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11 Feb 2003 : Column 819—continued

Mr. Tom Harris: While both sides of the House want complete implementation of the Belfast agreement and, ultimately, the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that—contrary to what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said earlier—such disbandment of the paramilitary organisations, especially the IRA, does not feature in the Belfast agreement?

Mr. Trimble: The focus of the agreement was placed on decommissioning, because if a private army had completely and genuinely disarmed—with no element of rearming taking place—the question is to what extent it still exists as a private army. We are in the territory of euphemism, and decommissioning was a euphemism for disbandment at one stage.

Even if someone from an organisation said that it had disbanded and we saw a complete cessation of all forms of paramilitary activity day by day, I still wonder how we could be sure. We need verification not only of acts of decommissioning, but of the absence of paramilitary activity and the status of those who had hitherto been part of a paramilitary organisation. Of course, that would involve more than just people who could give the public authoritative information about what was going on.

I refer the House to the comments by Lord Kilclooney last night. He said that we need

To have any form of verification with no sanctions linked to it would not be worth while. We have lacked sanctions throughout the process, and we have made that criticism time and again in the past four years. The Government's approach, since the agreement, has been all carrot and no stick, and that has not worked.

My hon. Friends and I, and those whom we represent, see the contrast between the vigour with which the Government pursue the disarmament of Saddam Hussein and the sanctions that are being brought to bear to achieve that. The Government are making a focused attempt to achieve his disarmament, by means that are primarily sanction-led, with any inducements coming a long way behind, which is a considerable contrast with

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the situation in Northern Ireland. Added to that contrast is the fact that between 1,200 and 1,500 servicemen who are natives of Northern Ireland are deployed in, or are on their way to, the Gulf. They will be asked to risk, and possibly sacrifice, their lives to achieve the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. The Government expect them to do that willingly while, at the same time, looking over their shoulders at their homeland, where the Government are adopting a radically different approach. While the character of those paramilitary organisations is different in quantity and perhaps different to some small extent in degree, is it really such a different situation? Are the terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland radically different in nature from the state-sponsored terrorism on which the Government are focusing? They will not think so.

Until the Government have more coherence in their approach on these two matters, they will be exposed to the charge of hypocrisy. As we have said to the Government over the years, there is a clear need for them to rethink their approach, to move away from a policy that focuses purely on carrots and to consider the sanctions that they will bring to bear now and in the future on paramilitary organisations to ensure that the agreement that they say that they endorsed is implemented fully by them.

3.51 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): It is with some regret that we all see this debate running from year to year. I listened with interest to the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), although I differ on the importance of the Government's use of the definite or indefinite article. I do not accept that that is at the core of this discussion. It is perfectly obvious what is the important word in the statement; it is not important whether it is one act or a number of acts of completion. It is also pretty obvious that whether one reckons that there is more than one act or a single one is simply a semantic difference of definition.

I sought to intervene on the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, although he would not accept my intervention, to ask him, as he is so full of criticism of the Government's current policy, what he would do differently if he were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In fact, it could not be substantively different because we must remember that the order before us today is the consequence of a Conservative Government policy that was passed on 27 February 1997, before the Labour party had taken over the Government Benches.

Mr. Quentin Davies rose—

Lembit Öpik: Unlike the hon. Gentleman, who refused to give way to me, I am happy to give way to him.

Mr. Davies: That is very gracious of the hon. Gentleman, but he did refer to me. Simply, were I Secretary of State, I would not have released the prisoners without decommissioning. I would not have given Sinn Fein additional bonuses, special status here or an offer of amnesty. I would have responded to breaches, starting from Florida, which the Government

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did not do, and I would have excluded it from Stormont rather than suspend the whole of Stormont after Stormontgate, as I explained to the House in advance last July. As Secretary of State, I would now be talking about decommissioning, and the need for complete decommissioning and disbandment. I would not be using mealy-mouthed, indirect terms.

Lembit Öpik: In terms of the hon. Gentleman's comment that I am gracious, I simply say that I am happy to give way. As we have heard before, the fact that someone has a past does not mean that they cannot have a future, and I would apply that to him this afternoon.

In terms of the hon. Gentleman's list of action steps—the things that the Conservatives would have done differently—I would surmise from that that they would have had a different policy: tough talking, quick to react to apparent breaches and probably wrong. One judges the future behaviour of a political party or a Secretary of State on the basis of past performance. I recall that, on a number of occasions, the Conservative party has predicted the collapse of the process, the reinstigation of violence in Northern Ireland and various failures and obstacles that would be insuperable to the process before us. On each successive occasion, its predictions have turned out to be unfounded. I make that point because it is important that we do not play party politics with Northern Ireland. I would love the Liberal Democrats to be on the Government Benches, but not so much that I am willing to try to score opportunistic points against the Minister. She has pursued a policy that few could deny has taken Northern Ireland closer to a sustained peace and a normalised situation than anything in the past three decades.

Let me remind the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that what we are discussing today is not a radical departure from anything that his party did when in government. On 27 February 1997, the Conservatives instigated the Act that we are discussing. The hon. Gentleman said that, if he were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a core element of his programme would be to set a timetable. However, the Conservatives already gave us a timetable of 10 years. I do not think that things had to be renewed over the first five years, but every year thereafter, up to 2007, they had to be renewed. We are therefore following the spirit of what John Major instigated.

We should acknowledge that much of the progress has been as a result of pragmatic decisions by John Major. He was a tremendous instrument for peace and, in the histories of Northern Ireland politics, he deserves always to be given credit for what he did. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford criticised the Government for being mealy-mouthed and for lacking frankness and clarity, but John Major did not tell anybody that he was talking to the terrorists. It just slipped out. It was a leak. At the time, people across the parties said that they understood the importance of what was happening and therefore supported it. The Liberal Democrats have been consistent on that.

The Liberal Democrats support this order and, by and large, its implications. We have not finished work yet and the kind of negotiations that have gone on

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before—in public and behind the scenes—will be necessary to make progress. I respect the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford for holding different views, but I do not feel able to accept views that do not accord with my non-party political analysis of decommissioning.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was right to say that he and his party have exerted considerable influence in the achievement of some of the decommissioning that has taken place. That decommissioning may have been symbolic but we all know how important symbolism is in Northern Ireland politics. He was also right to highlight the dissatisfaction that we all feel about how little has been done. We are a long way from total decommissioning. The right hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), spoke about the difficulty of verification. Just as the Inland Revenue has trouble in verifying the details of some self-employed people's tax returns, the Decommissioning Commission will have difficulty in verifying what arms have been handed in by individuals and organisations who were outside the rule of law in the first place.

I do not get hung up on the issue of verification because what we want is decommissioning that will materially weaken the ability of the paramilitary organisations to restart trouble. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that we have not seen a great deal of decommissioning. I may share some of the frustrations in his soothsaying, but I will not repeat them other than to say that I agree with what he said about the signal lack of progress of the IRA and some of the key loyalist organisations.

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