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10 Feb 2003 : Column 668—continued

Lady Hermon rose—

Mr. Davies: I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that I have given way very generously. I may give way later, but I should like to make progress now.

The Government made a series of great errors, including four colossal ones that I shall enumerate in a moment. They were all a result of a misconceived, false analysis of how progress can and cannot be made in Northern Ireland. It is all a result of the failure to grasp the importance of interlinkage and consequently the attempt to proceed by partial agreements, by side deals, by what the Prime Minister called inch by inch negotiations, by trying to buy off one faction, then finding that they have alienated somebody else and trying to find something to appease them with. The history of the police Bills, which I have just outlined, is part and parcel of that sorry process.

In the course of, and as a result of, that mistaken and misconceived policy, the Government made four cardinal errors. The Secretary of State may have heard me list them before, and he will hear me list them again as long as I think there is still a danger that the Government might repeat them. It is very important to draw lessons from the past, and where there have been major disappointments and reverses—as there have been—in the peace process, we must not fear to face up to the errors that have been committed.

The first error was that the Government released all the prisoners without any decommissioning whatever. That was an extraordinary and naive error, which probably cost the best opportunity of fulfilling the Belfast agreement within the two years provided for in the agreement.

Secondly, the Government compounded that error by offering new concessions, not required by the Belfast agreement, to those who had not implemented their undertakings under it. It makes no sense when people have not delivered their part of the bargain to give them a bonus for non-delivery, which is what the Government did. That was the story of the special status for Sinn Fein MPs here—incidentally, another humiliation for the SDLP at the time, perhaps deserving of some compensation for the SDLP subsequently.

That was also the story, the disgraceful story, of the amnesty for on-the-run terrorists, which was promised by the Government at Weston Park. According to that promise, which was in writing, it was to be delivered by the end of 2001. Thanks to our opposition, that commitment was never delivered—and thank heaven it was not, because, thanks to us, that card still remains in the Government's hand, and a very important card it is.

Thirdly, we have the policy of not responding to breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement, the policy of turning a blind eye. As I said at the time, not responding to such abuses makes it inevitable that there will be more, and so it has proved: Florida, Colombia,

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Castlereagh and then Stormontgate. Finally, there was the error of suspending Stormont as a whole and not just those who had caused the crisis.

All those errors had in common not only that they involved throwing away leverage on Sinn Fein, but that they also guaranteed the disillusionment, sense of betrayal and sometimes—I regret it, but one understands it—alienation and rejection of the whole Belfast process, which we have seen across the board among other parties in Northern Ireland.

I fervently hope that the Government have learned the error of their ways. The Secretary of State has mentioned this week's discussions, and I welcome the fact that they are taking place. During those discussions and the further intensive discussions that will certainly be required and which hopefully will take place in the coming critical weeks before the May elections, and, if necessary, during the six-week period provided thereafter for an Executive to emerge—that is a very tight timetable indeed—there must be a new approach. There should be no more attempts at side-deals and partial implementation, because they simply will not work. There should be no more mealy-mouthed phrases and no more euphemisms. It should be quite clear what the Government mean when they speak of "acts of completion": let them say "decommissioning and disbandment". If they want to use another word that has the same finality as "disbandment", that is fine, but let them not try to deceive themselves—or, worse, anybody else—as to the seriousness and completeness of what is required by way of those acts of implementation.

A settlement, if it is to be viable, must be four things. First, it must be comprehensive, for the reasons that I have explained. Secondly, it must be transparent—I know that this, too, is a new one for the Government—otherwise, there can be no trust, and no one will make the difficult moves if he or she suspects that others are getting a private deal. This is the mistake that the Government have been making all along: creating everywhere the suspicion that somehow, someone else was getting private assurances. Obviously, that made it very unlikely that the party with those suspicions would feel able to put all its cards on the table. Thirdly, a settlement must be balanced. Never again must there be an appearance—I fear that, often, there was much more than an appearance—that all the concessions are going one way. Sadly, as I have explained, that has been the case with, among other things, police Bills such as the one before us today.

Finally, a settlement must be definitive, and for two compelling reasons. First, no one in Northern Ireland will make a significant move unless they know what portion of the total price to be paid such a move represents, what they will get in return and by when, and what will happen if the other party, or parties, do not deliver. In other words, everyone must see, and be signed up to, the end game. That is why there is no such thing as a partial settlement—it must be a definitive settlement. It is no good people holding something back for the next round, and it is no good if people think that there is going to be a next round; this must be it: it must be definitive.

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The second reason why the settlement must be definitive is simply that there is very little time. I very much hope that it will be possible to reinstate the Executive during the next few weeks before the elections. However, if it is not, and if there are elections, under the rules there will have to be agreement on an Executive within six weeks. There will be no agreement on an Executive unless there is decommissioning and disbandment by the IRA, because the Unionists have rightly made it clear that without it, they will not rejoin a power-sharing Executive. So unless there is a global settlement—because all these things are interlinked—there ain't gonna be an Executive formed within six weeks of the May elections. If an Executive are not formed within that time, the Secretary of State knows perfectly well what must happen. We must have either new elections, or another suspension of devolution and the restoration—sine die, this time: in other words, indefinitely—of direct rule.

I do not believe that the credibility of the peace process could survive the extraordinary state of affairs whereby we ask the electorate to go to the polls on 1 May to elect an Assembly that has been under suspension for the previous nine months, only for it to be suspended again six weeks later. Equally, if the electorate are told that they must go back to the polls again, six weeks after having voted, the credibility of the Belfast peace process as we know it will be destroyed. Of course, human beings must always have hope, particularly when the situation is desperate, and various theoretical scenarios can doubtless be devised as to how we might move forward in such circumstances. However, the enormous progress that was produced in the first place by the tremendous work that went into negotiating the Belfast agreement would, I am afraid, be set at nought, and we should have to start again. So no one should have any doubt that it is absolutely vital that this matter be dealt with in a very short time scale.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I have almost completed my remarks so I will not give way. I am sure that the hon. Lady will catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker.

We fervently hope that the attempts over the next few weeks will be successful, but I repeat that they will be successful only if there is a comprehensive, global, full, definitive and balanced settlement. If the Government pursue those discussions and conversations on a realistic basis, they will have our full support. If not, not.

5.10 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): Before I address the Bill specifically, I think that we should remind ourselves of the problem of policing a divided society such as Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State is right to say that the problem is about much more than policing. It is a problem of allegiance and identification with the state. It is a problem with the recognition of the legitimacy of the state within which people live and the Administration who govern them, and the police service that serves them.

It is right to say that policing is much more than what the Policing Board will decide, in its wisdom or otherwise, to do. For that reason, it is worth repeating

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that the attempt to solve the policing problem in Northern Ireland goes way beyond the operations of the police service. It goes to the heart of the problems that people such as me have had to face, politically and in many other ways. Therefore, we should consider carefully everything to do with policing. That is what I have tried to do these past 30 years. I have tried to examine the problem, even when it was not popular to do so.

It will never be popular to talk about policing in relation to Northern Ireland, but it is crucial that we do so, because if we do not get policing right other things will follow. It will not be possible to keep an Administration or other political institutions going if we do not have a solution to the policing problem. The issues are so closely linked that we must examine—honestly, as I have tried to do—how one is dependent on the other.

What did the Good Friday agreement say about policing? It offered a new beginning for policing. I am convinced that that is possible and that it will happen. What has happened so far has already begun to unlock, in a limited sense—although it will be much less limited before this month is out—the constitutional logjam that policing faced in relation to the nationalist community in the north of Ireland. It has not fully achieved that, but it is on the way. That is why the Bill is crucial.

I am probably regarded as a fairly conservative, reasonable nationalist, although some people might not choose to use the word "reasonable" in relation to me. However, I am not an extreme nationalist and, as such, there are two ways in which I can achieve the changes in policing that are necessary for me to give my allegiance not only to policing in Northern Ireland but to the institutions of the state. The first is through legislation and the second is through implementation.

The business of the political process is to deal with legislation. However, this measure deals with a failure of legislation because the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 did not adequately deal with how Patten, in his wisdom, suggested that I and the community that I represent could make changes. The very fact that we are holding this debate is recognition of legislative failure on policing. I do not like having to say that. As someone who has supported Labour from the day and hour when I knew what politics was about, I do not like saying that legislative failure put us in this position.

Implementation—the second aspect—will be achieved in several ways, including through the Policing Board. Our party had the courage to join that board. It also had the courage to ask young nationalists and Catholics to join the police service. There were no ambiguities—no ifs or buts: we simply asked people to do it. We asked the community to take part, too. Young people can implement change by joining the police service. Political parties can do so by sitting on the Policing Board. People throughout the community can do so by making it clear to everybody—not least those involved in paramilitarism—that they want a police service that they can be proud of, and that they will defend and sustain it. That is the crux.

As the Secretary of State rightly said, we are a substantial way down the road to change, but we must consider the failure of the 2000 Act. That measure was passed by the House on the basis of a number of side

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deals—to which reference has constantly been made this evening—even at one minute to 12, to which Members who were present on that occasion and are in the Chamber today can bear testament. I look forward to hearing their confirmation of that fact.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) made great play of the fact that my party—the Social Democratic and Labour party—had committed some heinous crime by taking part in negotiations organised by the Government: at the invitation of the Government, we went to Weston Park and committed the awful crime of negotiating a good position based on what Patten had said. We told the Government for the umpteen hundredth time that, if they did not get to the heart of the problem, we could not be involved in the Policing Board; we would not be able to deliver because they were not giving us the legislative basis on which to do so.

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