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Lady Hermon: Let me make myself absolutely clear. I am speaking not only as the Member for North Down but as the wife of a former Chief Constable. There are 302 dead police officers—members of the RUC—and I do not want there to be another. It is essential that Sinn Fein realises that it has to sign up to
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policing, but its difficulty is that every time a deadline is set, it is moved by the Government. If they cannot trust the other parties to keep to their side of the bargain, why did they play their last card? There will be an Irish general election in the springtime. Having listened carefully to every DUP Member, I do not have a clear idea of the time scale that is required to meet the 26 March deadline. According to one Member it is one thing and according to another it is a different thing. Will the hon. Gentleman give me a clear line?

Sammy Wilson: I am still not clear whether the hon. Lady thinks that Sinn Fein can be in government without supporting the police or that the deadline is an important requirement. If she thinks that it is an important requirement, she has reached our position, whereby meeting the conditions is the essential requirement. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) made it clear that we do not want to engage in deadlines involving dates—we want to ensure that there are conditions that are met. How quickly they are met will depend on Sinn Fein. If it holds its Ard Fheis—

Lembit Öpik: I am now clear about where DUP Members stand: the debate has been helpful in clarifying that. The one thing that I am not clear about is what, explicitly, the conditions are. It is reasonable for us to ask DUP Members to be absolutely clear about the conditions that they want Sinn Fein to meet in order to participate. I must press the hon. Gentleman to indicate for how long they think that Sinn Fein needs to be actively involved in policing before it is sufficient for them to regard Sinn Fein as having met the conditions.

Sammy Wilson: How quickly the conditions are met will depend on the enthusiasm with which Sinn Fein embraces the democratic process. If it moves quickly in dismantling its terrorist structures and in encouraging people in the nationalist community who support the police, if its members give strong support to the police, and if, when incidents happen, it encourages the public to help the police to catch the criminals, the period of building confidence in the fact that there has been a genuine change will be much shorter than if it is done in its usual begrudging way. The time that is required to move forward will depend on how quickly Sinn Fein acts on its words. I cannot have any control over that, the Secretary of State cannot have any control over it, and this House cannot have any control over it, but Sinn Fein has control over it. That is why setting arbitrary deadlines when we do not know how or when Sinn Fein is likely to act creates an impossible situation.

For far too long, people in Northern Ireland have felt that what has happened, and what has been demanded of them, has been set by other people’s agendas. Many people feel at present that the deadline of 26 March—the springtime—has been set not because the Secretary of State has made a judgment that that is the time required for Sinn Fein to take the first step and then move towards showing its acceptance of policing, but because it is an important date for the Secretary of State, who has an agenda and a timetable that he has to work towards. There are important elections and important positions to be
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sought in the Labour party. Some of the cynicism about dates in Northern Ireland has been driven by the belief that the agenda and the timetable have more to do with the political advancement of the Secretary of State or the political legacy of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Hain: I have a great deal of time for the hon. Gentleman, but he really should not debase his argument with such clap-trap.

Sammy Wilson: Well, the Secretary of State’s reaction tells me more than his denial did. All that I am saying is that the issue is important for our party, because we promised that we would seek to deliver a devolution that was fair and workable. That is what we want, and we do not really care whether that will mean continuing beyond 26 March, or coming back on the matter before 26 March. We want to make sure that we do not have devolution that stumbles and starts, and that falls and gets up again. That did not do the people of Northern Ireland any good in the past, and it will not do them good in future. That is why the amendment is important.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Last week, I spoke to someone who told me that some 18 or 19 deadlines have been set in the Province, and all of them have been missed, so 26 March and the other deadlines will not make an awful lot of difference. The point is not deadlines, but what Sinn Fein-IRA will deliver. The word “trust” has been bandied about a bit by my colleagues today, and I assure the Secretary of State that the Ulster people from both sectors of the community, and the democratic, elected Members and others, do not trust Sinn Fein-IRA. If we look at the history of successive Governments, we see that Sinn Fein-IRA have taken them for a ride time and again. I believe that this time will be no different.

In the past few days I have been on a tour of south Armagh, and I visited police stations. I was shown seven or eight illegal fuel operations, but I learned today that some of them may now have been seized and closed. I visited a farmer who, two weeks prior to my visit— [Interruption.] No, it was not “Slab” Murphy’s farm; I had an invitation to that farm, but I did not take it. Two weeks prior to my visit to the farm, two men with rifles arrived, in the dark of night, to kill that individual, who is a former member of the security forces. Of course, the Government will tell us that many such incidents are down to the so-called dissidents, but we all know that nothing happens within so-called dissident organisations without the say-so of those in the structures, or the authorities, of the Provisional IRA.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned a terrible tragedy in which two people were burnt to death in south Armagh. The young lady was my constituent, and I know the family well. She had a very large funeral. Three weeks ago, she was ordained as a youth worker in her local church. Republicans broke into her house and gave her such a beating with a claw-hammer that she could hardly stand, and then they set both people alight. I am sure that no Member of this House would get over it if such
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an incident happened to one of their family. She was 21 years of age—a child—and thugs, pure scum, came into her home, hit her with a claw-hammer and practically burnt her alive.

Rev. Ian Paisley: It should be put on record that the lady came from an outstanding family of devout Protestant churchgoers, who are held in the highest esteem. The vastness of the crowd at the funeral testified to that. There is bitter hatred against that family because of their religion.

8.45 pm

David Simpson: I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend says. She came from an upstanding family.

I must say to the Secretary of State that I have no faith whatever that Sinn Fein-IRA will follow the democratic line on policing and the rule of law. I sit on the local district policing partnership in my council area, and recently the district commander gave us a report. He told us plainly and clearly that, in the past two weeks, nationalist community organisations had withdrawn from contact with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. They had started to engage with the community police, but have now withdrawn their support from the PSNI. There have been shootings at police stations and bombs in Londonderry and in my own constituency. That is all put down to the dissidents, but as the Secretary of State well knows, nothing happens without the authority of the Provisional IRA. No trust is felt by the Unionist community, and if the deadline needs to be changed, it should be changed, so that we can deliver proper democracy and devolution in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) mentioned his cousin, and all of us in the Democratic Unionist party can relate to such situations involving family members. I have said it before in the House, and I do not intend to repeat the detail, but I lost four members of my family. I must tell the Secretary of State that it is difficult to go forward on devolution knowing that an individual mentioned in the House today was responsible for giving the orders to assassinate them; that is a fact of life.

We must resolve the policing issue. We cannot fudge it or run away from it, and any party that does not sign up to policing and the rule of law has no place in the government of Northern Ireland. We need a time frame in which it can be proved that the people concerned are coming up to the mark. Of course, there are other issues, too, such as sanctions, which have been mentioned today. We have talked about criminality and the structures of the Provisional IRA, too. If Sinn Fein-IRA are to become so-called democrats, and if they are to come to Stormont as devolutionists, why would they want to hold on to terrorist structures? All of us will have our opinion on that, but I assure the Secretary of State that the people of Northern Ireland will accept no less than the changes we have mentioned, and nor will our party.

Dr. McCrea: I wish to say a few words on an issue that appears to be precious to the Secretary of State and the Government.

Sinn Fein Members do not come to the House, but no doubt they will listen carefully to our debate, and
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some people will be quick to tell them about it. However, our debate provides an opportunity for everyone, including the Government, to take a reality check. We need a good dose of reality. When David Trimble led the Ulster Unionists the people of Ulster were served fudge every day until it came out of their ears and they were sick to the teeth of it. Issues were not nailed down, so the people of Northern Ireland are not willing to take anything on trust, whether from the Government or from Sinn Fein. By their deeds and actions shall ye know them.

The Secretary of State cannot tell us when a declaration has to be made about the security forces, and he cannot tell us when he expects the process to start—but we can do so. In the words of the hymn:

They are sinking fast. I understand where the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) was coming from, but if a meeting was held and that declaration was made for the election on 7 March, would that be suitable? Without such a declaration, the democrats would have to stand on people’s doorsteps and say, “Trust Sinn Fein”. A credible period is required, and if anyone in the House thinks that a declaration made at the end of February or March will wash with democrats, they are living up a gum tree. They had better come down to reality—that is the reality check that I was talking about.

The issues are extremely clear, but the people of Northern Ireland must be convinced. The Unionist population has been slaughtered by IRA scum, so they will not take anything on trust. They will not accept verbiage—it is usually garbage—from the sources of republicanism, and they look carefully at action. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) asked what the DUP would do. We have set out a list of things and we have tried to be open and honest. The Secretary of State knows that confidence-building measures must be nailed down. We have been honest and open with the Government; we are not playing games with anyone. The DUP is playing a straight bat and unless those measures are nailed down, 26 March is outside the field.

Mr. Hain: Anyone from Parliament, Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK watching our debate will be filled with bubbling enthusiasm for the prospect that the St. Andrews agreement will be implemented. The right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) asked where the date of 24 November for nominations had come from. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, it appears in paragraph 10 of the St. Andrews agreement, to which all the parties signed up and which is the reason for proceeding with the legislation. I was asked where the date of 26 March came from. It, too, appeared in paragraph 10 and elsewhere in the St. Andrews agreement.

This has been a sobering debate for the whole process. The Government and I introduced the legislation in good faith, after all the parties, including the DUP and Sinn Fein, signed up to the St. Andrews agreement. I am not suggesting that they signed up to every comma and full stop, but they signed up to the broad thrust or architecture. Those dates were included
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in the agreement and they were endorsed by all the parties. If there is any attempt to back off from those dates or from the agreement, the rationale—this is important—behind the St. Andrews agreement falls. We could spend a great deal of time—indeed, we spent much of the last month with Sinn Fein and the DUP, who were winding each other up—heading for failure. I shall explain that in detail later.

The hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and for Foyle asked whether the deadline is real. Yes, it is emphatically real, not just because it appears in the legislation, where clear dates are set for restoration and for an election, but for another reason. There is no prospect at all of me, as Secretary of State, or the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), or any of the ministerial team going to the business managers of the House and saying that we would like another emergency Northern Ireland Bill in the next few weeks or months because someone feels that they cannot quite deliver on the St. Andrews agreement that they signed up to. There is no chance at all of our doing that. Nor would there be a chance of any of the Northern Ireland parties being believed by Parliament if, after signing up to St. Andrews, we then came back with a fresh piece of legislation—a different position.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) insisted that nobody could force or dragoon the DUP into restoration, and I agree with him. I cannot force or dragoon the DUP into restoration, and I would never try to do so; nor would anyone who was sensible or serious about this matter. I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman suggested that the devolution of policing and justice would probably not occur in his political lifetime. That point has also been made by other members of the DUP. It is absolutely right for members of any party to demand of Sinn Fein a credible and sustainable attitude to policing. However, it does not help at all for people to suggest that such things might never happen in their political lifetime, if ever, and I will explain why. This is about building mutual confidence and trust, and they will not be built by statements such as those—I must be absolutely blunt about that.

The amendments are designed to achieve the one aim of diluting the deadline for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If we agreed to that, we would be back on the same old merry-go-round: maybe sometime, maybe never, maybe we will get to March, or maybe it will be October next year, then when we get to October it may be the following April, then we will get to the following April and it will be the following October. This would go on and on and on. The problem with that would be that nobody would believe it any more. Judging by the contributions that have been made tonight, that is the problem that the DUP finds itself in. That is the predicament that we should be in if we agreed to the amendments.

The deadline of 26 March 2007 is absolutely critical. It was a key feature of the St. Andrews agreement, as enshrined in the Bill. We would not have reached the St. Andrews agreement without that deadline being made absolutely clear. Some hon. Members have already pointed to previous deadlines and wondered,
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perhaps with some degree of cynicism, why this one would be any different. I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that the 26 March will see the end of current attempts to achieve restoration. Whether that means devolution or dissolution after that date is the choice of the Northern Ireland parties and the Northern Ireland people.

I have been asked a lot of questions along the lines of, “If this happens, what about that?” and “If an ard fheis is not called by this or that week, what will happen?” I have been asked such questions by the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). In my position as Secretary of State, it is neither sensible nor in the interests of the process to answer “what if” questions. However, it is right to expect me to say—as I have already said—that it is important that Sinn Fein calls an ard fheis sooner rather than later. It has committed itself to doing that. It has already called an ard chomhairle, and it is committed to calling another. What matters now is that all the parties seek to build confidence and trust in each other, and that does not involve making the kind of statements about devolution perhaps not happening in someone’s political lifetime, if ever. That does not build mutual trust or confidence at all.

Lembit Öpik: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hain: I must finish these points before I take any interventions.

So, 26 March will represent the end of the current process one way or the other. Quite simply, there is nothing more that the Government can do. There are no issues left to be resolved that cannot be resolved in the next four months or so. If we cannot achieve devolution on 26 March after the efforts of so many people on all sides leading up to St. Andrews, at St. Andrews and subsequently, it would simply make no sense to move on. We would need to find other ways of advancing the interests of Northern Ireland, because all the remaining avenues to achieving restoration will have been exhausted by then.

9 pm

Lembit Öpik: I stress that I do not condemn the Government’s approach to the deadlines. I can see exactly why this has happened. The important point that has emerged from tonight’s debate is one that any analyst could have seen coming. I refer to the clash between a deadline-led and a condition-led process.

Does the Secretary of State accept that all we have been given tonight is an explicit outline of the challenge, which is to come to terms with the conditions required by the DUP for progress at the same time as coming to terms with the deadlines that the Government understandably want to fulfil? If that is the case, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the real challenge between now and the beginning of March is to find a way of squaring the circle?

Mr. Hain: Of course, and we will continue to seek to do so.

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Mark Durkan: The Secretary of State rightly drew attention to the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and, indeed, other DUP Members, about there being no devolution of justice and policing in a political lifetime. Is not the problem the fact that DUP Members feel they can make such remarks with impunity because they already carry in their pockets a triple lock, courtesy of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006? Does the Secretary of State agree that given DUP Members’ comments about deadlines tonight, he was right to listen to representations from the likes of us about the need for a sunset clause to ensure that the changes the Bill will make in the operation of the institutions will fall if people let the deadline fall?

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I shall leave the Secretary of State to decide for himself which of those two interventions to respond to.

Mr. Hain: I did respond briefly to the intervention by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)—very briefly, because, with all due respect, I did not think I needed to add any more. However, I agree emphatically with my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle—the hon. Member for Foyle—well, both actually. I think that he was right to press his point. If this process ends, the institutional changes for which the DUP, in particular, has pressed will collapse as well. They will disappear.

There are tough choices for everyone. It is not about bullying or blackmailing; it is about the time when minds must be made up. I am not directly accountable, I am not elected, but I do not believe from what they have told me day in, day out that the people of Northern Ireland will allow the show to go on for ever. Notwithstanding some of the points that have been made tonight, particularly by DUP Members, I prefer the wise comments that were made on the day when the Royal Irish Regiment was commemorated and celebrated in Belfast in the presence of the Queen.

Mr. Donaldson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hain: I want to finish this point.

On that day, I was sharing lunch with a former sergeant from the Ulster Defence Regiment. He described in graphic detail how he had survived two murder attempts by the IRA. He had managed to get away, and he described his experiences in breathtaking detail. But he also said to me, “Do not allow this process to go on for ever. I may not like the idea of Unionists sharing power with Sinn Fein, but I think it is time to do it, because they have a mandate. It is time to move forward on the basis that has been decided.” I hope that the amendments will not be pressed, or that, if they are, they will be defeated.

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