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17 Mar 2003 : Column 658—continued

Rev. Ian Paisley: During the talks, it was stated that people would not have to attend any courthouse or legal proceedings, and nor would they have to make any statement as to their guilt or otherwise.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the concern that the process could be carried out in absentia. The issue could be resolved by a casual letter sent to the commission. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain to what extent the details of the process will be set out in any measures that would necessarily have to be debated carefully by the House.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I very much agree with the drift of the hon. Gentleman's comments. Does he agree that the House cannot possibly be asked to take irrevocable legislative decisions so that no further amendment is possible—for example on the changes proposed in the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which are concessions that the Government have agreed to make to republicans as part of a settlement—when we have no idea about the nature of that judicial, or quasi-judicial, procedure for dealing with on-the-runs and the whole matter has been left vague?

Lembit Öpik: It is possible to modify any legislation if the Government have the will to do so. However, it is difficult to consider each part of what is being agreed when we cannot see the big picture. It is much more difficult for politicians on the ground in Northern Ireland to sell a package when some of it has to be taken on trust. Again, I point out that the issue has been entirely created by the Government because of occasions in the past when one side or the other felt betrayed by unilateral agreements. That was bound to come home to roost. Had the Government shown more of a spirit of bilateralism in their negotiations in the past, perhaps politicians in the Chamber now would find it easier to sell packages on the basis of trust. Because the Government seem to have played fast and loose, particularly at Weston Park, Ministers must now be much more explicit about the details. It would not be reasonable for them to expect those details to be taken on trust again.

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As for on-the-runs, it is vital for justice to be seen to be done and for victims' concerns to be properly addressed. I think of those victims in particular when I consider what legislation we should have. But the issue of on-the-runs cannot be dealt with in isolation; we must also bear in mind those who have been exiled from their homes in Northern Ireland by paramilitaries—quite probably by paramilitaries who, despite the prospect of an amnesty, perhaps through licence, have nevertheless excluded people from their home state.

It would be highly distasteful for those suspected of crimes by the proper authorities to be allowed to return home when those exiled by paramilitaries are not afforded the same right. The paramilitaries must lift their threats from those who have been exiled, and allow them to return. My fourth question to the Minister is this: what plans are there to address explicitly the question of exiles? It is hard to imagine, certainly in the context of on-the-runs, how the Government could do other than ensure that it is handled transparently and equitably.

The issue of sanctions seemed to cause the most difficulties during the recent talks. Under the Good Friday agreement, the only sanction to be imposed on individuals or parties not upholding their responsibilities is removal of their membership of the Executive by cross-community vote. Paragraph 25 of the agreement states

Since the signing of the agreement and the election of the Assembly, it has not always seemed to be the case that all involved in the peace process are truly and exclusively committed to peaceful means. The number of so-called punishment beatings and attacks in Northern Ireland over the past five years is unacceptable, and testimony to the ongoing underlying problem.

I wholeheartedly agree with the two Governments that there must be a strong procedure to ensure that parties comply with the necessary democratic standards. The establishment of a commission to examine paramilitary activity was mooted by the Government last July. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) said in a statement to the House that he could see a case to

That brings me to my fifth question. In the absence of any action that is clear, emphatic and proactive, other than words of concern in the Chamber, what can we expect from the discussions that will come to light between now and 29 May to assure us that real pressure is being put on the paramilitaries to turn off the tap of beatings which, as they have shown in the past, they can administer and desist from as political expedience requires?

One of the four cardinal sins of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford was to criticise the Government for not introducing a power to suspend individuals rather than the Assembly as a whole. I take

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a different view. According to the hon. Gentleman's logic, in what he calls Stormontgate it would not have been feasible to suspend individuals there and then without violating the principle of their being innocent until proved guilty—suspending people who were still awaiting trial by law on the assumption that they would indeed be found guilty. I do not think that a change in the law would necessarily have helped to achieve what the hon. Gentleman wanted.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I see the hon. Gentleman's argument but I do not think he has quite understood the point. As far as I know, there was never a suggestion of indicting members of the Executive in connection with Stormontgate. Equally, one does not need to have a conviction of individuals to know that an offence has been committed. The fact that an offence had been committed was clear and on that basis the party that was the beneficiary of the intelligence ring could legitimately have been suspended without any prejudice to the trial of individuals who may have been subsequently indicted.

Lembit Öpik: The difficulty is that that leads to quite a big divergence from how we would handle things, for example, in the House. If one were trying to normalise things, that would be counter-productive. To take the hon. Gentleman's example, if wrong-doing were committed in the House by, let us say, a member of the hon. Gentleman's party but it was not clear who it was, one would have to find some way of creating a sanction that punished a wider group. I seek the Minister's perspective, if he wants to give it, but I am highlighting that these rather blunt instruments of law are not as effective as handling the issues on a case-by-case basis. As the record shows, I felt that the only option that the Government had at the time was to suspend the Assembly as a whole.

I ask the Secretary of State to give the House some indication of how he proposes to deal with the question of community relations. In the run-up to the election on 29 May, there is every danger that the Northern Ireland community will feel more split than it has for some time. One of my ongoing criticisms is the assumption, often in the very words we hear from Ministers, that there are two communities in Northern Ireland. That is unhelpful because it sectarianises the debate. I have said many times that 14 per cent. of people regard themselves as unaligned with Protestant or Catholic groupings. Sometimes, I feel that Ministers still slip into the assumption that legislation can validly be framed in a way that looks at those two main blocs rather than perhaps giving more weight to those people who do not regard themselves as traditionally Unionist or nationalist.

My final question is—

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, which is reflected in his sister party in Northern Ireland's approach. It is a regular interlocutor of mine on these issues. I would not wish him to leave the impression in the House that Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office are careless with their vocabulary in relation to the community of Northern Ireland and the

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failure to recognise its diversity. It is at the heart of our policy that we recognise that Northern Ireland is a diverse society. That has to include those people who do not see themselves as being in one or other of the two traditional camps. If the hon. Gentleman carefully examines the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my fellow Ministers, he will see that we are very careful not to do the very thing of which he accuses us.

Lembit Öpik: I am pleased that the Minister intervened. Rather than raking over examples from the past—I can think of a few from recent Standing Committees on statutory instruments, where I raised that point—let us accept that all of us now recognise the importance of acknowledging those who do not traditionally align themselves with, if you like, the two larger community groups, which often are seen to dominate, certainly in the media.

I am grateful that the Minister has given that assurance. I was not suggesting that Ministers were being cavalier in their language but the hon. Gentleman would expect me to make that point, not least on behalf of the Alliance party in Northern Ireland.

Let me conclude by—[Interruption.] I am grateful for the attentive support of Labour Members. I hope that this one final assurance can be given by the Minister. The Liberal Democrats are inclined to support the Bill but only on this condition, and it is my final question. [Interruption.] Okay, I will make it my final statement, and silence will indicate assent, in order to be philosophically consistent with what I said before. The statement is: there is absolutely no prospect of a further delay. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said that and I echo his sentiment. It is reasonable to expect the Minister to give the explicit commitment that 29 May is now the given date. Although we are not pleased about the change, we understand it, but if that date were to change after such an assurance were given, Ministers and the Government would begin to lose the confidence of the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps of the House in general. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to give that assurance.

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