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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must point out that at least 15 hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye in this limited period of time. I hope that all hon. Members respect that fact and allow as many viewpoints as possible to be heard.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I will try to keep my remarks brief in order to allow as many hon. Members as possible the opportunity to speak.
I sympathise with the sentiment expressed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and welcome the Opposition's recommitment to the peace process. Although the situation is sometimes difficult, it is important that bipartisanship, which has occasionally faltered, is maintained as far as possible on the subject. However, the right hon. Lady cannot will the ends without accepting the means to those ends.
I have thought long and hard about the motion, because I have some concerns about the status of Sinn Fein within the peace process and about how the UK Government and the Irish Government treat Sinn Fein. Some aspects of Sinn Fein's behaviour do not give me confidence that it is wholly engaged in democratic politics.
I spent two years trying to make the Good Friday agreement work in Northern Ireland. The agreement was based on a degree of obstructive ambiguity, although the Northern Ireland Office was always keen for me not to express it in those terms. We brought Sinn Fein, the republican movement and some of the loyalist paramilitary elements into the process by allowing them to hold one view about the long-term position of Northern Irelandin the republicans' case, that they would like it to be part of a united Irelandwhile participating in a democratic process in Northern Ireland through devolved institutions.
The solution was never neat and tidy, which is why the Democratic Unionist party and, in particular, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) had reservations. They were opposed to the process and did not like the idea of constructive ambiguity, but we would not have got the Good Friday agreement without that degree of constructive ambiguity. We accept that Sinn Fein does not attend the Westminster Parliament,
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which, as a republican organisation, it does not think is a place for them. However, it must accept all the responsibilities that go with democratic politics, one of which is accepting the rule of law.
The eighth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission has been quoted repeatedly in today's debate, and it is an important document of which we should take serious notice. Page 19, paragraph 3.21 states:
"members and former members of PIRA continue to be heavily involved in serious organised crime, including counterfeiting and the smuggling of fuel and tobacco . . . Some senior members are involved in money laundering and other crime . . . PIRA also seems to be using experts and specialists able to assist in the management of illegal assets."
Lord Alderdice, the respected and distinguished former Speaker of the Assembly, is a member of the Independent Monitoring Commission. He has said:
When the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), the Policing Board and the Assistant Chief Constable, Sam Kinkaid, disagreed about the level of criminal activity, the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, said:
"But on the issues of organised crime the board is clear that PSNI and the other agencies advised that all paramilitary groups were still involved in organised crime".
Sinn Fein is still engaged in the peace process, and it is still signed up to the Good Friday agreement. I have dealt with senior Sinn Fein members, and I believe that people such as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams are minded to change the political system and engage in democratic politics. Most of the senior Sinn Fein members, if not all, are committed to that process.
Rev. Ian Paisley: The hon. Gentleman will remember how far my party and I were prepared to go at the Leeds castle meeting, but when we were dealing with that matter, the Northern bank robbery was being planned. How can anyone have confidence in people who pretend that they can be trusted? Neither I nor anyone else on the Unionist side has needed to say that the IRA did the Northern bank robbery, because the southern Government have said so. We recently held talks with the southern Government, and they maintain their belief that the IRA and its leadership did that robbery.
Mr. Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman has made a good point.
The Sinn Fein leadership are still engaged in the process, and they are committed to bringing about change by democratic means. However, I am not convinced that they have got sufficient grip throughout the organisation and, in particular, into the IRA to ensure that the IRA has the respect for the rule of law implied by a commitment to democratic politics.
: How can the hon. Gentleman trust Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, when they spent 35 years telling the people of Northern Ireland that they were not part of the IRA army council? Some months ago, however, they told the people of Northern Ireland
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that they had resigned from the army council of the IRA. They lied to the people for 35 years, so how can the hon. Gentleman expect us to trust them now?
Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. The acts in which people were involved in the troubles in Northern Ireland were frankly revolting. I share the same disgust as the hon. Gentleman and other Democratic Unionist party Members at the atrocities, whether they were committed by loyalists or republicans, but my point is that many individuals have made the intellectual transition from terrorism to democratic politics. However, I am not convinced that they have has exercised sufficient authority sufficiently far down the chain to ensure that everybody who has been involved, and is involved, is operating under the same set of principles as they are. That is the difficulty.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made a good job of a difficult task, and I have some sympathy with him. Having on sat on that Front Bench for 26 hours trying to defend the Disqualifications Bill, I know precisely how difficult it can be to defend such provisions in the House. However, the one thing that he has not succeeded in doing to my satisfaction, and I suspect to that of many others, is explaining what the Short money amounts to in terms of representative duties. He made a stab at it, but it was probably not the best effort that he has ever made, as I think that he would be the first to admit. Perhaps the Minister could think about that before he winds up.
It would be helpful if the Northern Ireland Office or one of the House authorities were to issue some restrictions on what that money can be spent on. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, whatever else Sinn Fein has displayed in recent years, it is clear that it does not always play by the rules. If it does not play by the rules in elections, as we know is sometimes the case, it is conceivable that it would not play by rules that seem to be fairly ambiguous.
Andrew Mackinlay : Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Howarth: If my hon. Friend will let me finish my point, I may do so.
It would be helpful if guidance, or a letter of principle or something similar could be issued making it absolutely clear what restrictions are applied to these funds. I am not be comfortable that they will used be for the purposes that are intended, even though my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did not make it entirely clear what those purposes are. I hope to be given some assurances on that.
Subject to that, I intend to support the Government, but I make this one final point before doing so. I have a great deal of sympathy with constitutional and democratic parties in Northern Ireland, which are fed up to the back teeth with hearing Sinn Fein promising to change and then finding that the evidence subsequently shows that it has not done so. Sinn Fein must realise that the time is rapidly approaching when it needs to fulfil all its obligations if we are to continue to give it the support that we have given it in the past. So far, it has not done
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so. Before we go any further with this process, I urge it to make it absolutely clear that it has made that change and that it is permanent.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I welcome the publication last week of the latest report by the Independent Monitoring Commission. While it gives us reasons to feel encouraged in relation to the activities of the IRA, I also recognise, in the words of the IMC, that
Some aspects of the report still give us concern. I remain deeply worried by the level of involvement of IRA members in organised crime. The right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) read out some salient sections of the report. We know that the IRA is well placed to run fairly sophisticated organised crime operations. That is very damaging to Northern Ireland. Any and all paramilitary activity is a threat to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. All members of society, including republicans, have a duty to co-operate with the legal authorities to ensure that the criminal justice system can do its job. The IRA must now clearly demonstrate that the rule of law will prevail in all areas of life, not only in relation to paramilitary violence.
Sometimes the Government seem rather schizophrenic in their approach towards terrorism. They are sympathetic and cut some slack to the IRA and other paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, while almost in the same breath they introduce regulations and make tough-sounding speeches here about terrorist organisations that do not derive from the troubles of the Province.
I am disturbed by the fact that the practice of exiling has not ceased. Exiling was specifically mentioned in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration. If the people of Northern Ireland are to be confident that the IRA is standing by its commitment last August that all paramilitary activity is to cease, that unacceptable practice must end.
Nevertheless, the IMC's assessment of the current extent of IRA activity gives us some reasons to be encouraged. The commission has found no evidence of authorised paramilitary assaults or of recruitment for paramilitary purposes. Those are very significant developments. I particularly welcome the fact that the IMC is of the firm view that the IRA's leadership has taken the decision to end the armed campaign and pursue a political course. There will be suspicion and cynicism about that assessment, but I judge that the IMC has no particular reason to be falsely optimistic, and therefore find it plausible.
As the Leader of the Housewho has unfortunately had to leavepointed out, the IMC's recommendation as regards the allowances that were withdrawn is clear in paragraphs 5.7 and 5.8 of its report. Paragraph 5.7 states:
"On 19 October 2005, the day the British and Irish Governments published our last report, the Secretary of State announced that he had decided to restore Sinn Féin's Assembly allowances with effect from 1 November and that he would in due course recommend to the House of Commons that it lift the suspension of the allowances of Sinn Féin MPs. This he did on 26 January 2006 and the House of Commons is due to debate it on 8 February."
Paragraph 5.8 goes on to saythis is the crucial point
"In the circumstances we have described in this report we do not believe that financial measures against Sinn Féin of the kind referred to above should continue."
There has been some debate about whether we are discussing Assembly allowances or parliamentary allowances as they relate to this Chamber. The report makes it clear that we are discussing the latter. There can be no debate about that; there is nothing ambiguous or equivocal about what the report says.
That leads those of us who regard the IMC as a reliable, independent arbiter on these matters to conclude that it advises us to support the Government's motion to reinstate financial support for Sinn Fein Members.
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