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28 Oct 2002 : Column 583—continued

Lembit Öpik: As the record will show, not 30 seconds before the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, I was very careful to say that I did not question his sincerity. It is not my style to seek to gain political points against individuals by personalising attacks. I shall underline again the point that I am making, which is an important one. The semblance of hypocrisy, or the appearance of a contradiction between what the Conservative party says in opposition and what it did in government, right up to the Prime Minister himself, is what can cause damage to those, particularly on the Unionist side, who seek to take a moderate course, because we all know that there are significant elements that are seeking to move the Ulster Unionist party in particular in a more hard-line direction. I have absolutely no axe to grind about the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman speaks.

I often disagree with his analysis, but he is perfectly entitled to his view. I am not denigrating him but simply suggesting that the Conservatives have some explaining to do—perhaps they will take this opportunity to do it—about why their policy is so different now from what it was six years ago.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): In the pushmi-pullyu world of Liberal Democrat thinking, can the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he is castigating the Conservative Government for talking to the IRA or congratulating them on getting the peace process rolling?

Lembit Öpik: The great thing about being a Liberal Democrat is that we tell the truth, so we do not have to remember what we said. I think that I have made it pretty clear today, and in other debates that the hon. Gentleman may or may not have attended, that I do indeed congratulate John Major and Conservative Secretaries of State on having initiated the very process that the current Government are seeking to proceed with. I would like to think that there is not a soul in the House who would detract from that achievement. Indeed, I have said that it was the one enduring contribution that John Major made to British politics. I hope that I do not have to spell it out any more clearly

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than that. It is disappointing that that achievement is apparently being fogged by the party's current move away from his strategy.

A cool analysis of the motion reveals an inference that the ceasefire has been breached. Individuals may believe that, but as the Secretary of State clearly stated, there has been no determination that the IRA has breached the ceasefire and it is not helpful to suggest otherwise. [Interruption.] No, there is a clear process to determine whether the ceasefire has been breached, and we could have a separate debate on that.

Let me emphasise again that the trigger for the suspension was quite evidently a judgment call that this was the best way to continue the peace process. Allowing the institutions to collapse by the walk-out of loyalist politicians would have been much more destabilising than the current situation. The motion does not appropriately reflect what is going on in the real world of Northern Ireland politics. That may be a drafting issue, but the record does not make allowance for that, so we should not approve it simply on the grounds that it makes the erroneous inference that the ceasefire has been breached, quite apart from the question of facilities.

The subject of facilities is one on which I would be less inclined to take strong issue with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and his party. Different views are taken on it, even within my party. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) and I take the view that it would be inappropriate to take away the facilities, as Sinn Fein moderates have done a lot to try to convince their hardliners that political dialogue is the most effective way of achieving their objectives. To his credit, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford often visits the Province, as I do. I have been left in absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of Sinn Fein activists and officers now recognise that peaceful dialogue is the best way forward. Let us not pretend or suggest that Sinn Fein or the IRA now actively desire violence as an outcome. However despicable or unforgivable it may be, it was always regarded as a process.

There are divisions between hardliners and moderates on both the loyalist and the republican side. In my judgment, allowing access to facilities in the House has considerably helped the republican moderates in trying to persuade their sceptics—those who would be more inclined to revert to violence—that peace can work and political dialogue can be effective, and that the republican cause is best served by moving away from the damaging approaches of the past.

Those who take a different view should consider that not as a profound matter of principle—although some have expressed it in those terms—but as a judgment about the best way of strengthening the hand of the moderates in the republican community, whom we desperately need to support, allowing them to point to what is going on in Westminster and show what will be destroyed by reverting to violence. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, it depends whether we take a carrot or a stick approach. By and large, I believe that in this situation the carrot will work better than the stick.

If we take away the facilities, it will be a gift to the hardliners and those who would say that we were never sincere about giving them the chance to participate

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actively in Westminster. Still worse, there could be a change in the power arrangements on the republican side, simply because the promises that had to be made from the inside to maintain what has been largely an effective ceasefire would have been broken.

There is an even more fundamental reason why I believe that the access to facilities should continue. In truth, all the major parties have taken advantage of the fact that they can now have direct dialogue with individuals from Sinn Fein. Only a few days ago, I witnessed a heated discussion between Mitchel McLaughlin and a Conservative spokesperson. There was no love lost in that discussion, but I was pleased to see the dialogue, because dialogue has probably been the single most important key to unlock progress on peace.

Continuing to allow access is a relatively modest measure. Access has afforded us much better opportunities to talk to Sinn Fein and understand its perspective, and it further ties the party into the democratic process. I have been grateful for the opportunity to speak informally to Sinn Fein Members in the Corridors, just as I talk to colleagues from other political parties. That is where much of the work gets done in Northern Ireland politics.

This is a free vote for the Liberal Democrats, but I advise my colleagues not to support the motion. Those who seek to deny Sinn Fein access to facilities should tell us the answer to this question: why would the removal of the opportunity to be at the heart of the democratic process in the United Kingdom make republicans more likely to want to participate?

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. As time for the debate is somewhat limited, I make a plea to hon. Members to be brief so that as many as possible can contribute.

6.9 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I share hon. Members' profound sense of disappointment about the suspension of the devolved institutions. Surely we all agree that the sooner they are back up and running the better. The motion, which stems from that suspension, represents yet another departure from the bipartisan consensus that used to exist on Northern Ireland affairs, but seems to have disappeared along with Conservative Members' ministerial cars and red boxes. That seems an irresponsible approach to Northern Ireland affairs, which I have criticised in the House before, as I did in the July debate. It is symptomatic of the Tory party's failure not only to act as an Opposition, but to emulate a Government in waiting.

Let us compare the Tory's stance with the stance taken by the Labour party in the 1992–97 Parliament. At every opportunity, those on the Labour Front Bench avoided trying to score political points off the Government, not only because we agreed with the general thrust of the Conservative Government's policy in Northern Ireland, but because we understood that scoring political points not only undermined political reputations but risked people's lives. We also

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understood that if we were to form a Government, which we fully intended to, we would have to live with the consequences of all our pronouncements on Northern Ireland policy. Because the Labour party took a responsible approach to Northern Ireland, it could build cross-community support for the Good Friday agreement when it came to power.

The current Conservative policy and approach to Northern Ireland can only mean one of two things. Either the Conservatives do not believe that they will be in Government any time soon—that is the explanation that many of my hon. Friends think is true—or they would like to sound the death knell of the Northern Ireland peace process if they were in government. Does anyone seriously believe that if the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the peace process could continue for five minutes after his appointment? It would be dead and buried, and all the effort that has gone into securing the peace in Northern Ireland would be behind us.

I must conclude that the Conservative motion is nothing but a red herring and an excuse for the Conservative party to attack the Good Friday agreement and the Government's policy of implementing it. It does not deal with the substantive issues that led to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is opportunistic, partisan and cynical, and does nothing to address the real issues facing the people of Northern Ireland.

I ask the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen to tell me, given what they know about Northern Ireland's history and the personalities and parties involved today, in what way the motion, if carried, would benefit the peace process? What would be achieved for the people of Northern Ireland, not least for the constituents of the four Members of whom we are talking, if we returned to the situation that prevailed before? Nothing. The motion is simply an excuse to kick the Government and the Good Friday agreement—and, consequently, the people of Northern Ireland.

Last time the Opposition arranged a half-day debate on Northern Ireland, I said that when I voted to allow Sinn Fein office accommodation in the House, I did not do so with joy in my heart or a spring in my step. However, I can honestly say that I am glad that the Members for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) and for West Tyrone (Mr. Doherty) now use the facilities here.

I remember how, when members of the IRA were invited to come to Westminster during the 1980s, often at the invitation of Ken Livingstone, they would set up their soapboxes with slogans such as XTroops out" or something similarly sophisticated. However, now Sinn Fein has office accommodation in the House, when its Members come into the Palace they are confronted by other MPs who want the Good Friday agreement to succeed, and they have to justify their position. Because that courageous step was taken, we now have the opportunity to challenge Sinn Fein Members on the real issues, instead of their surreal sloganising of 10 or 20 years ago.

It should be remembered that, whatever the wording of the motion, the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and

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Bellshill (Dr. Reid), did not cite the activities of Sinn Fein when, on 15 October, he told the House the reasons for the suspension of the devolved institutions. He said:

I will not say that it is dishonest, but it is certainly misleading for the Conservative party to suggest that anything that has happened in the past month should change the decision of this House to allow Sinn Fein office accommodation. Surely the question that we must now ask is not whether we should take away Sinn Fein's right to accommodation, but what we can do to foster trust between the different parts of the community in Northern Ireland.

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