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26 Mar 2003 : Column 318—continued

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The Secretary of State will understand that we are dwelling on the matter because it is one of the key issues that we shall debate today and tomorrow. He has just given a clear indication that he assumes that the provisions of the Bill would not be implemented unless there were acts of completion. I hear him agreeing with that. To provide the confidence that we all seek, what is the obstacle to including some definition of an act of completion in the very context that he described—the context of the Bill?

Mr. Murphy: We get into tremendous difficulties if we try to define in the Bill what is essentially a political decision as to whether acts of completion have taken place. I shall define that in a moment, and hon. Gentlemen who have objected may find my reasoning to their liking. If we write into the Bill every single thing that we think is an act of completion or is the cessation of paramilitary activity, difficulties can arise if, in the months ahead, something else occurs that is considered by the Government to be a violation, but it is not in the Bill. We can tie ourselves up into legal knots, knowing full well that everyone understands that there are all sorts of factors that define paramilitary activity. I shall speak about these matters as we go through the afternoon, and they will appear on the record.

Lembit Öpik: The Secretary of State said something very important. He implies that he wants to maintain a degree of political latitude in the interpretation of acts of completion. That may well be the Government's position; I suspect it always has been, but for the record, can he clarify that that is the strategy that he wants to maintain?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that we must not mix that up with legal definitions of ceasefires, which do exist in legislation. We must all be careful that we do not tie ourselves down. Something might occur that is not in the Bill but is clearly a measure of paramilitary activity that we have not defined. It can lead to difficulties later, by way of judicial review and so on.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I take it that the Secretary of State is advancing the matter of definition as a genuine difficulty that he envisages, rather than as an excuse. There is a simple way of resolving the difficulty, if it is only a difficulty—that is, to make acts of completion a necessary but not a sufficient condition for bringing the clauses into effect. The Secretary of State would then have the power to bring them into effect by statutory instrument if there are acts of completion, as specified, and if, in addition, his general judgment is that the clauses should be brought into effect. That would be a simple way of resolving the difficulty that he has described.

Mr. Murphy: Nothing is ever simple. One thing that we must always bear in mind is how the implications of

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acts of completion not being completed, or examples of paramilitary activity, impinge on an Assembly that is up and running, as I hope it will be. The hon. Gentleman knows that in the weeks ahead—not too far ahead, I hope—there will be a vigorous debate on how we view the issues discussed at Hillsborough, in the context of the joint declaration. That has implications for the Assembly. In the Prime Minister's remarks in Belfast before Christmas, he went some way towards defining what he meant by paramilitary activity. He referred to targeting, procurement, punishment beatings, surveillance and training. Anybody who is involved or interested in Northern Ireland politics is aware that those are the matters that we must consider.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Surely the right hon. Gentleman must realise that the sort of fuzzy assurance that he is attempting to give the House today will not add up to a row of beans to the Unionist community when people recognise that whether anything occurs before, during or after acts of completion makes no difference, when the Government have not defined what an act of completion is, and when they can manipulate all their arrangements in order to facilitate the IRA. They had no intention of bringing these provisions before the House until after acts of completion. Now they are doing so, and we are left to rely on the judgment of a Government who are prepared to allow the IRA to manipulate legislation in the House.

Mr. Murphy: Of course we are not allowing the IRA to manipulate legislation. We are introducing legislation that we hope will ensure that we restore the institutions in Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Gentleman is supportive of those institutions as a Minister in the Executive and a Member of the Assembly. The purpose of what we are doing today is to try to help us move towards restoring trust between the parties and restoring the institutions, as well as an election in Northern Ireland and proper devolution, which I believe is what most people there want. That is the purpose of what we are doing today; it is not about dealing with the IRA in the way that he suggests.

2 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. I have a lot of sympathy with what he is saying about the difficulty of defining acts of completion, as some are quantifiable immediately and others will not be quantifiable for some considerable time. However, is there not one act of completion that must surely take place before an election or the reinstitution of the devolved Administration—participation by Sinn Fein in the Policing Board? Will that act of completion be conditional on what follows later, or will the issue proceed in such a way as to allow the political process to be re-established and the other acts of completion insisted upon? Which is the sequence? Is not the participation in the Policing Board the first act of completion that will be necessary in relation to the Bill?

Mr. Murphy: I think that both issues are important. The definition of paramilitary activity particularly exercises people in Northern Ireland—and rightly so. The continuing nature of such activity is a matter of

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great concern, and our first priority must be to ensure that it stops, including in the political context. I am by no means unsympathetic to the point that my hon. Friend made with regard to the Policing Board—another important matter that is front of us. What the Prime Minister said back in November last year was directed in the first place towards the situation regarding activity by paramilitaries. In the same speech, however, he also referred to the significance of everybody in Northern Ireland accepting a new policing regime that serves everybody, whatever parts of the community or traditions they come from.

Mr. Mallon: I thank the Secretary of State for his comments. Can he conceive of a situation, given the type of negotiations that have taken place, in which an election is held, as I want it to be, and devolution is re-established, as I very much want, without an act of completion being made in relation to the Policing Board? Will that hang over until after the two events—the election and reinstitution of devolution—or it is an act of completion that will facilitate those events?

Mr. Murphy: I think that we will have to see how the next two or three weeks unfold, but I say to my hon. Friend that I believe that the issue of police is a central one and that acceptance of the police by every part of the community, just as his party has accepted policing in the new context, is vital. If it had not been for the SDLP and colleagues in the nationalist community and the Church, the change that we have seen in that regard would not have occurred. This is a vital issue in which I think that he played an important role. I repeat that acceptance of the police by everyone is hugely important.

I do not want to go into the details of what will be available to people in Northern Ireland to consider in a matter of weeks. I simply say to the House that it is important to understand that we have introduced a new safeguard on commencement—a procedure that allows both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to decide the matter when the order is tabled.

Mr. Trimble: I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity to me and other hon. Members in enabling us to probe the issue. May I take him back to the question of acts of completion in relation to the new clauses? Of course, I understand that there are a number of different acts of completion and that, as the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said, some are quantifiable and some are not. However, is it not the case that from the point of view of the new clauses, the relevant act of completion would be the acceptance by the republican movement of the police and its support for policing, as demonstrated by inclusion on the Policing Board? The new clauses relate to district policing partnerships and are designed to facilitate participation in them by Sinn Fein. It would therefore be wrong to bring the provisions into operation simply because some other act of completion, such as decommissioning, had occurred, when the republican movement had not yet accepted and supported policing.

Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also referred in his speech to the fact that he could not envisage Sinn Fein joining the Policing Board

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without a cessation of paramilitary activity—I think that he used the word "absurd" to describe the suggestion that that would happen. The one thing would follow the other.

I shall deal with the Government new clauses in detail and I hope also to refer to the new clauses tabled by other hon. Members—

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