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Mr. Hain: I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend about the role played by the trade union movement, and the role that it continues to play in bridging the divide between the communities, pressing ahead with a policy of social justice across the divide and making sure that the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, especially the employees of Northern Ireland, are always to the fore. He is
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absolutely right, and his own trade union—Unison—has done a tremendous job, and continues to do so.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I hope that the Secretary of State does not leave out the people who keep the shops going when they are bombed and destroyed, and who do not shut down—“Business as usual tomorrow”. Those people kept Ulster sane in that time of terrible trial.

Mr. Hain: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of heroes and heroines over the generations who have stood for decency and justice. I singled out the trade union movement for the remarkable role that it has played, as within its ranks there are people of widely divergent views, from republicans to loyalists, working together for the common good.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May I place on record my appreciation for the work that my right hon. Friend has done in bringing about what is without doubt an historic achievement? In today’s press, we saw the picture to which he referred of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), who were described in the Irish Independent as the “darling buddies of May”. One hopes that that can continue.

Mr. Hain: I think that I will leave that description to the newspapers, with my hon. Friend’s assistance. However, I thank him for what he said, and I thank everyone for the way in which they have worked together on the process, particularly my ministerial team: my deputy, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State; the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who is responsible for security; the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who is responsible for education; and, of course, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), who doubles up as the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I do not want this to sound like a love-in, but the Secretary of State has been described during this process as “Hain the pain”. Has the pain been worth the gain?

Mr. Hain: I have to say yes. In a republican area of Belfast there is graffiti saying “Hain is insane”. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raises his thumb to that. In a loyalist area of Belfast, there is graffiti saying “Sinn Hain”, so obviously there is universal support for my work as Secretary of State, just as there is among Government Back Benchers.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): It was great to see the politicians come together yesterday, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that the most important thing in Northern Ireland is bringing the communities together?

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Mr. Hain: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. There have been signs of progress in that direction for a number of years, especially over the past nine years. For example, late last year I opened the first integrated housing estate, a social housing project near Enniskillen. That is a sign of progress and there are many others.

One of the achievements of our Labour Government of which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should justly be most proud is the way in which we have brought peace, stability and progress to Northern Ireland. The work he has done with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has been quite simply remarkable. We have been backed up by some of the most dedicated and outstanding civil servants I have ever worked with, from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, to my own staff in the Northern Ireland Office.

I also want to pay tribute to the political parties in Northern Ireland. I have not always seen eye to eye with them and I have not always agreed with their analysis, but I have never doubted their commitment to work tirelessly for the people they represent. Now they have the opportunity to discharge their responsibilities to their voters, and to do so in their own way. That is as it should be, and to hasten that day I commend the Bill to the House, signifying as it does the triumph of peace over conflict.

4.5 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): On the Conservative Benches we welcome the Bill and it will have our support this afternoon. The Government’s decision for a further delay of just a few weeks was a sensible and pragmatic response to the dramatic events of the past couple of days.

Like the Secretary of State, I congratulate the leaders of all the Northern Ireland parties on a major step forward towards the longed-for enduring political settlement for Northern Ireland. I want in particular to pay tribute to the generous words spoken by the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) during his momentous joint press and public statement yesterday. As the Secretary of State said, yesterday’s agreement was the fruit of many years of work by officials and Ministers of various Governments both in this country and the Republic of Ireland, and in the United States of America under successive Administrations.

Today, it is right that I particularly acknowledge from the Conservative Benches the commitment that the Prime Minister has made. He took forward the process begun by John Major and he has invested unprecedented amounts of both time and energy in the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland. It is no great secret that there have been occasions when we disagreed with the Prime Minister, and even with the Secretary of State—sometimes vehemently—about particular decisions that they had taken. When the history books are written we shall find out who was right. One might say that the earthly reputations of all of us as politicians are, in the last resort, in the hands of history, but it is true to say that without the Prime Minister’s unremitting personal commitment the political process in Northern Ireland would not be within sight of the success that we can see today.

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However, although this is an occasion for hope, optimism and looking forward, it is not yet a moment when we can indulge in euphoria, and least of all in complacency. This morning, I noted that a number of newspaper commentators made a comparison between the events at Stormont yesterday morning and the famous meeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House—but we know now that the hopes that Prime Minister Rabin and President Arafat held then lie in ashes. Although we should unite in welcoming what was achieved yesterday, we must be unflinching in facing up to the huge problems that still confront Northern Ireland and stand in the way of reconciliation.

On policing, there is no doubt that Sinn Fein’s belated and long-overdue decision to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the courts made an agreement yesterday possible, but we will continue to look for demonstrable evidence that that declaration of support is indeed bearing fruit locally. Bogus distinctions between so-called civic and so-called political policing will undermine the credibility on this issue that the Sinn Fein leadership seeks to achieve. It is easier to decommission guns than criminal livelihoods. Support from all the political parties in Northern Ireland is essential if Northern Ireland is finally to be rid of the scourge of organised crime and particularly that run by paramilitary gangs.

Mr. Hain: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. In that respect, I am encouraged by a whole series of initiatives that the Sinn Fein leadership has taken. Following representations by the right hon. Member for North Antrim, after an attack on Councillor Brush, a former Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, the local Sinn Fein Member Michelle Gildernew said that she would encourage anyone with any information on the matter to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. That is further progress of the kind we need to see.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Like him, I am encouraged by those demonstrations of support. The more of that we see, the better the chance of moving beyond the appalling divisions and violence of the past towards a genuinely shared future in Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that his colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), today published a pamphlet—I take it that it is a policy statement from the Tory party—on how to increase confidence in politicians and how to encourage people to vote. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the greatest casualties yesterday was trust in the entire Northern Ireland ministerial team, who gave undertakings and commitments in the House that there would be no emergency legislation to break through the 26 March deadline?

Mr. Lidington: Unlike the hon. Lady, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading the report by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). It is a treat that I shall look forward to. I can reassure her on one point: it is not a formal policy statement on behalf of my party; it is a report from the
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vigorous policy commission on the revival of democracy, which my right hon. and learned Friend heads.

In response to the substance of what the hon. Lady said, we expressed doubts about the deadline at the time. To be honest, I suspect—I claim no scientific knowledge—that the general feeling in Northern Ireland will be one of relief at what was achieved yesterday and that there will be a desire to move forward from arguments about deadlines in the House to practical arguments about policies that really matter to people living in Belfast, Bangor and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Democratic Unionist party has been inundated with messages of support from right across Northern Ireland—from every constituency, including that of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)? People who are relieved and delighted by what has happened are supporting what we have done. We have had offers of investment from right across the globe, from people who want to have a stake in the future of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Lidington: I suspect that the calls to the DUP’s headquarters are probably a reflection not just of their supporters—who, it has been clearly demonstrated, support what the right hon. Member for North Antrim did yesterday—but of the longing of people in Northern Ireland, whether nationalist or Unionist, to move away from the abnormal situation that we have been in for decades towards what everybody in England, Scotland and Wales would consider to be normal political debate.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) appears to be so hung up on a date that she would prefer academic selection to have been done away with and for bills for water charging to drop on the mat of each constituent throughout the Province?

Mr. Lidington: I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not intervene in that particular battle on the Unionist Benches.

All Northern Ireland parties have a responsibility to show that they are there for all the people of Northern Ireland, not just one community or another. One of the most hopeful signs in yesterday’s public statements was the clear commitment by the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the leader of Sinn Fein to work on behalf of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hogg: I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says about the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland parties. May I put to him a point that I made to the Secretary of State? It would be a very good thing if Sinn Fein Members were to take their seats in this place. If there are artificial barriers that stop them, such as the Oath, would we not be wise to see whether we could take reasonable steps to make it easier for them to sit here?

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Mr. Lidington: I would be pleased if Sinn Fein Members dropped their policy of abstention. When I made that point to leading members of Sinn Fein, they told me that it is not the Oath that stops Sinn Fein Members from taking their seats, but their belief that this Parliament should have no say in governing any part of the island of Ireland. Until they are prepared to move on from that firm and regrettable ideological position, the sort of proposal that my right hon. and learned Friend makes would be a largely academic exercise.

The sad truth about the situation in Northern Ireland today is that despite all the encouraging signs of movement towards political normality, the so-called peace lines—the high metal fences that divide residential estates in north and west Belfast—are higher and stretch longer today than they did before the IRA ceasefires of the mid-1990s. It is when those divisions start to heal and both the physical and psychological barriers between communities start to come down that we can truly believe that the dreadful conflict that scarred the history of Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century has come to an end. The Bill marks an important milestone along that slow and difficult road.

4.18 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): This is a good day for the House, a good day for our United Kingdom and a good day for the whole of the people of Ireland, whether north or south, for it is a day when there has risen at last in the darkness a star of hope. However, it is only a star of hope, and we must remember that. We are not near across the river, and we have some very hard things to do and great sacrifices to make in order that this start will not be like many other starts. I was accused of not shaking hands with the leader of the Sinn Feiners and I said, “Why should I?” All the people who shook hands with him are gone—do you want me to go, too? I have no intention of going.

We must face up to the fact that the Democratic Unionist party and I are in a strange position today, because we seldom got any credit for what we stood for and what we did. When the first agreement was signed, I remember that they celebrated with songs, handshakes, dancing—and kicking me, for I happened to be there. I was well kicked by them all and cursed as well. Then the Secretary of State at the time, Mo Mowlam, got me wrongly arrested, and the Assistant Chief Constable had to come and get me out. I have been through all that, but people who know me will realise that I am not saying that just to bring back the old bitternesses. Let us get the old bitternesses away. As I said to the leader of Sinn Fein, it is not a love-in but a work-in that we are engaged in, and when the people start to work for the things that they need, we will find a cure for some of the terrible problems that are still there; that is when we will get those bitternesses away.

I agree fully with the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that many things are not there yet. I trust that they will be put in place, and that we will have full deliverance on policing. I might add that at the meeting, we raised not only the matter of which the House has been informed by the Secretary of State, but a matter concerning a man from Sinn Fein’s own
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district in Belfast, Mr. McCartney. We raised that issue again, and we said that we felt that it would be a great opportunity for Sinn Fein to do something about Mr McCartney’s death. We got a promise that something would be done, and we look forward to something being done.

I must say that the Secretary of State really brought himself to feel the cane on the matter of the date of 26 March. He was belligerent with us all; he warned us and told us. I said to him, “You can argue with Ulster people, and you can present your arguments strongly. You can even be stern with them, but if you bully them, you’ll get nowhere.” He did not believe me, but he believes me now; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I do not think that we should rub that in. [Laughter.] Perhaps I have done enough rubbing already. All I am saying is that I am glad that Ulster people, whether they be Sinn Feiners or Unionists, will, at the end of the day, have some say in how they are governed. When that is established, this whole movement will take a leap forward.

I thank the House for what has been said. I trust that it will realise that we do not have a magic wand, and that there will be hard work, difficulties, fights, tough talking and rough riding, but we should keep before us what I said yesterday—that after all, all the elected representatives of Northern Ireland have an onus of responsibility to all the people. I am not here today to say that I will represent Unionists; I am here to say that I want to see achieved whatever is good for the people of the whole of Northern Ireland.

4.23 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Having listened to the contribution of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), I think that I can speak for the House when I say that I feel the hand of Paisley on my shoulder, not least because he is sitting right behind me. I have covered Northern Ireland issues for the Liberal Democrats for 10 years now, but I have lived with Northern Ireland politics for 40 years. I remember the feeling of fear and, frankly, hopelessness of the 1970s, when politics in the Province was measured more in lives lost than votes won. Even as a teenager, the hate that I observed seemed as endemic as the violence—and back then, it probably was.

What has changed is that there seems to be a willingness to give peace a chance, and to turn a clichéd but hopeful slogan into a fledgling political partnership, even though we know that partnership needs real proof of good faith to become more than just an act of provisional trust. I congratulate the Government for getting as close as they have done. I have known the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for many years, and I regard the measures that we are discussing as his greatest political achievement. I share his vision for a stable and sustainable Stormont Assembly and a shared future for the people of Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman has the right to feel a sense of gratification that his endeavours have helped to achieve it.

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