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Dr. McDonnell: I entirely agree with you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was merely responding to comments made earlier across the Chamber which had drifted very wide of the mark. I felt that something should be said to refute them.

One could argue, technically, if one wanted to be perfectly legalistic, that nothing in any Bill prevents anything from happening. The reality is, however, that I want to see normality restored, and I want that normality to be reflected in our laws. I want to get us to a point at which we do not need Diplock courts. They are used very rarely today, and we are moving towards a situation in which we shall not need them at all. Our view is that we should reach that stage by 2007. We can just about tolerate the measures being in place until 2008, but retaining them until 2012 would almost result in our going back into a war situation in which we had to keep war legislation on the statute book.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: We discussed this matter in Committee; it was probably the longest discussion that we had. Indeed, I tabled a similar amendment to this one at that stage. While I have every respect for the points made by the hon. Members for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Solihull (Lorely Burt), the official Opposition probably have a little more sympathy with the points made by DUP Members.

As we shall probably discuss more on Third Reading, we want to see a return to a normal society in Northern Ireland. I do not want to add to what has already been said, but I want to express my concern about the fact that the provisions will end in 2008 at the latest, and possibly even in 2007. There is a theory about the 2007–08 deadline. Given the possible retirement of the Prime Minister before the next general election in 2009 or 2010—a matter that we discussed at Prime Minister's questions—the Conservatives are worried that he might want to rush certain things forward. The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill has been introduced, further Assembly elections could take place in Northern Ireland in 2007, and the provisions in this Bill could come to an end in 2007 or 2008. Everything would fall together rather too neatly. If that is okay, if it is right that everything should fall together neatly in 2007 or 2008, I will be the first to welcome that. However, I am not persuaded that we are anywhere near that situation yet. For that reason, if the amendment is pressed to a vote, the official Opposition will support it.

3.15 pm

Mr. Woodward: This has been a good debate, and it has ranged widely across the Government's proposals. Observations that the Government are being too soft have been made by the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson). The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) felt that we were being too hard, and would like to see us get rid of the provisions right now, while the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), a bit like one of the three bears,
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judged the measures to be just right. It is always a pleasure to have the support of the Liberal Democrats. It might be helpful if I try to deal with the points that have been raised, and to reassure hon. Members that we have judged it right on this occasion. I am sorry that, if the amendment is pressed to a vote, we shall not have the support of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), as I believe that, by and large, he agrees with the principles that we are trying to pursue.

In his two amendments, the hon. Member for East Londonderry puts forward proposals, the effect of which would be to allow the Secretary of State to make an order continuing the provisions in part 7 currently in force for a period ending before 1 August 2012. We do not accept his proposals, and I suggest that the choice of 2012 is rather arbitrary. Why not choose 2013 or 2011?

Mr. Dodds: Why choose 2008?

Mr. Woodward: I shall come to that in a moment.

The amendments would undermine the valuable process of scrutiny and debate that Parliament provides. The provisions would be continued in force until 2012 without the need for Parliament to consider the need for them each year or to approve their continued use. The abandonment of such reviews would be a retrograde step. Annual debate on part 7 provisions and their predecessors has been one of the key safeguards underlying part 7, and we would resist the amendments on that basis alone, as we believe that the annual review is extremely important.

I want to go further than that in my observations, however. The hon. Member for East Londonderry is concerned about the pace of security normalisation and the continuing need for these provisions. In that regard, I want to comment on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. We agree that we are not yet in a normal situation in Northern Ireland, and we agree that we need the terrorist threat to be removed. That is precisely why we believe that these special provisions need to be renewed in February next year, but we shall do that in the context of trying to preserve a careful balance with the objective of creating a normalised society. That is why we are creating an enabling environment. That goal is extremely important, but we equally accept that we have not reached it yet, which brings me back to my observation that it is essential to renew the provisions. This is about judgment, and, in our judgment, it is right to retain the provisions, in parallel with a belief that the future for Northern Ireland is, and should be, an optimistic one.

Mr. Donaldson: I share the Minister's optimism but I am a realist. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of the organisations that are continuing to engage in acts of terrorism are not involved in the peace process at all? Does he accept also that their stated objective is to use terrorism and violence to overthrow the state and create a united Ireland? If we are to create an enabling environment to bring those organisations on board and to end their violence, what will we do to enable that to happen, short of giving such organisations a united Ireland? We cannot create an enabling environment that is for one set of terrorists and not recognise that there
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continues to be a threat from another set of terrorists. That is why we argue that the date should be extended beyond that which the Minister envisages.

Mr. Woodward: I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is a realist. Indeed, everyone who has participated in the debate is being realistic about their assumptions.

A judgment will be made in a few years' time. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Ministers will not take risks with the security situation of the people of Northern Ireland. As we have again and again made absolutely and categorically clear, while it is our intention that the Bill will expire, it could be renewed with the safety net of 12 months. However, if at the end of that time the judgment of the Secretary of State, based on the advice of his security Ministers, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and others, is that other provisions need to be brought in, they would be. That, at the moment, is not our judgment in terms of how we forecast the future. However, we reserve the right to proceed on that basis.

It is important, as the hon. Gentleman says, to be realistic. It is important, therefore, to examine the real facts. If we compare this year to a date at the height of the troubles in 1972, the difference and the reality is extremely stark. We are talking about five deaths compared to 470 in that one year. There were 86 bombings compared to 1,853 and there were 144 shooting incidents—144 too many—compared with more than 10,500.

The hon. Gentleman should rightly say that he will take no lectures from anyone in the House about understanding the reality of the situation in Northern Ireland. I respect that, as all hon. Members respect those who represent Northern Ireland in this place.

As for the remarks of the hon. Member for South Antrim, I was moved by the observations that he made in an intervention last week, which commanded the respect of every Member of the House. Despite the huge respect that I am sure every Member, including myself, has for him, we may not agree with some of the analysis. However, I respect the basis on which the hon. Gentleman makes the comments that he does.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: The Minister is attempting to explain the reason for the 2008 deadline. I shall quote from the last IMC report. It is right that the numbers of certain crimes have fallen, and we welcome that, but the report says:

The words "long term" perhaps explain why Opposition Members are concerned with the 2008 deadline.

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