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10 Feb 2003 : Column 703—continued

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman is now straying rather wide of the matter before us, which is policing.

Mr. Donaldson: I was just coming to a close, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Policing in Northern Ireland cannot be seen in isolation from the wider political context, and I was simply trying to set the context in which the Bill has been presented to the House. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said that he hoped that this would be the last time that he would have to debate policing; I fear that it may not be. I believe that the Government intend to make further concessions; indeed, they have indicated and confirmed already some of the concessions that they are prepared to make to Sinn Fein-IRA in return for movement on the arms issue.

The Government should proceed with caution, because there is a real danger that the people whom I represent, and the people who are represented by hon. Members on this side of the House, will lose patience with the direction in which they are going. We want a peaceful, normal society in Northern Ireland. We want an end to the terrorism that has plagued Northern Ireland over the last 30 years. The Government have not so far succeeded in achieving that objective through making concessions, and they need to be very careful that such concessions do not result only in a further collapse in public confidence, particularly in the unionist community.

7.45 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): This is the first occasion on which I have been able to speak in a major debate on any aspect of Northern Ireland policy. I am glad to contribute, and I trust that the House will respond to me as someone who has attended many debates, heard many questions and listened to many hours of discussion on the Floor of the House. What I offer may not be to the agreement of the whole House, but it has been long considered.

I have come to this issue by a curious route. For many years in my former occupation as a lecturer, I taught my students about how Belfast was a model of the way forward. I taught them about how Belfast as a city—and Northern Ireland—was reinventing itself. Socially and economically, it was the driving force. It was challenging perceptions of itself—outdated perceptions—as a city with wall-to-wall policing, in which one could not walk safely, and as a city full of slums, which had armed

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police on every corner. The students were shown how that was changing—the painful way in which it was changing—and how a city could re-engineer itself. Let me say to Members on the Opposition side of the House that we contrasted it, as a shining example, with examples from across Europe of cities that had reinvented themselves such as Barcelona and the port city of Bilbao.

I present that context because, when I went to Belfast in May last year for the first time, as a new Back Bencher only five or six months into my job, my eyes were opened to what had been happening. They were opened, too, to the immense confidence of people on the street, whether I walked down the street with loyalists or with a Sinn Fein councillor, and the confidence that came through when I talked to people involved in a community operation. That confidence that the process was moving forward was in stark contrast to some of the political deliberations that were going on at the time.

From my limited and distant viewpoint, I could see that, in the whole of Northern Ireland, and in Belfast in particular, people were choosing for themselves a way forward that rejected the bloody and wearing conflict of the past. There was an inexorable movement forward. That is not an easy path, but it is an essential one; not a path without pain, but one with a definite purpose. Today, this weekend, and in recent months, we have seen how painful that path is to follow, but we also see with increasing clarity that it is the right path. This Bill is part of that path, which leads away from the rule of the past and the rule of terror towards social, economic and political stability.

If you will indulge me for a moment longer, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to say that, in May, I also saw two clear images, which impact forcibly on the debate today and on the passage of this Bill—the two faces of Northern Ireland. The first and negative face was the almost complete divergence of views held by the many politicians I met formally—"divergence" is perhaps too insubstantial a word. I understand from recent press reports that scientists have found a new colour, which is known as "superblack". As I went from one discussion to another in Northern Ireland politics, I saw superblack and superwhite, and nothing in between. There was no subtle shading. The reverse and positive face was the recognition by many, if not all of the same politicians, when speaking informally or over a pint, of the many shades of compromise and of the colours and tones. The latter gave me hope; the former—the public soapbox politics—gave me only despair.

As a traveller to Northern Ireland, I know that many people approach the problem with the certainties that only an outsider can have. I was clear in my mind where the solutions lay and knew that, somewhere in between the many positions, a common thread would show the definite way ahead. I came away with all my great certainties much diminished. That was probably right and proper. It was a little too optimistic to hope that the angst that had been generations in the making would be unravelled by a novice in a few days, but I did glean some important insights that are relevant to the Bill.

I came away with the powerful optimism, which many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber share, that the benefits of the peace process—the oft-named dividend of fewer lives lost and economic growth—were so cherished that the people of Northern Ireland would

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not let them slip from their grasp. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) because some of my comments are relevant to his concerns. We have tip-toed around the additional text for consideration, which stands as a separate clause outside the Bill. I am also worried about that and want reassurances on it, but I come at the problem from a different angle. For me, the whole process has been one of painful compromise as we have made incremental progress, inch by inch.

There has been hurt and difficulty on both sides. Much of the anguish has been personal as people who suffered at the hands of former terrorists have had to swallow hard. Many of those same people have also said, however, that they want progress to continue. That has to be done delicately and, as the hon. Gentleman said, we have to keep everyone onside. It is not good enough to move too far to one side to bring one group on board if we lose everyone else off the ship. Everyone has to go forward together.

Despite the reassurances I seek, I am sure that we have made progress on the road to a better future, and that this Bill is right in word and spirit. But the devil is in the detail, and never has the phrase been so apt. Elements of the Bill seem like Faustian pacts. One of the greatest objections from the Unionist community is that it foresees the possibility of Sinn Fein sitting at the top table of the Policing Board and on district policing partnerships. I do not need to rehearse the well-aired objections to that, centring on the failure of the IRA to decommission fully and to put its arms beyond use, but my message to colleagues, Unionists and others, is simple and direct: that particular little devil must be exorcised before representation of Sinn Fein on the Policing Board is allowed. I seek an assurance on that.

We can achieve that by acts of completion. Hon. Members have asked what constitutes an act of completion. By now, after so many hours of debate on the Floor of the House and so many lines within newspaper columns, we know that they mean putting the guns and the arms permanently aside. That applies to the IRA, but it must also apply to any so-called paramilitaries who maintain the idea that the best way to influence a settlement in Northern Ireland is to keep the threat of violence as a bargaining chip. If there are no acts of completion there can be no place on the Policing Board or the DPPs. Accept the rules and become a player, or stay on the sidelines if it is not possible to agree to the rules of the game. I want the process to move forward and to be as inclusive as possible, but I also want the certainty that people are fully committed in word and deed to the peace process. The phrase "turning over a new leaf" is too light and flippant to represent that commitment properly.

Let me make it clear, however, that it is desirable—this is where I approach the problem from a different angle—to have Sinn Fein members on the Policing Board at the appropriate time if the party can demonstrate that its members and elected representatives are completely committed to peaceful democratic processes. That is the ultimate painful path of reconciliation and progress towards long-term peace and stability for Northern Ireland. As we have seen from the long haul in Northern Ireland and in other parts of

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the world where conflict has ravaged a society, the solution is to bring in the outcasts from the cold to make them part of the process and the political structures.

As we have seen from the faltering phases of the peace process, the inexorable climb towards democracy is painful, but all partners recognise how much there is to lose by opting out. Once the benefits of participating in democracy are realised—once people have worked for and achieved progress—no party that is seriously committed to a peaceful solution will ever want to pull out. That is why, with the right safeguards and at the appropriate time, I am fully committed to all members of the democratic community being represented on the policing boards and elsewhere.

Let me put to the Minister those aspects of the Bill on which I seek reassurance. There are no vacancies on the Policing Board that would allow Sinn Fein or any new candidates to be considered for membership. At present, all 19 members are directly appointed by the Secretary of State under direct rule. If, however, acts of completion were to occur, those conditions would allow the restoration of devolution, which would allow the board to be reconstituted. That would then allow political nominations to be made under the d'Hondt formula, which would give Sinn Fein the opportunity to recommend members.

The other area of controversy, for similar reasons, is the eligibility of ex-prisoners and those convicted and given a custodial sentence, whether suspended or not. Again, I understand that the Government do not feel that the conditions are right to include any changes to the eligibility criteria until and unless further conclusive acts of completion by paramilitaries are carried out to the satisfaction of those involved. While there is a chance that paramilitaries might resume diplomacy down a gun barrel, it is inconceivable that those with related sentences of imprisonment could be allowed to sit inside the criminal justice system. Equally, however, it would be wrong to rule out that possibility for those who have turned their back on their past ways and who may genuinely want to be involved in ensuring the future successful implementation of policing in Northern Ireland.

I understand that the Government have undertaken to review that in the light of a commitment by paramilitaries to acts of completion. That is to be welcomed, although I find it inconceivable that that commitment will be made at this time. The additional texts put in place three safeguards—the triple lock. Any individual who wishes to be considered must agree to a declaration of non-violence and must accept a quarantine of five years before undergoing a separate commencement order subject to an affirmative resolution. That will bring independent members in line with political members. It does not suggest that we ignore past misdemeanours. We would have to recognise, however, individuals who have made it clear that they intend to play a full part in a democratic society. As I said, the idea of turning over a new leaf does not do justice to the transformation that such people would have to make. Such an approach gives hope to those who would renounce violence in any civil society, as we have seen across the world, and who would adopt instead legitimate means of representation.

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Above and beyond that, clear criteria are laid out. They include a demonstrable interest in the local community, such as community safety or policing issues, and the requirement that a person must be a resident of, or have a close connection with, a council area. Those have to be satisfied. They are the guiding criteria beyond the triple lock and other considerations. All that is conditional, however. As the Prime Minister stated last year, the phrase "acts of completion"

It is not difficult to understand that message. It is not ambiguous or opaque, but clear and direct—disarm, give up violence, sign up to democratic and peaceful means exclusively. You can join the club, but those are the rules, which are set by politicians who believe in democratic debate. "Can you sign up to those rules?" is the message that we must put out beyond the Chamber.

That message has been clear and explicit ever since the Prime Minister's Belfast harbour speech, when he stated that republicans must

If that can be achieved and if the rules are signed up to, we can, as the Prime Minister said,

In the Bill and the additional text, we are waiting to see if those rules are acceptable to those who are not yet completely weaned off dependency on the threat of violence. How much do they want to join the democratic club? Do they recognise that the majority of people in Northern Ireland subscribe to those rules, and do not want a return to the old ways? Do they recognise the desire of many in the House and outside to see them fully on board and fully engaged with the rules set by rational society? When they are so engaged, they will have too much to lose to let go. I hope that they will engage, because it is in everyone's interest to move forward and regain the momentum on long-term peace and prosperity that has temporarily stalled.

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