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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): We shall support the Bill. If there is a Division this evening, it is my intention to vote with the Government on Second Reading. We can explore tomorrow, I hope, the detailed questions that we may have. The Secretary of State will know from speeches that I have made on other occasions in the House that we have had criticisms of the way the Government have handled aspects of the political process in Northern Ireland over recent years. However, I believe that this is one of those occasions when the Opposition should give the Government the benefit of the doubt, although I think—I hope that I am wrong—that they are being optimistic in setting such a tight deadline for the forthcoming negotiations between the parties and the two Governments. We very much hope that the Government's initiative succeeds.

It is the belief of my party that it is in the interests of everybody in Northern Ireland that devolution should be restored and we accept, too, that that has to be done on the basis of power sharing. We cannot go back to a time in which 45 per cent. of the population was permanently and irrevocably shut out from any say in the government of Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon: How is it that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition can support a Bill that gives the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland such an enormous amount of increased executive power, including the power to amend any Act of Parliament whatever?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Lady has put her finger on one of the aspects that I hope the House will probe in detail in the debates that we will have tomorrow. One of the points on which I will then seek clarification from the Minister of State is whether the enabling powers to which the hon. Lady has just referred will be carefully circumscribed by reference to the purposes of this particular Bill or whether they could, as she suggests, have a wider application than the House would wish to provide.

I can understand why the Government have chosen the type of language that they have, but I am a little critical of their approach to the debate on the Bill. It is presented too much as if there were a neat symmetry between republicans and Unionists. The Secretary of State was right when he said at the beginning of his speech that what is stopping devolution happening is the brute fact that the majority of the Unionist community—and, for that matter, many nationalists—in Northern Ireland do not yet feel able to trust Sinn Fein and the IRA when they say that they have put terrorism permanently behind them.

I would have greater sympathy with the Secretary of State's later argument—that the different political parties in Northern Ireland should, in effect, shape up,
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come together and reach an agreement—if that involved only the sort of sincere yet profound differences that exist between his party and mine, for example, or between the Unionist parties and the SDLP. Such differences come down to questions about how policy should be decided in an agreed constitutional, democratic and peaceful context. However, the reality is different: the Unionist community is being asked to engage with, trust and go into government alongside members of a political movement that for decades has been dedicated to the destruction of the political entity that is Northern Ireland. Moreover, that movement has tried to change the constitutional status through violence and, at times, acts of indiscriminate slaughter rather than through the ballot box. We are being asked to make that leap of faith at a time when the republican movement is still led by men who in the past have authorised or taken part in acts of violence that have caused grievous loss of life and injury among people from all communities and on both sides of the water.

The process of coming to terms with engaging with members of Sinn Fein has been difficult enough for my party, as we have lost friends and colleagues to terrorism. Some of my colleagues in the House of Lords and elsewhere in the Conservative party will bear the physical and mental scars for the rest of their lives. Others of my friends, including a fair number of current Members of this House, have had to live for months or years with the knowledge that they and perhaps their families were on an IRA list, and with the expectation that they could be threatened or attacked at any time.

I can recall conversations with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and with Lord Mawhinney in which they described how peculiar it was for them, as Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, to sit down to negotiate with men who they knew for certain had been plotting their murder only a few months previously. I am not making a special plea on behalf of my party but, if members of the Conservative party have reason to be wary and cautious, that must be doubly and trebly the case for members of the Unionist parties. All hon. Members, irrespective of party allegiance, must understand how much we ask of our Unionist colleagues when we argue that a political agreement has to include Sinn Fein.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): My hon. Friend has described, movingly and poignantly, the difficulties faced by his party and the rest of us. Although it is exceptionally difficult for many of us to reconcile ourselves with what has been done in the past, our concern is that there may be plans for similar things to happen again, in both the present and the future. That is what we require certainty about.

Mr. Lidington: I welcome that intervention, because the hon. Gentleman demonstrates that the DUP is prepared to look again at Sinn Fein's credentials. Without ever forgetting the grievous wrongs carried out by terrorists in the past, Unionism's political leaders are looking to the future and hoping for the profound change in republicans' intentions and motivations for which we all yearn.

The Secretary of State and the IMC today have given us some evidence that we have real cause for hope, but I am not surprised that Unionists sometimes look
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askance at such things. We must remember that we are asking our colleagues in Northern Ireland to share power with Sinn Fein at a time when every political party in the Irish Republic still says that they are unfit to take part in a coalition in Dublin.

The Provisional IRA has denied that it has taken part in or authorised recent acts of criminality. We hope that we can trust those words, but we cannot forget that we heard comparable denials after the Enniskillen bombing, the murder of Garda officer Jerry McCabe and numerous other terrorist incidents. It is difficult to drive those memories out of our minds.

Sir Patrick Cormack: My hon. Friend is making a typically thoughtful and excellent speech, and he has touched on the refusal by parties in the Republic to work with Sinn Fein. However, is it not worth putting it on the record that that party, as well as having a questionable past and present, also has political principles that are inimical to anyone who sits in this House of Commons?

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right. We are looking for more than words: we need evidence that will allow us to believe that Sinn Fein is genuinely and permanently committed to achieving Irish unity exclusively through democratic politics rather than violence or intimidation. I disagree with that objective profoundly, but it is one that is perfectly legitimate for any politician in these islands.

In our debates on these matters, and in exchanges in recent months at Northern Ireland questions, we have talked about the steps that the republican movement has taken in the past few years. However, we should not neglect to acknowledge the important moves that Unionism has also made, and I especially welcome what the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has said in two recent speeches. In New York on 6 April and in Killarney the other day, the hon. Gentleman made clear his party's commitment to work for a just and enduring settlement. In Killarney, he said that, although Unionists would oppose those who wished to press for a united Ireland with every democratic and peaceful means at their disposal, he respected the right of democrats who sought that objective to pursue their political ideals as long as they did so through the ballot box and not through violence.

I hope that all hon. Members share that vision—that, in the end, we will find a way to a political settlement that would allow, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said,

However, if we are to approach that objective, we need clear and firm evidence that republicans' commitment to democracy is neither tactical nor another lull in the armed struggle such as occurred in the 1950s. We need evidence that it is a permanent and irreversible break from the history of terrorism and criminality.

As the Secretary of State said in his speech, today's report from the IMC undoubtedly gives real cause for hope. It does, in my view, indicate important further steps by the republican movement away from violence
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and crime and towards exclusively democratic politics. To my mind, one of the most important conclusions reached by the IMC was that which it published in paragraph 2.15 of its report, when it concluded:

Evidence of that type, that suggests that we are moving away from the situation where, in the words of the Taoiseach, the IRA was able to turn violence on and off like a tap, should be warmly welcomed.

I have sometimes been criticised for focusing to a huge extent on republicans. I do not apologise for doing that because the republicans, unlike the parties linked to the loyalist paramilitary groups, will have Ministers—indeed, a significant number of Ministers—in any reconstituted Executive, but it is fair to say that we do need to acknowledge that the continued existence and activity of loyalist gangs not only gives the IRA a fig leaf for remaining organised but is the cause of genuine fear amongst the Roman Catholic and nationalist people of Northern Ireland.

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