. That has been the problem in the past. Terrorists on both sides believe that they can play fast and loose with the process and get away with it, and to date—let us face it—they have got away with it.

It is time for the Prime Minister and the Government to draw a clear line to create the circumstances and make provision for the exclusion of those who have failed to honour their commitments under the agreement. I am told that that is not workable; that the way to bring Sinn Fein-IRA and others along the path to peace is not to exclude them from government. So why did the Prime Minister say that he would do it in the first place? Why does the agreement make provision for it? Why does the legislation make provision for it? Sometimes, we have to deal with the terrorists by taking sanctions and action against them to make them realise that, as the Secretary of State said, there is no halfway house and that when we say that we will exclude, we will exclude. Otherwise, they call our bluff, and the Government's bluff has been called too many times in the past. It is time for the Government to act. The people of Northern Ireland expect them to do so.

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