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I beg to move,
That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2000, which was laid before this House on 1st February, be approved.
The order appoints 23 May 2000 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme, thereby attracting both the amnesty and prohibitions on evidential use and forensic testing of decommissioned items provided by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.
Section 2 of the 1997 Act requires that a scheme must set out the amnesty period, and that it must end before 27 February 1998—which was the first anniversary of the Act's passage—unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day. When she was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office made two such orders. Under the order made last year, the amnesty period will expire at midnight on 23 February 2000.
The purpose of the order that we are now considering is to extend that period until midnight on 22 May 2000. That date derives from the time frame set out in the Good Friday agreement for the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms.
We are debating a very serious issue, and facile comments of that nature add nothing to an increasingly difficult and sensitive matter. I could, of course, point out that the order that we are debating comes on the back of legislation that was passed by Conservative Members when they were in government. I could point out the significant number of prisoners were released under the Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Act 1995, which was passed by Conservative Members when they were in government and there was no ceasefire, but who, nevertheless, received the support of Labour Members when we were in opposition. A serious and genuine debate on the release of prisoners is possible, but not on the back of silly points such as the hon. Gentleman's.
Since the first order was made back in 1998, a great deal has happened in Northern Ireland, central to which has been the Good Friday agreement and its implementation. In that period, more political progress has been achieved than many people ever thought possible.
However, as hon. Members will be well aware, this evening's debate is taking place against the backdrop of a recent setback for the political process in Northern Ireland. On Friday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, faced with the reality that cross-community confidence in the devolved Government could not be sustained, had no option but to suspend its operation. He did so after a great deal of very careful consideration and using the powers given to him by the House last week.
Friday was in many ways a sad day for Northern Ireland, but by acting as he did my right hon. Friend averted a serious crisis by preserving the institutions in order that they may be restored as quickly as possible, as we all hope they will be, and on an even firmer foundation than before.
The Government understand and share the disappointment felt by many people in Northern Ireland. For many of us, the disappointment is even greater because we have glimpsed the future. We have seen how the elected representatives of Northern Ireland can work together in a devolved Executive, tackling the issues that people care about: health care, jobs, the environment, education and other issues that are equally important to the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland. We have seen sensible and accountable north-south structures being operated successfully by both sides of the community. We have seen the new British-Irish Council being received with enthusiasm by all the Administrations involved. We have seen what the Good Friday agreement, implemented in full, can deliver. Now that we have seen the future, none of us wants to retreat to the past.
That is why we must press on to resolve the real difficulties that exist and restore full cross-community confidence in the institutions. My right hon. Friend had meetings today with the Irish Government and with the parties, and will spare no effort in order to find a way forward.
The way forward is, of course, the implementation of the Good Friday agreement—every aspect of it, in full. There will never be a better agreement. It has the support of the people of Ireland, north and south, and it is now the collective responsibility of the Governments and the parties to deliver.
The subject of the draft order—decommissioning—is a central element in the process. The absence of progress on decommissioning contributed substantially to the decline in trust and cross-community confidence in Northern Ireland. Clearly, if that confidence is to be restored, progress needs to be made on this aspect of the agreement, just as it has been on every other aspect. People need answers to the legitimate questions posed by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon): will decommissioning occur and, if so, when?
In order for the commitments on decommissioning to be fulfilled in accordance with the terms of the agreement, the Government must also play their part. In the agreement, the two Governments undertook to take all necessary steps to facilitate the decommissioning process, including bringing the relevant schemes into force by the end of June 1998, which we duly did. If we are to fulfil our commitment under the agreement, it is essential that we extend, through this order, the period during which the scheme may declare an amnesty.
Of course, that will not deter the security forces in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland from continuing to use all the powers at their disposal to locate and recover illegally held armaments. I pay tribute to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Garda Siochana for their continuing efforts to frustrate those wedded to the violence of the past.
The Government have consistently made it clear to Sinn Fein and to the loyalist parties that decommissioning is an obligation under the agreement and that it must happen.
The order has been before the House on two previous occasions, each time moving the date forward. We have clearly chosen 22 May—not 25 May—because that is set out in the Good Friday agreement. That is consistent and right, and sets decommissioning in its proper context and time scale in relation to the amnesty.
Yes. As part of the Government's commitment to the full implementation of the agreement, it is essential that we continue to provide the means by which terrorist weapons can be taken out of circulation. That view is shared by people in the Republic of Ireland.
The order is essential to the arrangements that I have set out.
I am not answerable for legislation in another jurisdiction. The period there is open ended and is not renewable as in our legislation, because of the different structures in the two jurisdictions. It is for that jurisdiction to decide how best to apply laws to achieve the objectives set out in the Good Friday agreement; but we act in concert and seek to achieve the same objectives.
That is what the order is designed to achieve. I commend it to the House.
This is not a game; historically, it has been deadly. The order is unexceptionable as far as we are concerned. We must emphasise the absolute imperative of actual decommissioning by all paramilitaries before restoration of the Executive and the other institutions. We urge the Government to stand firm. If they do, they will have our support. It is logical to make the end date of the order coincident with the end date under the Belfast agreement.
As a general proposition, which must command the widest—and international—recognition, it is simply unthinkable for some participants in a democratic process to have access to arms and for others, obeying the law, to have no such access. That is anathema to democracy. We will support the order.
The Minister referred to the political crisis in Northern Ireland. We regret the fact that the various terrorist organisations have not honoured their obligations under the Belfast agreement and that there is a fundamental flaw in the process—a flaw that my party argued against during the passage of the legislation—in that the democrats are punished along with those who are in default and the institutions of government in Northern Ireland are brought down purely on the basis of the failure of terrorist organisations to decommission their illegal weapons. I hope that during the period of any review that now follows the Government will address that flaw and deliver on the firm commitment that the Prime Minister gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) when, on 10 April 1998—the day the agreement was signed—he wrote to my right hon. Friend indicating that if the provisions in the agreement for the exclusion from office of those who had failed to give a firm commitment to exclusively peaceful means were inadequate, the Government would support changes to those provisions to ensure that they were made adequate.
When one of the parties to the agreement is in default—the republican movement—and when the consequences of that default impact on all the political parties and the people of Northern Ireland, because of the suspension of the institutions, it is clear that the provisions for exclusion are inadequate. I urge the Government to address that issue, so that if the institutions are re-established and power is once again devolved to Northern Ireland, it can no longer be held to ransom by any single organisation. The flaw cannot be allowed to persist.
The order before the House provides for the extension of an amnesty for those who decommission their illegal weapons. Sadly, to date, only one organisation has engaged in any act of decommissioning—the Loyalist Volunteer Force. None of the other mainstream terrorist organisations have decommissioned so much as a single bullet. The decommissioning body, in its report to our Government and to the Irish Government on 31 January, made it clear that there had been insufficient progress on decommissioning, and the Government moved on Friday to suspend the institutions. However, many people in Northern Ireland find it difficult to understand why those organisations that are in default on decommissioning still continue to benefit from the early release of prisoners, in spite of the fact that one of the criteria in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 provides that the Secretary of State must take into account whether a terrorist organisation benefiting from prisoner releases is fully co-operating with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. It is clear that none of those organisations are fully co-operating with the commission. As we approach the deadline of 22 May, none of them have started to decommission, bar the Loyalist Volunteer Force. That cannot be sustained indefinitely.
When there has been no decommissioning by 22 May, will we find that the prisoner release scheme will continue until all the prisoners have been released by the end of July? Will the Government allow that situation to continue? The Government have a lever that they can use with the terrorist organisations, but they are not using it to its full potential. The Government should use that bargaining tool to more effect than they have so far done. We need a carrot and a stick, and at the moment it appears that the stick is not being used for the republicans.
General de Chastelain, the independent chairman of the commission on decommissioning, has made it clear publicly and in his reports that the decommissioning of paramilitary arms requires the destruction of these arms. Those comments were contained in his report to the two Governments last year and have been repeated since.
It is not just that General de Chastelain makes it clear in his report that there should be destruction. That is the obligation imposed under section 3 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, which states that there should be destruction by the commission, by the terrorists or by a designated person. There is no other option.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he is absolutely right. I was going on to refer to the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. There has been much speculation in the media about other forms of decommissioning. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity tonight to rule out that speculation, and to confirm that the only forms of decommissioning acceptable are those provided for under the legislation passed by Parliament—namely, the 1997 Act, which requires the destruction of weaponry by the various terrorist organisations. That is important, because some people out there seem to think that decommissioning is a flexible thing that can be played around with, and that the law that has been passed by Parliament can be ignored. The order before us reminds us that there are legal implications in the act of decommissioning that cannot be ignored. I therefore trust that the Government will take this opportunity to remind everyone of the legality of decommissioning and the requirements for it, as laid down by Parliament in the 1997 Act.
The Act also provides for decommissioning schemes. The Minister himself published those schemes, and the criteria set out in them further make it clear that destruction of weapons is required for proper, verifiable decommissioning. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the decommissioning schemes that he signed on 29 June 1998 are still relevant, and will continue to be relevant, in providing for decommissioning of illegal terrorist arms.
That brings me to the reports of the independent international commission and, in particular, to the report published on 11 February—last Friday. That has been the subject of much comment in recent days, particularly since the suspension of the institutions. The Irish Government claim that the report from General de Chastelain published on 11 February represents a significant breakthrough. Their remarks are endorsed by representatives of Sinn Fein/IRA. Yet the Minister referred to the two questions posed in the House by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)—namely, will the IRA decommission, and when will it decommission? I do not believe that the report from the independent commission of 11 February answers either of those questions. It does not contain a firm commitment by the IRA to decommission its illegal weapons, nor does it in any sense provide an indication of when the IRA will decommission its illegal weapons.
Let me be clear: from the perspective of the Ulster Unionist party, without those questions being addressed, and without the commencement of verifiable, substantial decommissioning by the IRA, we will not be sitting in an Executive with its political representatives. That is the view that was taken by the Ulster Unionist council at the weekend. I believe that that view is credible, and that it has the support of by far the greater number of people in Northern Ireland who have, in successive opinion polls, shown that they want decommissioning to take place.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely correct. Not only is it the view of the overwhelming majority of people in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but I believe that it is the view of the people of the Irish Republic as well. Decommissioning is central to establishing a commitment by terrorist organisations, including so-called loyalists, to exclusively peaceful means. That commitment lies at the heart of the process, and it must be addressed if we are to be clear that what we have in Northern Ireland is a genuine peace.
Real peace is not just the absence of violence, but the absence of a threat of violence. The arms in the possession of terrorist organisations represent a threat to stability. I want the terrorist organisations to decommission. I want political progress in Northern Ireland. I want democratic and accountable institutions to be re-established, but they must be on a firm footing. Many desire the quick re-establishment of those institutions, but the speed of the re-establishment of the Assembly, the Executive and the other bodies will be solely determined by the ability of the terrorist organisations to answer the questions posed by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and to act on those questions by beginning to decommission their weapons.
A fudge will not provide a solution; that much is clear. Fudging has brought us to the crisis we face today. We are talking about building trust. If we are to make progress in Northern Ireland, trust is essential. The people whom I represent must know that the men and women who have waged war against them through terror have left that terror behind. If we must suffer the pain of early release of terrorist prisoners and the many other concessions that have been made, we need to know that gain will flow from disarmament by all of the terrorist organisations.
The 22 May deadline created by the Good Friday agreement ought to be the final deadline. I hope that the Government will not return to the House to report that they must once again extend the provisions of this order because the terrorist organisations have failed to honour their obligations under the agreement. It is time for the Government to stand on the side of the democrats. It is time they insisted that the IRA and other terrorist organisations honour their obligations. When those organisations do that, I and others will welcome it, but they must be held to account.
I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) said about decommissioning meaning the destruction of weapons. I have less sympathy, however, with his view of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. I sometimes feel that, in his heart, the hon. Gentleman prefers direct rule. I can only tell him that the Northern Ireland that he perceives is changing dramatically. Constitutionally, it will never be the same again because of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said, I think, that this was an unexceptional order. To a large extent, I agree, as I agree with him about the suspension of the institutions.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who shows his characteristic courtesy. I thought that I had said that he said that he and his party thought that the order was unexceptional. However, I am glad that he clarified the point for me. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) laughs, but it is a matter of profound concern and regret that on Friday, in the late afternoon, the Secretary of State took the decision that he did.
I have seen the Assembly at work, as I pointed out in the debate last week. A couple of weeks ago, I spent a whole day in the Assembly. Its workings would immediately be familiar to any Member of the House or of the Scottish Parliament. Ministers and Bank Benchers went about their work, dealing with a huge farmers' lobby—between 2,500 and 3,000 farmers were lobbying the Assembly on the day of my visit.
I listened to a debate initiated by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). The debate called for greater support for the crisis-ridden farming industry and received wide support from the other parties.
As the hon. Member for Lagan Valley pointed out, the Assembly was working, and will work, fruitfully on behalf of both communities in Northern Ireland. It is regrettable that the decision was taken to suspend the Executive, the Assembly, the British-Irish Council and the north-south bodies. It may well be that the 22 May deadline will have to be readjusted—although I hope that I am wrong. In that case, we would need a new order.
Some people in Northern Ireland believe that the suspension may not be of short duration, and that we shall not be able to hold to the 22 May deadline. General de Chastelain's contract ends on that date, so this is a worrying time not only for the people of Northern Ireland, but for those of the Irish Republic and Britain.
Does the hon. Gentleman not concede that, to some of those people who made sacrifices to participate in the Executive, decommissioning was an essential component of the arrangement?
I have always argued that genuine, comprehensive decommissioning—as described by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley—is at the heart of the Northern Ireland peace agreement. No one could deny that.
Unlike the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and for Lagan Valley, I am only a visitor to Northern Ireland—albeit a frequent one—but everyone I speak to in both communities is desperately anxious that the deadline be adhered to. However, there are concerns that anti-agreement politicians want delays, procrastination and prevarication, so that things begin to splinter. That is a dreadful prospect for the people of Northern Ireland.
I hope that the period of suspension will be short; that the review will be treated urgently; and that it will be conducted jointly by the Secretary of State and Mr. Brian Cowen of the Irish Government. I believe that that is starting to take shape, and that its terms of reference should be narrow. The two Ministers should not allow those terms of reference to be widened by certain interested parties. I am referring to the suspension and the review, because they hinge directly on this order, especially the date of 23 May.
The period of suspension has started. The deadline for decommissioning, 22 May, is not far away. If that deadline is readjusted, what price this order? The Minister may have to return to the House. I know that he, with his commitment to the peace process and the Good Friday agreement, will hope that the suspension is of short duration. I consider that the review, which I believe has already begun, should have specific terms of reference.
Order. There is very limited time available for the debate, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, and he really must focus rather more on decommissioning than on the review. I understand the umbilical link between the two, but the order before us tonight is about decommissioning.
I am grateful for your gentle ticking off, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the suspension, the review and decommissioning are inextricably linked. Decommissioning is at the heart of the matter. The review should be concerned almost entirely with decommissioning. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned General de Chastelain's latest report and what the Taoiseach said in his article in this morning's Irish Times—that the last two paragraphs of General de Chastelain's report were of deep significance for the process of decommissioning. I hope that the review will focus on that and will work very closely with General de Chastelain and his colleagues.
I sincerely hope that the 22 May deadline and the deadline in the order—23 May—are adhered to, but very many people now have a much more pessimistic view than I have, and believe that there may be readjustments. All I can tell the Minister and his officials is: I certainly hope not, and let us have decommissioning by 22 May.
Mr. Lembit Ã–pik:
As we approach the second anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, it is worth remembering that today is the 10th birthday of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, which has sought to build links between Westminster and Dublin. It is not a great birthday present to that body that we are in our present position. However, in the wider picture of things, I think that few who serve on it would have expected us to be this far down the track to achieving a long-term, stable peace.
While the suspension order is a step back, on the positive side, as the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) reminds us, we must have very clear expectations of what will happen in the next three months, and the order makes those expectations even more specific, by extending the amnesty to 23 May and thereby making the decision to decommission arms even more straightforward and clear-cut than it would otherwise have been.
Earlier today, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland addressed the BIIPB, and the implication of his statement was that the suspension could be pretty short-lived as long as we get some significant movement in the short term on decommissioning. In that context, we need to remember that the amnesty is a tool to get rid of the violence by getting rid of the guns. There is much symbolism involved in that, which we discussed only the other day in the House, but we must recognise that symbolism is important. The order places even more onus on the paramilitaries on both sides to deliver the goods.
The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act received Royal Assent on 27 February 1997 and it contained a five-year limit—a backstop—that means that the amnesty cannot be extended beyond February 2002. It is worth remembering that we are discussing the end point to the amnesty, knowing that there is already a timebound maximum period during which it can be re-presented.
This is not the time for retribution or reopening the debate about whether people should be prosecuted when they hand in guns. That is because we are in the endgame of the whole process. We are asking what the easiest way is to get the paramilitaries to decommission their guns while providing confidence for the community as a whole, including the Unionists, that the paramilitaries are serious about that in the short term. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley underlined quite reasonably the nervousness of many moderate Unionists who think that, to date, little has been done to achieve that result.
The second report from de Chastelain and the most recent IRA statement are positive and helpful, but they would have been even more helpful if they had been presented a week ago. I am conscious of the warning issued in the first report of the decommissioning commission, which stated:
given our understanding of the quantity of arms held by paramilitary groups, and the dispersed nature of their locations, we believe a time will soon be reached beyond which it will be logistically impossible for us to complete our task by 22 May.
In other words, the IRA and other paramilitary bodies need to get going soon if they are to achieve the 22 May deadline, which is the crucial date for decommissioning. It is imperative that the issue is resolved, but resolved by the paramilitaries in whose power it is to provide the kind of commitment that we now expect. If that analysis is correct—I believe that few in the House would disagree with what I have said—22 May is the key date by which we must achieve decommissioning—and the clock is ticking.
One point on which I would take issue with the hon. Member for Lagan Valley is his view—it is perfectly reasonable even though I disagree with it—that, at this point, we should link prisoner releases with decommissioning. The time for that is if the paramilitaries fail to decommission by 22 May, and not at this point. I am sure that the mechanics are there to achieve that. We have a difference of view, but it is an issue that we have debated widely in the past.
What does the hon. Gentleman propose we should do if the paramilitaries have not handed in any weapons by 22 May? Does he think that we should extend the amnesty again? What would that do? What possible leverage do we have on this matter?
I will, but let me clarify my point for the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). At this point, we should simply act on the basis of good faith and not try to renegotiate the Good Friday agreement. If on 22 May—the absolute deadline for decommissioning—the paramilitaries have not delivered, all bets are off and we shall have to consider what we do. However, I think that it would be dangerous to link the issues at this stage. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to take a different view, but he should be cautious and he should reread the Good Friday agreement.
First, does the hon. Gentleman accept that stopping the release of prisoners would not involve any renegotiation of the Good Friday agreement? Secondly, has he made any assessment of how many prisoners would remain in custody on 22 May if nothing is done to stop the releases between now and then?
To be absolutely specific and to avoid implicating my colleagues in that comment, I should say that Conservative Members are laughing. Let me remind them that relatively few prisoners will be released between now and 22 May. My response to the perfectly reasonable question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) is that, for now, we should act in good faith. We should give the paramilitaries absolutely no reason to be able to justify their hesitance about decommissioning at this point by, for example, being hesitant about prisoner releases.
I also believe that the sanctions on prisoner releases that we could impose now are not significantly different from those that we could impose on 22 May, but the crucial point is that if we wait until 22 May to impose sanctions, no one could possibly say that the Government and the House have not given the paramilitaries every opportunity under the sun to decommission. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is perfectly entitled to take a different view, but it is for the House to decide who is right.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if on 22 May there has been no decommissioning by the paramilitary organisations, he will support us in urging the Government at that point to halt the early release of terrorist prisoners?
That would depend on the exact situation. The honest answer is that at that point we would have seriously to consider such action. I do not play games in Northern Ireland debates in the House, and in the spirit of honesty I can say that it is possible that I would agree with the hon. Gentleman in those circumstances. The time for that debate will be 23 May, and I am sure that the Government will be asking the same questions. It would be unwise for us to make policy in a speech in a debate, and I cannot therefore give the hon. Gentleman further reassurance. I see that he accepts that, and I am grateful to him for having listened.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who often speaks sensibly and rationally about these issues, rightly said that this is not a game. It is important that we do not start playing games now. The sum total of my remarks, and the Liberal Democrat position, is that we must give the paramilitaries every chance to decommission and we must not give them a single opportunity to say that the Government have reneged on their responsibilities on Northern Ireland, on amnesties and on opportunities to decommission.
Of course the current situation is a setback, but I hope that those in Northern Ireland with the capacity to decommission will view this as a confidence-building measure, because there is scepticism and doubt in the House about whether this is the right action. On balance, I think that it is right. If we pass this order tonight, the message will be simple: the House has done its bit; now it is time for the paramilitaries to do theirs.
We have before us an order setting out a new period for decommissioning which will end at midnight on 22 May. We have to ask ourselves whether that is an appropriate time scale, and whether decommissioning or progress towards it can be achieved in three months and 10 days. I shall stick narrowly in my remarks to the terms of the order.
If we are to come to any sensible conclusion about whether decommissioning can be achieved or whether the order makes any sense in setting a cut-off point of 22 May, we have to ask ourselves what decommissioning is expected to be achieved in that time scale. I listened with great interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), who speaks with deep knowledge of these matters and with the authority of someone who lives in the Province and who is affected, as are his constituents, by decommissioning or the lack of it.
I took issue with my hon. Friend—prematurely, as I found when he elaborated on his point—when he said that General de Chastelain's report called for proper decommissioning; that is the destruction of weapons. I intervened to say that not only had General de Chastelain called for that, but the law of land dictates that it should happen. The order is made under section 2 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, and section 3 dictates what decommissioning consists of. It says that decommissioning will take place in four ways. Either there will be the
transfer to the Commission mentioned in section 7, or to a designated person
of firearms, ammunition and explosives for destruction; or those firearms, ammunition and explosives will be deposited
for collection and destruction by the Commission or a designated person".
There is a third option: those arms, explosives and ammunition will be destroyed
by persons in unlawful possession
—the terrorists and paramilitaries themselves. There is a fourth option: information will be provided
for the purpose of collection and destruction by the Commission or a designated person".
The paramilitaries and terrorists must provide information to the commission on arms, explosives and ammunition, so that the commission itself can collect and destroy them.
In the four options for decommissioning, which were presented to the House in the 1997 Bill and passed into law, and under which General de Chastelain must operate, rightly, the only alternatives for decommissioning are that the weapons will be transferred to the commission and destroyed; deposited for collection somewhere, collected by the commission and destroyed; destroyed by the terrorists themselves; or the terrorists will give sufficient information to the commission, so that it can get its hands on them and destroy them.
In every case, we are talking about the destruction of weapons. That is important. I wish to speak on the order only because of all the talk and propaganda emanating from the IRA—it has mainly emanated from Sinn Fein-IRA recently, but perhaps it has come from other terrorist organisations as well—that there is a new form of decommissioning. There is alternative decommissioning, where the weapons are not destroyed, but locked away in a barn, or bunker somewhere; they will be put out of use and not used for the time being. Because the bombs are at arm's length and not being used, there are no hands on the guns that are hidden in a bunker, and only the terrorist organisations know where that is, decommissioning has taken place. What an obscenity that is by any sense of natural justice or morality. It is also illegal under the 1997 Act.
I am not trivialising the debate, but, by way of example, I wish that I could go to my chief constable and say, "I will not bother renewing my shotgun licence because I have it locked in the cupboard and do not intend to murder anyone in the foreseeable future. I do not need a licence." Is this country no longer a nuclear power because its nuclear weapons are in a bunker and we do not intend to use them because that is our position? Certainly, however, we have not decommissioned those weapons.
It would be an absolute obscenity if we were to allow ourselves to be fooled by Sinn Fein-IRA, or any other terrorist group or paramilitaries, into accepting a definition of decommissioning that did not provide for the destruction of the weapons as the House agreed in the 1997 Act. Therefore, putting them in a bunker, hiding them away out of arm's reach, or, as my ancient ancestors used to do at the time of Culloden, hiding them in the thatch knowing that they would use them again on some future occasion, is not decommissioning.
If we are to have progress in Northern Ireland, we must have decommissioning as intended by Parliament—by the House and by the other place—when it agreed section 3 of the 1997 Act. The order asks us to extend the deadline to 22 May, so that that form of decommissioning can be carried out.
It is my contention that we should approve the order tonight, because it is perfectly possible for the paramilitaries, within the proposed time scale, to comply with one of the provisions of section 3. Given all their recent mutterings and propaganda, I suspect that they will not transfer their weapons to the commission within three months and 10 days, nor will they destroy the weapons themselves. However, they might provide sufficient information to the commission for the purposes of collection and destruction by the commission or its designated agents. However, the information provided must lead to the collection and destruction of weapons.
In the past few days, there has been a massive outpouring of Sinn Fein-IRA propaganda: although General de Chastelain has said that there has been no progress, the IRA insists that there has been. Its representatives think that they can come up with another form of words that we might naively accept, suggesting that progress can be made towards decommissioning by the IRA providing the information that, at some time in the future, it might possibly consider thinking about decommissioning its weapons.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because it will save me making a contribution. He emphasises what Sinn Fein-IRA have been saying during the past few days, of which there has been great coverage, but does he recognise that the country is also concerned about the weapons held by the other side and that, although they may have been silent, we want them to participate fully in the process?
Absolutely—I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I have spoken of Sinn Fein-IRA in the past few days, but I have mentioned other paramilitaries as well. I have as much contempt for paramilitaries of other persuasions as I have for Sinn Fein-IRA. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to emphasise that point, and honoured that he thinks that any contribution that I can make might save him from making one. I consider that one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me in the House, because I respect his judgment. I shall try not to make him change his mind by going on at length and undermining my case.
I accept that the whole country wants progress to be made toward decommissioning. We want there to be genuine peace, but there can be no genuine peace in a democracy when people have weapons at their disposal. The only weapons that we in this Chamber, from both sides and of all persuasions, have at our disposal are to argue with the Minister, to use such oratorical skills as are available to us and to sign early-day motions. We come here with nothing except the democratic authority of our constituents to argue, to plead, to beg and, occasionally, to try to ambush the Government by outvoting them on some matters, although I doubt whether we shall manage it in this Parliament. We use the weapons of our democracy, of the Chamber and of the House.
No Member of Parliament who has taken the Oath can bring to the Chamber any other weapon such as threatening the use of violence, bombs or bullets unless we give them their way. It can never be acceptable in any democratic society for politicians in the Government or the House to wield the arguments at their disposal backed up by the democratic will of the people, while others come to the process armed to the teeth with weapons. That is why we must have genuine progress on decommissioning.
I always like the right hon. Gentleman's contributions. Will he consider section 10 of the 1997 Act, which further defines the meaning of "destruction" as including
making permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable"?
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is taking a hurried look at the Act, as I should have thought that he would have read that part of it.
I have read section 10 and when the Minister referred me to it, I immediately turned to it, as one should. I accept that making something "permanently unusable" is a form of destruction; however, I do not accept the paramilitaries' suggestion that locking their weapons away in a bunker and so putting them out of their reach for the time being constitutes destruction within the meaning of the Act.
I am happy to accept the proposal to put the weapons out of arm's reach, if that is done by General John de Chastelain. If the paramilitaries hand their weapons over to General de Chastelain and the commission, and he locks them in a bunker—even if he puts them away somewhere and does not physically destroy them or melt them down—I am happy to accept that that would put them permanently out of reach or make them permanently inaccessible within the terms of section 10 defining destruction, as described in section 3.
Weapons cannot be permanently inaccessible and out of use if the paramilitaries claim to have hidden them away somewhere and seek to assure us that they are permanently out of use and out of arms' reach. That is not plausible; it is not acceptable. That is why there is deep concern in the House and in the country that the Government may be misled by some of the statements made by the paramilitaries in the past few days.
I say to the Minister that I am happy to accept the extension of the deadline in the order, provided that there is progress towards genuine decommissioning and destruction, as envisaged in section 3 of the 1997 Act and defined in section 10. That must be destruction, not the mealy-mouthed form of words that we have heard from some paramilitaries in the past few days.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate. It is not often that two Northern Ireland Members are called in such a short debate. As so many others wish to speak, I shall be as brief as I can.
The intention behind the order is to extend the amnesty period only until 23 May. The extension could have been for another year, which is the usual procedure. The Minister gave us a rather half-baked explanation of why the order goes only until 23 May. That would have been the cut-off date for decommissioning, anyway, regardless how long the order was extended.
I am grateful to the Minister for pointing out that the Republic's legislation is open-ended, so the paramilitaries there can hold on to their weapons for another few months and then surrender them, if they so wish.
The order will keep pressure on the IRA and other terrorist organisations to comply with the requirements of the Belfast agreement. The date serves as a pressure point, and they cannot escape it unless the Minister comes back within the next few weeks with another order to extend the date. He would look extremely foolish if he did.
By publishing the order and putting it before the House this evening, the Government are saying that 23 May is their deadline. I welcome that. The more pressure we put on those people, the better.
The Minister knows that I am sometimes concerned about the language used. Sinn Fein-IRA look carefully at every single word that is used. They do not like moving even a comma in one of their statements, in case that will give it a slightly different meaning.
Far too often, we have heard sloppy words from Ministers. Whenever I hear that, I think that the sloppy words betray fuddled thinking, or perhaps it is deliberate, to create an atmosphere or impression. I am thinking particularly of the term "putting beyond use", to which I hope to return.
The Government have a duty to tell the House this evening whether they have any intention of extending the deadline of 23 May. I hope that they do not; the process could go on until 2002.
The order expresses the hope that, if the IRA is serious about handing over its weapons, it must begin doing so soon. In his statement of 31 January, General de Chastelain made that clear when he said that
given our understanding of the quantity of arms held by the paramilitary groups, and the dispersed nature of their locations"—
so he must have some idea where they are—
we believe that a time will soon be reached beyond which it will be logistically impossible for us to complete our task by 22 May.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) dealt with that point clearly.
It is also clear from the report that members of the commission will not hang around for much longer. The last sentence states:
If it becomes clear to us that decommissioning is not to happen, the Commission will recommend to the governments that it be disbanded.
That tells us that the general and his colleagues are not hopeful, despite the spin that has been put on their comments about what will happen in the near future.
I can well understand that the commission's patience is running out given that, until now, terrorist organisations, which, with the exception of the UFF, were, according to the commission,
further engaged in methods of decommissioning and related support issues
have shown no willingness to surrender their weapons.
The commission also has a time scale. Its report states:
We remain prepared to state, at an appropriate date, when we believe decommissioning must start and how it must proceed if our mandate is to be fulfilled within the required period.
That must be tied to the published schemes, which are very detailed. Neither the general nor anybody else should be allowed to slide away from the published schemes because people are looking for that. The commission went on to say that
decommissioning is a voluntary act; any schedule we produce will only be of value if those who have the arms agree to follow it.
It may be voluntary in one sense, but it is mandatory if the requirements of the agreement are to be fulfilled.
The reports are somewhat cryptic. For example, the second report states:
We also note the IRA assessment that the question of British forces and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland must be addressed
While the future of British troops is outside our remit, the elimination of the threat posed by loyalist paramilitary arms is clearly within the Commission's remit.
Whenever the IRA uses that language, it attempts to place Her Majesty's forces and the IRA on an equal footing. We should never, under any circumstances, give way on that point.
The report continues:
We find particularly significant, and view as valuable progress, the assertion made to us by the IRA representative that the IRA will consider how to put arms and explosives beyond use, in the context of full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and in the context of the removal of the causes of conflict.
It goes on to say that "the issue of arms" needs
to be dealt with in an acceptable way and that is a necessary objective of a genuine peace process … The representative indicated to us today (Friday) the context in which the IRA will initiate a comprehensive process to put arms beyond use".
That is IRA-speak. It needs some translation for hon. Members and the citizens of Britain.
What does the IRA mean by the full context of the agreement? Does it mean sweeping away the RUC, taking all United Kingdom troops out of Northern Ireland, releasing all prisoners and more? Who is to judge when the full context has been fulfilled? I suspect that the answer is the IRA. The
context of the removal of the causes of conflict
is clearly IRA-speak for Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom. To the IRA, that is the cause of the conflict. It wants that to end and the British people of Northern Ireland to become Irish republicans. I use "republican" in its true sense. We believe in a constitutional monarchy, so there is a great difference between the two systems of government. I favour the system that we have.
What does the commission understand the IRA to mean by
dealt with in an acceptable way"?
Does that mean security forces' arms and private firearms? What does the phrase cover? I suspect that it covers all weapons that are held in private hands, by the forces of the Crown and by the police.
the context in which the IRA will initiate a comprehensive process to put arms beyond use"?
The general's language suggested that he had been told what constituted that context. Why have not we been told? That information is vital to a clear understanding of what the IRA is trying to say. The words "put beyond use" could mean a thousand things, if hon. Members want to stretch their imagination, but the vast majority of the people in the island of Ireland and across this island will be satisfied only by the visible public destruction of those weapons. We saw the small quantity of Loyalist Volunteer Force weapons being destroyed and we expect the same for the IRA weapons. Nothing else is of any use.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) rightly said that Northern Ireland is changing rapidly—I think that the context in which he made that remark is that the progress that has been made has achieved a transformation—but Northern Ireland, as I understand it, is changing rapidly in another way and the House must understand it at this precise moment.
There was a time when the hon. Members for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) could be thought of as—how can I put this gently?—dissident voices in the Ulster Unionist party. After the referendum, there were those who would produce statistics to show that the Unionist majority did not necessarily agree with them, but the rapid and continuing change, if I can judge correctly, is that their views represent the authentic majority voice of the Unionist people of Northern Ireland. As events unfolded in the past week and as they unfold now, so that voice of Northern Ireland has come to represent a greater Unionist majority than in the past. It is crucial that the House understands that as it considers the order.
I want to follow up the initial points made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry by discussing the date specified in the order. It may unnerve the Minister to know that I, of all people, agree with the one that he has selected. It is highly significant. I know the reason he gave for selecting it—he heard my earlier question, but was diverted and failed to answer. He could have selected a date a year hence, but, because of the Belfast agreement, chose a date that is not very far away. His response to the debate is crucial and he has to answer my question: why did he choose that date? He could have chosen any date within the framework of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, so we need to know whether that choice represents a negotiating stance taken by the Government or a deadline beyond which no alternative arrangements will be made. Does the amnesty run out then and that is it, or does he intend to come back to the House to ask us to extend it again?
In all fairness, I must remind those Members present who do not know the views that I have taken over time that I was one of those who opposed the Good Friday agreement, for a number of reasons. I remain opposed to it. I did not believe, and still do not believe, that decommissioning will happen, but if I am wrong I need an answer to my question: if decommissioning is for real, what happens after 22 May? I urge the Minister to answer that important point.
Having described the views that I have held from the beginning, I must tell the House that I am a realist. We are where we are, whatever views I might hold, and it is important that we ask, "What happens next?" We must remember that, when we faced the dilemma of whether there would be decommissioning last year, the Ulster Unionist party made a leap of faith. Again, I did not think that it should, and I was not alone in that. I was also one of those who believed that it would not possible for it to make that leap of faith, but it did. My clear view is that an Ulster Unionist majority in support of that was achieved only because of the compromise that real decommissioning must begin by February.
That was a leap of faith. The Ulster Unionists said, "We've jumped, you follow." No one has followed that leap of faith. Hopes were dashed. The leader of the UUP put his political career on the line in the hope that other people would respond to his courage by doing something. We must understand that it is now beyond expectation for the UUP to make the same leap of faith again with some other form of words.
The route of faith has been tried and it has failed, and there is only one route left, which is the route of action—I say that as a realist rather than an enthusiast. We have now reached the stage at which no form of words will do: something must happen. That is why my question to the Minister is so relevant. If there is no action by 22 May, what happens then?
I was opposed to the original amnesty—if hon. Members go back into the records, they will see that I spoke against this arrangement—but I am a democrat, which is more than can be said for Sinn Fein-IRA. I accept the will of the House, and the House decided that there should be an amnesty. I accept that the status quo on the amnesty arrangements must continue for the time being, so I do not oppose the order.
The hon. Members for Lagan Valley and for East Londonderry were arguing that there must be real decommissioning. The amnesty exists, and it needs to remain so that it can happen. The House must put nothing in the way of action. To object to the order would be to change the arrangements that are in place.
We should keep the amnesty until 22 May, but we should make it clear that that was the original agreement, and it is the extent to which we agreed to turn our backs on what I believe is the correct rule of law and the correct implementation of democracy. For that period and for that period only, we will allow terrorism one last chance. The terrorists must understand that we have now reached a point at which weasel words will no longer do.
There is no formula of the English language that can be put together to mean whatever the IRA wants it to mean. The hon. Member for East Londonderry translated IRA-speak very well. There is no form of IRA-speak, Ulster Unionist-speak or Alliance-speak—all that matters now is real action and genuine decommissioning. If it does not occur before 22 May, I want to know what will happen, because I have an awful feeling that the Minister will be back here on 23 May.
In the short time available we have had a good debate covering a wide range of issues on a crucial and important aspect of what we now have to deal with in Northern Ireland. I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for their support for the order and for their contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for Spelthome (Mr. Wilshire) also indicated support for the order, and set out a number of points that I shall deal with in due course.
I first want to deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson). I understand that at the weekend he made what was called a conciliatory speech at his council meeting. I have not seen a transcript of it, so perhaps he will pass it to me because I should like to know exactly what he was saying that was conciliatory. If it was conciliatory, that is an improvement on his previous position, and I would welcome it if he is now beginning to understand that there is a way forward. However, if his speech today was consistent with what he said on Saturday, I am not so sure that it was conciliatory, because he got so many matters wrong. I should like to deal with those matters now.
The hon. Gentleman questioned whether the Government were delivering on the Good Friday agreement. We are delivering on the agreement. However, I think that he was also questioning whether it was wise to do so. I remind him that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for the agreement. Although he has the right to dissent and to question the people's judgment, I suggest to him that, at all times, he should keep very much in mind the underlying desire of the people of Northern Ireland and of the vast majority of people across the island of Ireland.
I also advise the hon. Gentleman, if I may, to take the wise counsel of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who has grasped the enormity of the issues at stake and the ways in which the matter has to be dealt with. The right hon. Gentleman realises that it has to be dealt with forcefully—he is certainly direct in his arguments—but he also tries to look for ways in which we can move the whole process forward.
The hon. Gentleman asked various questions about the way in which the Act would be applied. I suspect that he—I dealt with the subject also in my intervention on the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)—has not read the Act to which we are referring. He tried to define very specifically the nature of the whole decommissioning process, but his definition was not consistent with the Act.
Perhaps I should again put on the record the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. On 12 January, he said:
The methods of decommissioning are for General de Chastelain to determine, providing that the weapons are destroyed or made permanently inaccessible and that there is independent verification of the destruction or the putting beyond use that has occurred.
My right hon. Friend went on to say:
I have great confidence in General de Chastelain and his colleagues to ensure that that process is properly verified."— [Official Report, 12 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 260.]
My right hon. Friend made a very clear statement consistent with the laws under which the general and his colleagues have to act, and of which the Government have
to take full cognisance. I am not so sure that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley really does understand the Act, but I hope that today's debate has helped him on that.
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the early release of prisoners and the grief and the hurt that that brings. We have exchanged views in this Chamber and elsewhere on that subject, and I well understand the specific issue. However, he then referred to "other concessions to terrorists" without defining what those concessions were. Was one of the concessions the Human Rights Act 1998? I do not think that that was a concession to terrorists. Was it the creation of the equality provisions? I do not believe that they were a concession to terrorists.
Was normalisation of the security profile a concession? I do not believe that that was a concession to terrorists. When the Government move forward on normalising the security profile in Northern Ireland, our actions are consistent with the views of the Chief Constable and the best security advice available. It is not a straightforward political judgment, as we have to take best advice. Moreover, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that trying to normalise society is a concession, I do not know what type of society he wants.
Is it a concession to review the criminal justice system?
Such a view is not what the people of Northern Ireland voted for when they supported the Good Friday agreement. Is it a concession to examine the whole question of the future of policing in Northern Ireland? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Such a view is not what the people of Northern Ireland voted for, and it is not what the Good Friday agreement said.
I well understand why the hon. Gentlemen respond as they do, saying that those are concessions to terrorists. However, the actions are about trying to create a very specific type of better society in Northern Ireland—a society that was well defined by those who debated and designed the Good Friday agreement, which was then put to a referendum of the people. Although the hon. Gentlemen are entitled to their view, I ask the hon. Member for Lagan Valley to bear in mind the fact that he is out of kilter with the vast majority of his fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.
I always listen closely to the speeches of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. However, may I ask him perhaps to get his language right for once? It may help his judgment as we move forward. He genuinely wants a peaceful society in Northern Ireland, but the way in which we achieve it is important.
It is easy to be a critic and to say that we should stand still or look back to some wonderful period in the past, but that is not the reality for the people of Northern Ireland, and it has not been the policy of the Government or the previous Administration in trying to develop a different environment in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman needs to get his language right to begin to understand the breadth of the debate and to look for a new basis for his judgments. There may be political judgments involved. He may be interested in a future bid for the leadership of his party; I do not know. I am not interested in the internal politics of the Ulster Unionists—I am interested in what is right for all the people of Northern Ireland.
My concern is to ensure that there is progress. Everybody agrees that there is not progress currently. One reason for that is the problem that I identified when the Good Friday agreement was signed. I said that the provisions on decommissioning were inadequate, would be the Achilles heel of the agreement and would lead to a breakdown. My judgment is not in question because time has proven that it was correct. I want to put that situation right and ensure that we use the opportunity of the review to correct what was wrong and to move forward.
Judgment requires alternatives. The hon. Gentleman has not given us any. How do we move the process forward? Is it simply by saying that things are going to fail, being a constant critic and trying to undermine what the people have voted for?
I have always said that that is a difficult part of the process. The previous Administration took it on board when there was no ceasefire. Different circumstances applied and there have been attempts to define what happened differently, but terrorist prisoners were being released early when there was no ceasefire. We now have substantial ceasefires from the main terrorist and paramilitary organisations. If that is not progress, I do not know what is. A look at the statistics for the number of people killed, maimed and injured over the past 30 years shows what progress has been made. The stage that we are at is not enough. It must be improved on, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others are seeking to achieve that.
The establishment of the devolved Administration was a huge step forward for the people of Northern Ireland. The Government are determined to ensure that what we achieved on the back of the Good Friday agreement and the establishment of the devolved Administration has substance. That is why my right hon. Friend made his decision last week. We have to move forward on all parts of the agreement. My right hon. Friend made that clear when we debated the legislation on the suspension of the Administration. We hope that the suspension will be shortlived, but that depends on all those involved playing a major role.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) tends to be free with his insults. That is part of the debate in the House. I try not to insult back, but I see the hon. Gentleman as a pedant—so much so that I sometimes lose track of what he is trying to say. He reads out documents and interprets them for everyone. He and the hon. Member for Spelthorne asked whether the date given was the final one. We have established a date. For argument's sake, if we needed one extra day to get all the weapons, are the hon. Gentlemen suggesting that I should not come back to the House and amend the order? I hope not. We may need another day or another month. Judgments have to be made all the time. If we are making progress, we want it to be solid and firm. It is not in our mind to come back and amend the date.
The date is clearly set out in the Good Friday agreement. It is an objective to which people have signed up, and that is why we have set it forth. I made the point for argument's sake, and I hope that I will not have to come back. If I do not, it will mean that substantial progress has been made.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry did not rise when I made that point, so I presume that if I have to come back with an amended date, he will be supportive.
We have had a good debate. I commend the order to the House.