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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I am also grateful to him for his customary courtesy in giving me early sight of its contents.

I share the right hon. Gentleman's disappointment, and that of countless people, both in the United Kingdom and beyond, that a comprehensive agreement has not yet proved possible. We welcome his determination, and that of the Irish Government, to press ahead in the hope that a settlement can be reached, preferably this side of a general election. Does he agree, however, that what underlies the details of yesterday's publication is the fact that the prime obstacle to an agreement and an enduring political settlement remains the reluctance of republicans to show openly that they have completed their transition from terrorism and political force to becoming a political movement that campaigns to achieve its objectives exclusively through democratic and peaceful means?

After six years of waiting for the republican movement to deliver the decommissioning promised in 1998, and after so many false dawns, is it not wholly understandable that there is now widespread public scepticism in Northern Ireland about the movement's further pledges, and also a demand for concrete evidence that decommissioning has actually taken place?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that asking for photographic evidence of decommissioning is not just the position of the Democratic Unionist party, but the position of Her Majesty's Government and, for that matter, of the Irish Government? Is it not the case that if the IRA is so vehemently opposed to the attachment of that condition, there is nothing to stop it going ahead and simply delivering the decommissioning and cessation of paramilitary activity that it tells us it wishes to carry out?

I have a few questions to ask about the Government's document and the draft statements annexed to it. First, the Secretary of State said again today that it was the issue of photographic evidence on which the talks foundered; but he will be aware of the comments of the Irish Deputy Prime Minister, Mary Harney, who said

What were the other issues on which agreement was not possible yesterday?

Secondly, both yesterday's draft IRA statement and the actual statement that the IRA published today talk rather vaguely about the IRA instructing its members

that might endanger a new agreement. Is it the Secretary of State's clear understanding that that undertaking from the IRA would indeed mean a firm pledge to cease all the activities listed in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, including beatings, shootings,
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intimidation, racketeering and organised crime? Is it his clear and unequivocal understanding that when the IRA talks about moving into a "new mode", that means the effective standing down of its military organisation and a commitment that it will no longer engage in recruitment, training or targeting?

Thirdly, this morning's IRA statement says that photographs were "never possible". Will the Secretary of State explain on what basis the documents published yesterday included references to photographs as part of the process? Were there any prior agreements with republicans that that was going to happen?

Fourthly, the Prime Minister said yesterday that once the necessary legislation was passed Sinn Fein would recommend support for the police, and would take up its seats on the Policing Board. But the republican statements that we saw yesterday and today do not make such an unequivocal commitment; they merely commit Sinn Fein to holding a meeting to consider its position. How firm are the undertakings given to the Government that the republican movement really will accept the police and the rule of law, and has a clear undertaking been given in respect of the timetable within which that must take effect?

Finally, the documents published yesterday make no reference to other elements of the settlement, such as security normalisation and on-the-run terrorists. Can the Secretary of State confirm that unless and until IRA weapons have been put beyond use and paramilitary activity has ceased, there will be no movement from the Government on either of those issues?

Mr. Murphy: I am, as ever, grateful for the hon. Gentleman's co-operation and that of his party.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned scepticism in Northern Ireland about the political process. I suspect that there is an element of that, but I hope that there is only disappointment in Northern Ireland today, rather than despair. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman or anyone else wishes to read a document containing 21 or 22 pages, but the bulk of it is about agreement.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there were any other obvious areas of disagreement. I cannot find them in the document, but I think that the question goes beyond the issue of photographs to that of confidence about the transparency of decommissioning. It was, after all, owing to a lack of such transparency that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), when he dealt with these issues some time ago, found it impossible to move forward. Transparency and confidence are the important issues. To what extent can confidence be arrived at in Northern Ireland—particularly, but not exclusively, in the Unionist community—so that people can be confident that decommissioning has happened in a proper way?

The hon. Gentleman referred to the other statement from the IRA. It is certainly our understanding that there has been a big change in the wording. For example, a reference to the removal of the causes of conflict if agreement is reached is a world away from the old idea that those causes of conflict would go away only with the unification of Ireland. That is a big change over the last few years.
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The hon. Gentleman mentioned a "new mode" for the IRA, in the context of recruitment, training, punishment beatings and other matters. Of course the Government consider all those issues hugely important to attempts to resolve the problems, and to defining paramilitary activity and the ending of such activity. He also mentioned the statement that it was "never possible" for the IRA to accept photographs. Over the past 24 hours there has been some discussion about what did or did not happen in the negotiations, but what is clear is that—certainly from Leeds castle onwards—the issue of photographic evidence was there all the time. Of course we did not agree on it: that is the point. Most things were agreed; what was not agreed was the bit about photographic evidence.

The IRA clearly has a different view from everyone else. Our view is that whatever it takes to persuade people, confidently, that transparency has arrived is what we will accept as a Government—or as two Governments.

We believe that the statement in this document constitutes a commitment to examining the way in which Sinn Fein approaches the structures of policing in Northern Ireland, and—in the context of devolution of justice and policing—a clear commitment to involvement in those structures. The timetable is set out in one of the annexes.

The hon. Gentleman referred to other elements of discussion that featured in the negotiations. He specifically mentioned issues including that of on-the-runs. In the joint declaration they are related to acts of completion on the part of paramilitary organisations, particularly, in this case, the IRA. It is the Government's firm view that those acts of completion—the end of paramilitary activity and full decommissioning—must take place before on-the-runs and other issues are dealt with.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Like my right hon. Friend and the Government, I am very disappointed at the unsuccessful outcome of his endeavours and those of the Irish Government over the past few months to bring agreement to Northern Ireland. Not only would such agreement have settled the issue of the structural governmental framework; it would have enabled the people of Northern Ireland, through their local representatives, to further their economic and social well-being.

The Secretary of State said that the two parties that he mentioned particularly, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party, were leading parties of the respective communities. May I point out to him that combined they represent 49 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland, and that the other 51 per cent. have, de facto if not de jure, been virtually excluded from the negotiations? I encourage him, when he has further talks next week with those parties, to enter into dialogue with all the political parties in Northern Ireland, in order that—notwithstanding the question of photographic evidence—the confidence and trust that he indicates is missing can be established.

The statement refers to causes of conflict that would have been removed by the proposed agreement. What are the remaining causes of conflict that the agreement
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would have removed? Secondly, what new demands were made by Sinn Fein that, if met, would enable it to reverse its decision not to support policing and to discourage people from joining the police service? The devolution of policing powers has been agreed by all parties as an appropriate way forward. Did Sinn Fein require anything new to enable it to change its mind on the question of assisting the maintenance of law and order in Northern Ireland?

Can the Secretary of State make it clear whether Sinn Fein was correct in stating that it did not see any reference to the use of photographic evidence until approximately three weeks ago—apparently, the date was 17 November—or was there prior knowledge of such a way forward, but it simply had not been put in writing?

I greatly regret that an agreement was not reached for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland, and I encourage the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Irish Government to continue their dialogue. But if they want success, they should address not only the extremes of paramilitarism and political thought, but the 51 per cent. of people—the moderate ground—who were excluded de facto, if not de jure, from the last round of talks, and include them in meaningful dialogue.

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