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Lidington: We will oppose amnesty for 'on-the-run' terrorists

Speech at CHAMP fringe meeting at Conservative Party Conference

"Today's meeting takes place against the backdrop of two important events.

First, we had the IRA statement of 28 July in which, the Provisionals ordered their "volunteers" to dump their weapons and formally declared an end to its "armed campaign".

Then, in September, we had General de Chastelain's statement that the IRA had decommissioned its arsenal and that its guns and explosives had been put beyond use.

Both developments are unquestionably welcome. They mark significant further steps in the transition of the republican movement from terrorism to democratic politics.

I want to see Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom. But I have to accept that more than two-fifths of people living in Northern Ireland regard themselves as Irish rather than British and vote for politicians who campaign for a united Ireland.

The Conservative Party fully accepts the right of Nationalists and Republicans to express their Irish identity and to campaign for Irish unity. But we insist that any political movement that wants to share in government should seek its objectives only by democratic and peaceful means and must respect the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide freely to remain part of the United Kingdom. Political legitimacy comes not from the armalite, nor from protection rackets or bank robberies but from the ballot box and the ballot box alone.

It is not going to be easy to overcome the legacy of thirty years of a savage terrorist campaign. In our Party we still remember Airey Neave, Ian Gow, Tony Berry and the others killed and maimed at Brighton in 1984. In Northern Ireland, there are nearly 2,000 unsolved murders from the Troubles; two thousand families and networks of friends for whom there has been no closure, no chance to move on.

Against that background is it surprising that unionists are hardly falling over themselves to hail the latest moves by republicans? They rightly feel an aversion to rewarding people for ending a campaign that should never have started, and destroying weapons they should never have used in the first place.

Whatever injustices republicans might have felt in the past, and whatever grievances they might have had, none of them ever justified the taking of a single life.

Equally, whatever sense of disillusion loyalist communities might feel today, none of that can ever justify sectarian attacks on Catholics, nor the sickening spectacle we saw last month of men bragging about their loyalty to the United Kingdom and then hurling rocks at United Kingdom police officers.

There is no place in a modern, democratic Northern Ireland for paramilitaries, whether republican or loyalist.

But of course while political parties linked to the UDA and UVF hold just a handful of elected positions, Sinn Fein's electoral support means that it would be entitled to ministerial posts in a power-sharing government. That is why the focus of attention is on Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA.

In declaring an end to the "armed campaign", the IRA statement of 28 July contained language that went beyond what we have heard before. Yet on the key issue of criminality, the statement was deliberately vague. The IRA remains intact (something that Gerry Adams confirmed only a few days ago) and there was no mention of policing.

I argued at the time that we should judge republicans by their actions, not just their statements, and that three clear steps were needed.

The first of these was decommissioning. Make no mistake. I welcome the statements by General de Chastelain, backed by the two clergymen.

I regret that it didn't happen five and a half years ago, in line with the timetable set out in the 1998 Agreement. Then, it might have actually gone some way to build unionist confidence in the political progress.

But, I am prepared to accept that a substantial amount of decommissioning has taken place, covering most - if not all - of the IRA's arsenal. I believe the various loyalist organisations should follow suit.

But while decommissioning is important, two further elements are needed.

First, people in Northern Ireland need to see clear evidence that all forms of paramilitary and other criminal activities - including intimidation, shootings, beatings, robberies, smuggling, money-laundering and exiling people from their homes - have ended for good and that the IRA has ceased to exist as an organised paramilitary force. We shall be looking to the IMC and others for evidence that the move from paramilitarism to peaceful politics is genuine, permanent and irreversible.

Second, we expect republicans to accept the legitimacy of the police and criminal justice systems, North and South, and encourage full co-operation with them. I recognise that this would require an important ideological change from the republican movement, but I do not see how it can be right to have people serving as ministers in Belfast - or for that matter in Dublin - if they refuse to support the police and the courts.

These two further elements are, I believe, essential if we are to contemplate any form of devolved government that includes Sinn Fein ministers.

Let me be very clear. Sinn Fein has a democratic mandate. We accept that. It is legitimate. We cannot wish it away. But all parties that want to participate fully in a democratic, devolved government have to play by the same democratic rules. We ask nothing of Sinn Fein that we do not expect of every democratic political party in every part of these islands.

And one final message to the Government.

We value a bi-partisan approach to Northern Ireland affairs. This issue is not one for partisan point-scoring. We continue to support your endeavours to achieve a comprehensive settlement - though the very clear preference of the Conservative Party is a settlement that sees Northern Ireland firmly anchored within the United Kingdom.

But bi-partisanship does not amount to a blank cheque. When we think you are wrong, we have a duty to say so and, if appropriate, to vote against you. Mistakes like the early release of all terrorist prisoners without decommissioning, or the premature concessions made on security following July's IRA statement, were wrong and have worsened the disillusion with the entire political process amongst the British majority in Northern Ireland.

There are two matters - one definitely on the agenda, the other widely discussed in the media - where you cannot take our support for granted.

First - on-the-runs. If the legislation you bring forward this autumn does not contain a proper judicial process that involves those returning to Northern Ireland appearing in court and being held accountable for their crimes in the normal way - we will oppose the legislation.

Second - policing. We will not be party to any arrangement that effectively hands over the policing of republican or loyalist areas to those who have been active in paramilitary organisations.

We want a lasting settlement. We want devolution. And we want a stable and prosperous Northern Ireland. But the time for fudge and ambiguity is over. If progress is to be made, it has to be based firmly on the clearest democratic principles."

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