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2 Dec 2002 : Column 656—continued

Lady Hermon: Would not it be helpful if the Sinn Fein leadership immediately condemned outright any attacks on PSNI recruits, whether Catholic or Protestant, instead of hesitating and constantly sitting on the fence?

Lembit Öpik: Our discussion of Northern Ireland is becoming more nebulous, but the relevance of the hon. Lady's question is to underline how difficult Sinn Fein has found it to bring the hard-liners towards the moderates. It would be helpful if Sinn Fein gave not only a commitment to renounce the punishment-beating ethos that has dogged such a large proportion of Northern Ireland life, but an explicit statement that there should be no intimidation of any Catholic or nationalist who wanted to join the police force. Sadly, underlying intimidation makes it difficult for nationalists who want to join the police force to have the courage to do so, and their fear is understandable.

Rev. Ian Paisley: IRA-Sinn Fein have officially issued and circulated a leaflet—the information has also been put on posters in their areas—telling their people to treat the new police service in the same way as they treated the RUC. That is an official document, issued and paid for by that party, and the policy is advocated by all their spokesmen, including their leader and deputy leader.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes an honest point. My interpretation of that action is slightly different. I think it tells us that just as we see open divisions among hard-liners and moderates on the Unionist side, we also see the symptoms of a mirror-image tussle going on between moderates and hard-liners on the republican side. One could conclude that everyone in Sinn Fein is a hard-liner, but I take a different view. Some moderation, which has had a stabilising effect, has been achieved by the people in Sinn Fein who have chosen to participate actively and publicly in the political process.

I want to make an interesting analogy, which comes from watching the news in my younger days. I remember the hon. Member for North Antrim commenting on something called the third force, which was widely publicised as an armed militia on the Unionist or loyalist side. That was many years ago. He gave the impression of having an association with that armed militia, although I am not suggesting that he explicitly promoted violence in any way. One reason why the third force did not become a cohesive paramilitary force in its own right under that name was because the hon. Gentleman was willing and able to maintain stability among Unionists and loyalists. In effect, he did what I should like members of Sinn Fein to do. I want them to encourage an adherence to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in preference to an adherence to a militia that organises itself outside the law.

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In addition, we have the opportunity to draw comparisons with the struggles among Protestants. The Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association still enjoy a considerable degree of organisation and are behind some of the trouble that persists. If we are balanced about the discussion—we have talked about symmetry in Northern Ireland politics—we have to recognise that Sinn Fein is not alone in trying to bring its paramilitaries to order.

David Burnside: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the hard-liners within Unionism, of whom I am proud to be one, whether in the Ulster Unionist party or the Democratic Unionist party, do not sit on the army council of any armed terrorist organisation, whereas Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness sit on the army council of the Provisional IRA, which is carrying out crime and terrorism?

Lembit Öpik: I do not know enough about what goes on outside the Chamber of Stormont to know who is in what position, although I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman raises suspicions about the presence of those individuals on the army council of the IRA. However, that is not the key issue. If the supposition is correct, individuals such as Gerry Adams have a direct line of influence on hard-liners, who need to be convinced to come into the police service. I believe that a proportion of Sinn Fein members acknowledge that a peaceful political approach will deliver their outcomes more effectively than the paramilitary approach advanced by the IRA.

I am sure that my assumption differs from those of Members of the Democratic Unionist party and I suspect we will not get alignment on this, because it is at the heart of the debate. Our responses to it will define how we choose to vote on the motion. If one believes that a large proportion of people in Sinn Fein and the IRA still think that violence will get the result they want, one should vote with the DUP. I think that the organisation has moved on, and for that reason I am sceptical of the DUP's position.

The issue of concessions is interesting. The motion refers to concessions that have allegedly been made to buy off the IRA. I do not have a problem with making concessions to the IRA if they are defined as political progress towards equality in communities rather than a financial bribe. This is a matter more of semantics than of bribery. Any Government would negotiate towards peace by providing greater incentives for peace than for the continuation of violence. I suppose that is why we differ on that aspect of the motion.

I also take issue with the motion's stance on allowing terrorists on to district policing partnerships. The case against that approach has been well made and I do not need to repeat it. What is interesting, however, is that the Government have made progress in defining more explicitly what needs to happen before ex-prisoners are allowed on to the policing partnerships. I am not sure that that was done on purpose, but the debate has moved on from whether there are cast-iron requirements to defining what those are. It is all about acts of completion now. As has been said, we have yet to

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see what the Government mean by acts of completion. To his great credit, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green made an effort to define those acts. I have no doubt that Ministers will invite him to discussions, either to embrace his ideas or to shut him up. I am not sure whether the Minister of State is shaking her head at the former or the latter, but it cannot be both. The words Xacts of completion" are vital, and we must have a clearer definition of them before those who are sceptical about Sinn Fein activity—and, perhaps, those who are sceptical about the amount of back-room dealing by the Government—are satisfied that there is transparency in these matters.

It is clear that in their amendment the Government are congratulating themselves on the openness of their dealings. I suspect that many of us feel that there was more going on at Weston Park than there should have been. [Interruption.] I speak euphemistically, but I hear nodding from behind me, which suggests that I have more than a modicum of support, because it takes some effort to nod so loudly that one can be heard. There is an unanswered question, which, let us face it, concerns on-the-runs. I am concerned that a link could arise between our achievements in policing and the resolution of that issue. The Government need to learn that there must be symmetry in private as well as in public, because everything discussed in Northern Ireland will eventually come into the public eye.

I turn now to the question of where we go next, and quotas. The Minister of State will know that I asked her a question about quotas at Northern Ireland questions, and the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) made a similar point a few moments ago. It is widely recognised that the police in Northern Ireland have not been effective in recruiting from the population at large, and there has been a lack of trust between the police and certain sections of the community. The two problems are clearly linked, and Patten rightly recommended changes to tackle both of them.

I was pleased to hear from the Minister last week that 35 per cent. of those applying to join the PSNI over the past year came from the Catholic community, and I share her hope that that will continue. However, she did not answer my question about what will happen when the 50:50 rule goes wrong. The example that I gave concerned what would happen if a proportion of recruits, from one side or the other, dropped out? Would it be necessary to sack or make redundant individuals from the other side of the religious divide to maintain symmetry? What is the Minister's answer to the question—asked, I think, by the hon. Member for East Londonderry—about what will happen to the many people, allegedly on the Unionist side, who feel rejected on the basis of the 50:50 rule? I am not suggesting that we need to review legislation, but it would be appropriate for the Minister to give us some answers when summing up the debate.

I was rather surprised that, in response to an intervention by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said something like, XIf she wants to tell me that I am being illogical, she will win the argument." Logic is important in framing legislation, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not saying that if he were Secretary of State he would on occasion support illogical legislation.

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The greatest illogicality—or perhaps simply a great surprise to me—is the fact that although the Liberal Democrats worked with the Conservatives, the Ulster Unionists and the DUP to oppose the 50:50 quotas when they were proposed during the proceedings on the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, the hon. Gentleman now seems to be saying that the Conservatives have changed their view and accepted the quotas. That sounds, to use his phrase, like a 180-degree U-turn. People are entitled to change their view, but I am not sure what has changed to encourage the Conservatives to embrace that principle. We have already heard the strong opposition to it from the hon. Members who sit behind me. If the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford or one of his colleagues responds to the debate, perhaps we could have clarification on that point.

We all agree that policing in Northern Ireland is a tough, dangerous job. It is about bringing law and order to a place where disputes are sometimes settled with fatalities. I support the work of the police in Northern Ireland and pay tribute to their courage. I know that the overwhelming majority in the police are not sectarian and have always been committed to peace.

I hope that the acts of completion will be clearly defined by the Government, and that they will be delivered and matched by acts of good faith on the other side. Ultimately, politicians must make judgment calls, and although we have heard cynicism and scepticism about what the IRA intends to do, the ball is in its court; it can deliver something that will deliver peace. If it is to do that, however, and if the Government are to live up to the words in their amendment, acts of completion must be clearly defined.

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