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Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): As the Minister who started this process more than 15 years ago, may I warmly commend the Secretary of State for the hugely significant progress that he and his colleagues have made with the Northern Ireland parties? Does he recognise that there is a variety of reasons for lack of confidence in the decommissioning process, one of which, I regret to say, relates to the handling of that issue by his predecessor, Dr. Mowlam? Will he be encouraged by the strong support on both sides of the House for his commitment to transparency in the decommissioning process, even if the last step of the way delays the inevitable, final and wonderful outcome for which so many people have striven for so long?

Mr. Murphy: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those kind words. I agree that the process started more than a decade ago when the previous Prime Minister, John Major, was heavily involved. The right hon. Gentleman will understand, from having been a Minister himself in Northern Ireland—as will all Members who have been involved in Northern Ireland politics over the years—that the transparency of decommissioning has been an issue from the very beginning. If—I hope it is not if, but when—we deal with it, we shall have found our way to a complete resolution of the difficulties that we face.
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Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that all of us who have been involved in the process wish him well and believe that real progress has now been made? Inevitably, however—and rightly—he mentioned compromise. Does he accept that there is not much more room for compromise because the real problem is that we have not yet had transparent decommissioning? Until we do, the Belfast agreement will not have been fully implemented and there is not much room for compromise from the Unionist or democratic nationalist side on that point.

Mr. Murphy: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He has been deeply involved in Northern Ireland politics for some time. We did have a compromise; that is the point. In the proposals, which, of course, were not accepted, the compromise that the two Governments set out was that photographs would be taken but would not be published until the Executive was up and running. Clearly, that was not acceptable to the IRA, so we must try to find another way to ensure that we get some confidence and trust on transparency.

Another new issue was the use of independent observers who were clergymen. That development can be welcomed, and we must all use our intellect, intelligence, experience and expertise over the next number of weeks to see whether we can find some way to ensure that there is sufficient transparency to command the confidence of everybody in the community.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): First, may I place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State and all those who have been involved in the effort to bring lasting peace, security and prosperity to the people of Northern Ireland? Naturally, like many others, I am disappointed that there has not yet been a final solution, but I recognise the need for transparent decommissioning. I welcome the agreements that have been reached between Sinn Fein-IRA and the DUP to date. In six of the 13 paragraphs of annexe E, the expressions "new agreement", "new powers" and "new arrangements" occur. Will the Secretary of State write to me identifying the parts of the Belfast agreement that will require amendment arising from the recently agreed proposals for agreement between the political parties in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the thanks he expressed to me and to others involved in the process. So many people have been involved, including the hon. Gentleman and his party. Like him, I am disappointed that we could not go to the Waterfront hall in Belfast yesterday to announce a full agreement, so that in the new year we could ensure that there was, first, a shadow Assembly, with a full Assembly later on in 2005. But we shall keep on trying; that is important.

I shall, naturally, write to the hon. Gentleman about the points he made as he requested, but I say two things. This set of proposals is based, first, on the fundamentals of the Good Friday agreement, but also on changes suggested during the meetings held between all parties to review the agreements. The hon. Gentleman would very much welcome, for example, the changes on strand 3 to
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strengthen the secretariat. When the agreement was signed, it was never intended to be so set in stone that we could not, with the agreement of everybody concerned, make changes to it. However, everybody would also agree that certain fundamental points of the agreement, such as the principles of consent and power sharing, cannot be changed. People voted on those things, but there are details on the operation of the agreement that we can change. I thank the hon. Gentleman again, and I will write to him.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): As no quantity of photographs could ever prove that any group of people had given up all their weapons, does not the Secretary of State feel somewhat exasperated at the insistence of one side on photographs and the refusal of people on the other side to supply them? Surely, what really matters for the future is the intent and action of people on either side of the dispute, not what weapons they may or may not have got rid of, on or off the record.

Mr. Murphy: I am often exasperated by what we have to deal with sometimes in Northern Ireland; I sometimes express that feeling in more Anglo-Saxon terms. However, there are also occasions—yesterday was one of them—when I feel disappointment but also hope, because we have come so far in agreement. Although there is still work to be done on the issue we have been discussing this afternoon, there is nevertheless a feeling of hope, even though we were disappointed.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Ultimately, what is important is whether weapons are used and whether there is paramilitary activity in some form or another. That hugely important point is dealt with at great length in the document. Decommissioning is still important, not only because illegal weapons should not be there and should be handed over, but also, as I am sure he understands, as a hugely important symbolic gesture. When those weapons are handed over, in the way specified in the agreement, it will be a question not of anybody surrendering anything, but of abiding by the Good Friday agreement. That is what the agreement said should happen and that is why General de Chastelain has the commission. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments and I hope that we shall be able to resolve those issues in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): We should all remind ourselves that the documents are not about the triumph of one community over another or of one political tradition over another. We hope that they are the final reconciliation of those communities and traditions. I return to a point mentioned by other Members, the photographs. Annexe D, which I accept is a draft, says that

but there is a contradiction in statements subsequently made by the IRA that that is not the case. Surely it must be possible to convince both sides that the issue is confidence in the process. Photographs are not a substitute for independent verification, but an important symbol that weapons have been decommissioned. They are not a symbol of the IRA having been disarmed; they are pictures of weapons that
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are no longer of use. At this late stage, cannot we convince the IRA that the pictures are of weapons, not pictures of the IRA being disarmed?

Mr. Murphy: I should very much like to do that over the next couple of weeks, but we must find ways and means to examine transparency and achieve confidence. That is what we have been talking about all afternoon. It may seem simple to people outside the House, but it is not. Like everybody else, the hon. Gentleman knows the history of Northern Ireland and he is right to point out to the House that it is not a question of triumphalism or surrender on anybody's part; it is the fact that the Good Friday agreement was voted on by people north and south. Part of the agreement is about decommissioning and that it should be carried out in a verifiable way, so that people can understand that it has genuinely been done. If the hon. Gentleman has any ideas, I should be glad to talk to him later.

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Points of Order

1.56 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter of good order in relation to ministerial responsibility for answering written parliamentary questions. I am gravely perturbed by a report in The Guardian, the contents of which appear to have been confirmed in statements made by the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), to the effect that under a new system, howsoever introduced, Ministers are now binning hundreds of parliamentary questions tabled by hon. and right hon. Members, answers to which have not been provided for periods of up to 11 months. My understanding is that the hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith), for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), for Lewes (Norman Baker), for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and others have all been affected. Is it in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for Ministers to plumb new depths of abject contempt for the rights of the House? For my own part, on the strength of only seven and a half years in Parliament, I long ago came to the conclusion that I am justified in launching whatever level of interrogative onslaught is necessary to get the information and answers that my constituents and I require.

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