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Mr. Peter Robinson: Surely we are not to be left to trust the paramilitary organisations on what they say their inventory of weapons and explosives may have been. We have intelligence services. The Prime Minister now has a new friend in Colonel Gaddafi, who I am sure will give him a full and frank disclosure of all the weaponry that he handed over to the IRA. Jane's Intelligence Review and a number of our leading quality newspapers have published details of the weaponry that is believed to be available to the Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitary groups. We do not have to sit back and take their word for it when it comes to what their stockpile may constitute.

Lembit Öpik: I realise that dossiers on weapons are a sensitive issue for the Government, and the whole Iraq business has shown us that there will always be questions about what weapons are owned; but the hon. Gentleman has made a promising observation. If it transpires that the Democratic Unionist party and others could accept a baseline for what exists now, we may indeed have a better opportunity to determine when all that has gone. The hon. Gentleman may want to comment on that when he makes his own speech.

We do not believe that there is any place for illegally held weapons in a democratic society, and we have always called for full decommissioning by both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups. We have supported the progress made so far, but we always hoped that we would be further down the road to total decommissioning than we are now. We recognise that decommissioning is a process and that no paramilitary group will decommission all at once, but now that we have embarked on that process we cannot give the IRA, in particular, any reason not to decommission its weapons. That is why we will support the order.

3.2 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I speak as an English Member representing an English seat, who has never been subjected to the pressure to which Northern Ireland Members on both sides of the House are regularly subjected, both on a personal level and in representing constituents. They have been shot at and had bombs aimed at them; they have lost relatives and loved ones. For that reason I will speak briefly. I will say, however, that I noted that the Liberal Democrats were preparing for government. Given that their contribution today lasted longer than those from the two main Front Benches, I think that should that day ever come theirs would certainly be a policy of jaw-jaw rather than war-war.

Let me pick up a point made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and address it to the Unionists in the House. We in government are lucky to have the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), to present these measures year after year—for they will be presented year after year. She is not only one of our most able Members of Parliament, but one of our bravest. When we had our small problems on Merseyside—

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nothing compared with those in Northern Ireland—she was the first on her side of the river to stand up and declare her belief in the ballot box against some of the nasty practices that certain people were trying to inflict on our community in Liverpool and Birkenhead. I must ask this, however: what would happen, and what would change in Northern Ireland, if the paramilitaries—particularly the IRA—did actually agree with this policy and decommission? They have enough financial resources to replenish their arsenals quickly. I suggest that even if they were pushed to the point of being more open about decommissioning, it would make not an iota of difference. I also suggest that they will never do that. They did not do it in the 1920s, and that did not stop a basic form of peace from being established in the Province for more than 50 years.

Therefore, as the Unionist groups are now regrouping in Ulster, I make a plea to them. While it would clearly be enormously difficult to disengage themselves from the obvious agenda of demanding decommissioning, I suggest that another agenda should now take primacy over that. I do that for the reasons that I have just given: supposing the IRA did decommission, it could easily and most ably build up its arsenals, given its financial resources.

What would denote a real change of substance in Northern Ireland—nothing to do with the presentations of guns but the changing of people's hearts and minds— would be to ask those paramilitaries, but particularly the IRA, which is so near government in Northern Ireland, to change their policy on beatings and exclusions. That would be the real test of whether these people were democrats or not. Therefore, the plea I make to the Unionists of both groups is, please do not keep giving the IRA the excuse never to get on to an agenda that would test in the most effective way possible whether it is a changed creature or not.

Lady Hermon: I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect on the words of the Prime Minister of this country on 21 October last year:

Will the right hon. Gentleman either disagree with his Prime Minister or accept that there is a symbolism and that it is hugely important to the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Field: I am very fond of the Prime Minister but I would not necessarily go to the stake over all the statements that he has made. Above all, however, I make a plea to my hon. Friends on the other side of the Chamber: when can we expect those on the Unionist Benches to decouple themselves from whatever the Prime Minister wants, wishes, says or signs up to? The plea I am making today is for the brave representatives from Northern Ireland to start making their own agenda and not to have an English agenda foisted on them.

The one way that English voters would see that there was much more than an outward visible change and that that outward visible change had inward meaning would be if the IRA were challenged on its despicable policies of beatings and exclusions. Were it to respond to that

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challenge it would mean that it was putting aside the use of terror as a means of controlling many of their voters and many Unionist voters in Northern Ireland. That would suggest that there had been a fundamental change in the attitude of the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. That challenge is not made to them now because both sides, with the help of the Prime Minister, are still working according to the old agenda and rabbiting on that the need is to decommission.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Field: No, I am just finishing.

The paramilitaries will never agree to decommissioning. Why do we not get on to an agenda that is not only relevant to Ulster, but really challenges those paramilitaries effectively?

3.8 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I appreciate the thoughtful contribution of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I know the interest that he has taken in the plight of those who have been excluded from Northern Ireland and subjected to punishment attacks. We on this side of the House appreciate that. Nevertheless, this is about the presence of a private army, or a paramilitary organisation. It is one thing to deal with the symptoms of the problem—that is, exclusions, beatings and so on—but at the heart of the issue is dealing with the actual source of the problem itself. We have said clearly that there can be no place for a private army or a paramilitary organisation in a democratic society. Ultimately, that is the position that we are seeking to achieve.

That we are again in this House debating the extension of this order highlights the failure of the Government's policy. They have singularly failed to make any progress in removing all the illegally held arms from Northern Ireland. The Government would rather trade concession after concession to those who hold illegal weapons in some faint hope or aspiration that they might decommission. But the policy of appeasement has failed, and it is time for a fresh approach.

The Belfast agreement stated that decommissioning was to be completed within two years of its ratification. In 1999, when devolved institutions were established, the Prime Minister stated:

It is now February 2004, and we are nowhere near the completion of the decommissioning process. The difficulty with extending the amnesty provisions year after year is that we send the signal to the paramilitaries that we are in no hurry—that we will simply renew this provision annually, in the vain hope that some day, some year, they will deliver. That approach is folly.

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The Government have tried with their concessions. There was Weston Park, and then they gave offices in this House to Sinn Fein. They agreed to further concessions on policing, and to scale down the security infrastructure. Worst of all, they granted a commitment to an amnesty for so-called on-the-run terrorists. I am not sure that the Minister fully appreciates the hurt that that proposal has caused. I spoke just last evening to a lady who lost her husband as a result of the Enniskillen bombing. She rang me because she wanted to know what was happening about the amnesty for on-the-run terrorists, and to express her hurt and concern that the person who murdered her loved one and the others who died in that tragic incident might not undergo the full process of justice in Northern Ireland.

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