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28 Oct 2002 : Column 587—continued

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's loyalty in being here for his Front-Bench colleagues today, but can he ever foresee a situation in which it would be appropriate for a Labour Government to withdraw those facilities?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman makes a salient point, but I have to remind him that it was not the Government's decision to allow Sinn Fein office accommodation in the House of Commons. If Sinn Fein—or rather, the IRA—were to stop the ceasefire and return to violence, I would certainly consider voting to take away Sinn Fein's right to offices in the Palace—but the decision was made by the House of Commons, not the Government.

Mr. Duncan rose—

Mr. Harris: I think that I have answered the hon. Gentleman's question pretty truthfully.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Sinn Fein-IRA have been involved in breaches of the ceasefire? What positive action would he recommend the Government to follow to try to stop those breaches of the ceasefire?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. There is an accepted process for deciding whether any party to the agreement has broken the ceasefire, and that has not happened. Under the agreement, the IRA has maintained its ceasefire. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the three years leading up the signing of the Good Friday agreement 343 people lost their lives in Northern Ireland, whereas in the three years following the signing 53 people lost their lives? That was 53 too many, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks that that reduction is not a prize worth holding, I have to doubt the priorities of his party's policy on Northern Ireland.

Bob Spink: I accept that, as the hon. Gentleman says, there have been tremendous advances over the past decade—advances started by John Major. However, does he accept that there is not a perfect peace in Northern Ireland now, and that we need positive action to try to return Northern Ireland to peace?

Mr. Harris: I find the whole basis of the hon. Gentleman's argument spurious. I believe that the hon.

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Member for Grantham and Stamford was a member of the Conservative Government, although I am not sure; I could be wrong, and the hon. Gentleman can correct me if he wants to. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) when I say that that Conservative Government conducted negotiations with the IRA before a ceasefire was even—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I bring all hon. Members back to the motion under discussion?

Mr. Harris: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall conclude now, because I realise that some of my hon. Friends would like to speak.

I would welcome the day when the Conservative party decided to contribute positively to the debate on Northern Ireland—but the motion before us makes no positive contribution, and in the meantime I deeply resent having to waste precious House of Commons time debating an utterly pointless and cynical motion that adds nothing to the debate and provides nothing—not even a glimmer of hope—for the people of Northern Ireland, whom the Conservative party claims to want to represent.

6.18 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): The best news in last week's Government reshuffle was the news for Northern Ireland, and I am genuinely delighted to see the new Secretary of State take his place. Those of us who have been involved in Northern Ireland matters for some years warmly recall the immense amount of work that he did as a Northern Ireland Minister of State—work that often went unsung, and was not often in the headlines or the publicity. The right hon. Gentleman will have the confidence of all parties in the Province in what will clearly be a difficult job in the months ahead, with direct rule. Naturally, like my Front-Bench colleagues, I wish him well.

I must point something out to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), although I shall do so gently because he is a new Member of the House and was not present when there was a Conservative Government and, as he said, a so-called bipartisan policy with the Labour Opposition. We immensely resent the suggestion that there has been a breakdown in the bipartisan policy now, whereas it was sacrosanct when there was a Labour Opposition.

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that year after year, when we renewed the prevention of terrorism orders—[Interruption.] If he thinks that they have nothing to do with Northern Ireland, he should not be representing Glasgow, Cathcart. Time and again, the then Labour Opposition voted against the renewal of those orders. When the Prime Minister became leader of the Labour party, new Labour was gradually introduced and the attitude changed: it went so far as to abstain, although no further than that. So we need no lessons in bipartisanship.

As the Secretary of State, who was actively involved in the events surrounding the agreement, and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) have rightly and kindly said, the original architects of the agreement were the then Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, and Lord Mayhew. That work was

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continued by a new Administration, a new Prime Minister and a new Secretary of State. Since then, we have strongly supported the Belfast agreement, which we consider the right—and, indeed, the only—way forward for lasting peace in Northern Ireland. What upsets us immensely is that not everybody has stuck by the agreement. Let me be blunt. The British Government, the Irish Government, the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party have stuck by the agreement; it is Sinn Fein-IRA that, from time to time, in a significant sense, has not.

I shall not rehearse the arguments that were put so well today by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). We all know about the failure to decommission illegally held arms and explosives, the terrorist activity in Florida and in Colombia, and, most recently, the very serious incidents that caused the then Secretary of State to suspend the Executive and the Assembly and to return to direct rule.

The concession to allow Sinn Fein MPs to have office facilities and special status, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) described it, forms no part of the Belfast agreement. It is separate from it—a point on which there seems to be some confusion in the House. I should just about have been prepared to make that concession if Sinn Fein-IRA had fulfilled everything that it signed up to in the Belfast agreement: if it had renounced violence for good and if there was no terrorist activity, intimidation, extortion, or any of the other problems to which the Secretary of State rightly alluded, and which gave rise to the suspension. To have offered that concession in the prevailing circumstances was a serious error of judgment, which has since been underlined by events. Since last December, matters have got worse rather than better; otherwise, the Executive and the Assembly would not now be suspended and the Secretary of State would not have made the robust remarks that he rightly made today about the problems of Sinn Fein-IRA.

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Glasgow, Cathcart should imply that my colleagues on the Front Bench are somehow wrong to table this motion for the first half of our Supply day. This is a serious issue on two counts. First, should we give concessions to people who have let us down? Surely, the answer is no. If a concession is given in the hope of receiving more, and less is received, in most normal circumstances that concession would be withdrawn. That would be the reasonable, straightforward thing to do. Secondly, there is the question—raised by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and others—of the principle of having two classes of MPs with differing status. I am extremely worried about having two such classes. I believe that every Member should take the oath and, having done so, enjoy the full facilities.

Mr. Tom Harris rose—

Mr. Mackay: I shall not give way because, as you have rightly said, Madam Deputy Speaker, many others want to speak.

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The circumstances must be very special indeed to warrant allowing two separate tiers of Members. The Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP have the perfectly legitimate policy of not wishing their respective parts of the United Kingdom to remain part of it. Nevertheless, as non-violent parties, their representatives swear the oath, take part in the proceedings of this House and have full facilities. The provision is a huge slap in the face to them. It is almost saying to them, XYou might as well be violent." The message that it sends in Northern Ireland is particularly bad. The Secretary of State will share my view—

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to take interventions, may I ask whether it is in order for him simply to rehearse the arguments of last December's debate, rather than discussing the motion before us?

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair; it is a point of debate and argument.

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