I last met representatives of the Irish Government in Dublin on 3 February. We agreed on the need for the Governments and all others concerned to make intensive efforts in the coming weeks to bring about the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. That is what the people voted for, north and south, and that is what we must do.
When my right hon. Friend met the Taoiseach on 3 February, clearly, a lot of serious and difficult issues still had to be resolved in the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. What progress has been made on the implementation of the north-south bodies, which are clearly an important element in the agreement?
Agreement in principle on the north-south bodies was reached by the parties on 18 December and that determination was approved by the Assembly on 15 February. We are now going through the negotiations and consultations on the particular legislation and the detail of that, which is why the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), is not with us today; he is taking part in those negotiations. The Government are doing everything that they can to ensure that all necessary preparations are put in hand, ready for 10 March. I trust that other parties will do the same.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is in hand, so that the particular structure, priorities and all aspects of the British-Irish Council are in place on 10 March, as we hope all different parts of the Good Friday agreement will be, so that everything is ready is move together. Visits have been paid to Scotland and to Wales by both me and my right hon. Friend the Minister, who also had the pleasure of going to the Channel Islands, to ensure that all the parties involved are part of those discussions and that positive progress is made.
I am sure that the Secretary of State, and indeed the House, would welcome the decision by the new Northern Ireland Assembly by a 75 per cent. vote to accept the structures of the north-south implementing bodies. Does the Secretary of State agree that, to enhance the prospects for full implementation of the agreement and devolution in particular, if her Government and the Irish Government together could persuade the IRA, UVF and UDA to make even a gesture of decommissioning, it would unlock the blockages that are possibly there at the moment and would be in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, if not in the letter of the law?
I agree with the general comments that the hon. Gentleman makes. Our position has been that decommissioning needs to take place now and movement on the Executive needs to take place. Those two steps need to happen not just in the letter of the Good Friday agreement, but in its spirit and the obligation that the progress that has been made be matched elsewhere.
Mr. Lembit Ã–pik:
It seems that, where the letter of the Good Friday agreement remains silent, the spirit of the agreement is moved forward by the public pressure within the Province. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is that public pressure that has probably led to a reduction in paramilitary beatings? If so, can she give any idea of how she sees that public pressure being brought to bear to ensure that the spirit of the Good Friday agreement addresses the problem of exiles—people who have been exiled by paramilitary edict? How does she think that spirit can be brought to bear on decommissioning?
I agree with the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question. The spirit of the agreement—and the efforts made by many members of the public, party leaders, the Government and others to ensure that punishment beatings are reduced—is having some effect: beatings have declined in the past couple of weeks. However, that does not hold for last night's events—one of the most barbaric, inhuman and sadistic punishment beatings. Last night, as a husband was not home, a wife had carved on her body a death threat against him. It was a very clear example—if we needed any more of them—of why punishment beatings must end. Condemnation by the public and by political parties across the board exerts some pressure. Ultimately, however, as another step in encouraging the end of punishment beatings, it is equally important that we break the cycle of violence and implement the Good Friday agreement.
I should like to acknowledge the work that my hon. Friend has done to increase public pressure on resolving the issues of exiles, the disappeared and paramilitary assaults. We have, obviously, discussed the issues with the Irish Government and with the political parties. I assure the House that the security forces and the Government—like everyone else involved in the matter—are doing everything possible to try to stop them.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Taoiseach, me and others who passionately share her view that an Executive should be established as soon as possible in the interests of good governance in Northern Ireland; that an Executive can be established only if Sinn Fein-IRA commence proper decommissioning of illegally held weapons; and that, without that, it is not possible for their representatives to take ministerial positions?
I share the Taoiseach's view that decommissioning should happen now, and that the Executive should be formed. Both need to happen for the process to move forward.
Does the Secretary of State further agree that, in the past nine months, the British Government, the Irish Government and all the democratically elected parties that have never taken part in violence have done everything possible to ensure that the Executive is established? They have fulfilled all their obligations, and ensured that all the structures are now in place. The last thing that needs to happen is decommissioning of illegally held weapons. The only people who are now obstructing creation of the Executive that we want are Sinn Fein-IRA, who have not yet decommissioned.
There has been only one decommissioning—which we welcome—that by the LVF. Decommissioning is now needed of the other parties represented in the talks; it is not only Sinn Fein-IRA but the loyalist paramilitaries. We have made it very clear that decommissioning has to happen for progress to be made. It is not a precondition but an obligation. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said, it is in the spirit of the agreement. It is no good for us simply to say, "This must happen, that must happen," although we both may fundamentally believe that both are necessary. What has to happen is that the parties in the process who signed up to the good Friday agreement do what they are doing in Belfast now: keep talking and find a way forward.