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26 Mar 2003 : Column 358—continued

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman's second point is a good one; I shall come to it later. On his first point, he knows, as does everybody who has been involved in the creation and implementation of the Good Friday Belfast agreement, that it is a political agreement. Of course, it has legal implications because legislation has to be passed to implement it, but ultimately it is a political agreement, and political decisions and judgments have to be taken into account. That is why I said that if we were to tie ourselves down too tightly to legal definitions, we could not properly satisfy people across the political board in Northern Ireland with regard to the definition of paramilitary activity.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Is the Secretary of State trying to say that the only legal standing that the agreement has is what has been put into legislation?

Mr. Murphy: The agreement has international legal aspects, which have to be put into international law. Domestic legislation had to be passed in order to introduce various aspects of the agreement. I am saying that it was not an agreement produced by lawyers, although some very distinguished lawyers were involved in its creation; it was essentially a political agreement that had to be voted on by the people of Northern Ireland. I sometimes wonder whether in the years since 1998 people's collective memory has gone, and they have forgotten that people in north and the south voted on the agreement.

David Burnside: I welcome the Secretary of State's statement that the Belfast agreement is a political agreement. Will he give a commitment to the House that from now on it will be referred to as a political process, not a peace process, which is completely different?

Mr. Murphy: Hopefully, the effect is the same. Of course, the agreement referred to the creation of a peaceful society in Northern Ireland, but it also referred to political stability and to prosperity. Politicians created the agreement on which the people of Northern Ireland, and the whole of Ireland, voted. In that context, it is political, with legal implications.

Lembit Öpik: I thank the Secretary of State for his forbearance. To resolve the issue once and for all, is he confirming what we already know? Is he saying, at long last, that the Government want to maintain political latitude in terms of defining acts of completion? I know that it is an uncomfortable admission, but it will make it easier for everyone to take their decisions about where they stand as regards the Bill if we understand that the Secretary of State has made that decision. We can then decide whether to agree with it, but at least we will not be pretending that he is questioning the political content of his own definitions of acts of completion.

Mr. Murphy: I am not trying in any sense to go against the law on the definition of ceasefires. That is specifically in legislation which the House of Commons decided to pass some time ago, and it would not be right for me to

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say that that was wrong, because it was not. At the same time, it is right to say that we must look at all these issues politically, but it is also important that we do not tie ourselves down. The issues before us relating to paramilitary activity must be defined so that we we know that there is a cessation of activity. That is what produces the trust and confidence.

4.45 pm

Mr. Mallon: Does the Secretary of State agree that the surest signal of the cessation of violence and terrorist activity would be the participation on the Policing Board and the fullest support for policing in the north of Ireland from organisations that had previously used violence? Is that not the clearest barometer of movement on acts of completion?

Mr. Murphy: Of course I think that that is an important issue, but it is not the only one. My hon. Friend represents a constituency that has been plagued by these problems over many decades, and he will know that we want an end to the activity—everybody here knows what it is all about in Northern Ireland. That must happen in order to go into a peaceful and democratic society.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Murphy: I would like to respond to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and then I will by all means give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I want to address the right hon. Gentleman's point on independent members. He rightly read out the definition of the type of people they might be. I would not disagree with any of that, but people who had served sentences more than five years previously could well be eligible to stand for the independent category, as opposed to the political category on DPPs.

Mr. Trimble: As an exercise, the Secretary of State might like to look through the lists of the independent members who have been appointed to district policing partnerships throughout Northern Ireland, to take advice on the matter and to see how many or how few can fairly be regarded as persons who have expertise in community safety.

Mr. Murphy: I will certainly take the opportunity in the next week or so to do that. I want later to refer to some of the points that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made with reference to membership.

Mr. Davies: I wanted to intervene when the Secretary of State was referring to the legal obligations of the ceasefire. Will he confirm that the procurement of arms, explosives or timing devices and the movement of any of those would be inconsistent with the obligations on those who have accepted the ceasefire?

Mr. Murphy: All those matters are hugely important in making the assessment, but the assessment in law at the end of the day, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is about looking at things "in the round".

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The hon. Member for Belfast, East made a lot of comments. He knows that the composition of DPPs is a matter for the Policing Board—indeed, the Policing Board on which his party is represented. I am advised that applications were dealt with anonymously so that people would not know from whom they came. Were the hon. Gentleman to have any difficulty with the process, my advice to him would be to raise the matter with the Policing Board.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I am aware that the applications were considered anonymously. Regrettably, they were also considered without seeing the council areas' scoring system. If that had been made available, very different judgments would have been made.

Mr. Murphy: I will certainly look into that, and refer to the Policing Board myself. At the end of the day, it is a matter for the Policing Board.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East made much of the timing of today's debate—and I suppose that the essence of this debate is timing. However, I rather fancy that, whenever this debate had taken place, the hon. Gentleman would have made more or less the same speech, because what he said is what he believes to be right. Whether the debate had been held now, or after acts of completion, or later in the year, or next year, I suspect that he would have made the same speech. He referred to what my hon. Friend the Minister of State said in Select Committee—that the ball was still in the republicans' court. Of course, the ball still is in the republicans' court. What is different is the fact that we are debating these issues today instead of rather later.

Before explaining that point more fully, I want to clarify a small point with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). He said that the Bill referred to a "local general election". I can confirm that that means a local election. Why it is called a local general election, I have not a notion, but it means a local election.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford raised two issues that related to the timing, rather than the substance, of the debate when he asked why it was being held now and not later. Earlier, I said—and I hope that the House accepted it—that I am not making an excuse for raising these issues today. Why should I want to do that? Everybody knows that, when the texts for consideration were brought in, back in November, I made it clear that those texts and those clauses were to be considered entirely in the context of acts of completion by the IRA. A cessation of activity on the part of the IRA would mean that this part of the Bill would be enacted. It has so happened that the Bill has gone through its stages in Parliament much more swiftly than I thought that it would; and, on the other side of the coin, that the process in Northern Ireland for the re-establishment and restoration of the institutions has gone more slowly than I had thought. The two processes have not coincided. I suppose that I could have decided, with the House authorities, to move this Report stage debate and the Third Reading much further down the parliamentary programme or down the parliamentary year. I would certainly have preferred the acts of completion to have taken place, and the consideration of what was discussed at Hillsborough to have taken place, before we discussed these matters here, but that was not to be.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh said that this Bill is not simply about the clauses that we are discussing today. The Bill has been debated at length in Committee, it has been debated here, and it has been debated in the other place. It is an important Bill in its own right. It is a very important Bill for the SDLP, because it encapsulates many of the points that the party has made. Other parties also have a considerable interest, as have the people of Northern Ireland, in the Bill as a whole and not just in these particular clauses. Why should we hold up the entire Bill, for weeks or possibly months, in order for these matters to be discussed? Another important point is that the nature of these clauses—and they have been strengthened in the past couple of weeks—is such that the overall effect will be the same. They will not come into effect unless there are acts of completion. They will not come into effect unless we have agreement that those acts of completion have been dealt with.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford asked about what he regarded as the inadequacy of the secondary legislation procedure for dealing with these matters. He also said that there would not be an opportunity to modify the clauses; but the opportunity to modify the clauses and to introduce amendments is now, in this Chamber. This is where that is done, using the processes that we already have. Not only is that palpably obvious, but he and other hon. Members and right hon. Members have actually introduced amendments and new clauses, knowing full well that the opportunity for those to be considered was today—and whenever the other place will have the opportunity to consider them. For modifications and amendments to the clauses, this is the time and this is the place.

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