I beg to move,
That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2001, which was laid before this House on 27th March, be approved.
The order appoints 27 February 2002 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 the 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. The initial period had to end before 27 February 1998, but the Act gave the Secretary of State power, by order, to extend the scheme by a maximum of 12 months at any one time. Four such orders have been made to date. Under the one made in May last year, the amnesty period will expire at midnight on 19 May this year. The day appointed in any order must not be more than five years after the enactment of the 1997 Act. The Act took effect on 27 February 1997, so the five-year period that it envisages will end at midnight on 26 February 2002. The order therefore extends the period during which an amnesty may be provided to the maximum extent that is permitted under the Act.
The Prime Minister and Taoiseach stated at Hillsborough castle on 5 May last year that
the remaining steps necessary to secure full implementation of the Agreement can be achieved by June 2001.
That remains the Government's position. We are absolutely clear that we want to see substantial progress on decommissioning by June.
The report published on 22 March by the decommissioning commission, confirming the IRA's re-engagement and the continued engagement of the UVF and UFF, is to be welcomed. The commission stated in its report that
events in the last few weeks lead us to believe that progress … can be made
on decommissioning. Those are encouraging words for all of us who want the agreement to be implemented in full.
It would be unrealistic, however, to expect all decommissioning, including decommissioning by loyalist groups, to be completed by 19 May, when the current amnesty period will expire. The reality is that, as part of the Government's commitment to the full implementation of the agreement, we must continue to provide the means by which terrorist weapons can be put permanently beyond use.
It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning can fulfil its remit, which is to determine exactly how the mechanics of decommissioning should operate. That is the purpose and effect of the 1997 Act, which envisaged a maximum period of five years within which an immunity from prosecution might be required. Parliament approved that arrangement, and has also approved the renewal of immunity on a periodic basis. That is why the Government have brought the order before the House.
In preparing the order, we considered the possibility of setting a June date for the expiry of the amnesty provisions. However, the Government did not think that extending the period for only a few weeks after 19 May was sensible. The reality is that decommissioning is a voluntary act, and it is not only the IRA who must decommission. Some of the loyalist groups that are committed to the agreement have made it clear that they will consider decommissioning only after the IRA has made tangible progress.
It would therefore be counterproductive not to have some flexibility over timing, and it would not help the process if we had to keep coming back to the House every few weeks. A longer time scale has therefore been chosen.
The Government believe that extending the length of the amnesty for the full period permitted by the Act is more advisable than setting a June date, because we do not want unnecessarily to restrict the decommissioning commission's room for manoeuvre.
The commission must be able to deal with arms from any paramilitary organisation, and it must have the tools to do so. In effect, we must provide the tools to help General de Chastelain and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to ensure that decommissioning takes place.
The Government, with the Irish Government and all the pro-agreement parties, have a responsibility to do everything in their power to secure the decommissioning of arms held by all paramilitary organisations. We are totally committed to that objective.
It is worth while putting the matter in context. It would be wrong to lose sight of the considerable progress on illegally held weapons since the Good Friday agreement was made in April 1998. The ceasefires have helped to create a context in which peace, prosperity and stability can flourish. It may not be a perfect peace, but it is preferable to what preceded it. The decommissioning commission issued a positive statement on 22 March, setting out the nature of its recent contact with the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters, and stating its belief that progress could be made.
In addition, there have been two separate, encouraging reports from the independent arms inspectors Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, detailing their inspection of a number of IRA weapons dumps. The IRA has stated publicly that it is prepared to put its arms completely and verifiably beyond use. All those stages constitute real progress in our pursuit of a peaceful, non-violent society in Northern Ireland.
However positive those developments, they are not enough on their own. They do not constitute actual decommissioning and they have not yet resulted in illegally held weapons being placed completely and verifiably beyond use. That is our ultimate goal. The Belfast agreement requires it, and all parties to the agreement agreed to work to achieve it. The Government, with the Irish Government, are committed to bringing it about through discussions with all the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland. Renewal of the amnesty provisions is essential to that goal.
Decommissioning is a central part of the Good Friday agreement. Removing permanently the bomb and the bullet from Northern Ireland politics is essential if the new era of peace and normality that the agreement envisages is to be established on a stable and lasting basis. To achieve that, we must work through the arrangements that are already in place, through the IICD and the mechanisms set up by the Decommissioning Act 1997.
I commend the order to the House.
Conservative Members will not oppose the order. After all, the previous Conservative Government introduced the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. As the Minister has pointed out, the legislation was intended to encourage voluntary decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland. It sought to do that by providing immunity from prosecution for terrorists who gave up arms and explosives, and by prohibiting any forensic testing of them.
The amnesty period for which the Act provides initially ran for a year from the date on which it was passed—27 February 1997—though it could be extended for further periods of up to 12 months for up five years. The Act also established the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to deal with the modalities of decommissioning and to verify that it had taken place. We pay tribute to the work that has been carried out by General John de Chastelain and his team in very difficult circumstances over the past four years. He has achieved an almost unique position in Northern Ireland, in that he has been able to gain the trust and confidence of all sides.
Although we shall not oppose the order, we deeply regret that it has been necessary to introduce it and to prolong the amnesty period until 27 February 2002. The reason is clear: despi
a complete cessation of military hostilities.
The Belfast agreement made it clear that the decommissioning of all illegally held weapons was to be achieved within two years of the referendum—that is, by 22 May 2000. That deadline came and went. However, in May last year, in what appeared to be a breakthrough, the IRA promised to begin the process of putting its arms completely and verifiably beyond use. It said that it would re-engage with the de Chastelain commission, and promised to open some arms dumps for inspection by the team of independent inspectors, to demonstrate that its guns remained silent.
Like the Government, we welcomed the IRA statement, although, as the Prime Minister made clear in the House, inspections of arms dumps could not be a substitute for decommissioning or, to use the jargon, "delivery of product". Since then, there have been two reported inspections of arms dumps by Mr. Ahtisaari and Mr. Ramaphosa. The IRA re-engaged with de Chastelain only on 8 March—the first contact since last summer. We await the next report of General de Chastelain's decommissioning commission with interest, to find out exactly how productive those discussions have been, although the Minister will forgive me if, on the basis of the terrorists' past performance, we do not hold our breath. The blunt truth is that despite last May's statement we, and the people of the island of Ireland who want nothing more than to see the gun taken out of Irish politics for good, are still waiting for decommissioning.
There are those who say that the fact that the terrorist guns are silent is sufficient. They are wrong. Decommissioning is crucial for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that its absence remains the single most important obstacle to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, which has yet to be implemented. The issue of decommissioning is also proving to be the single most destabilising factor in the entire political process.
The single most important commodity in the process is confidence, and it is essential that decommissioning should take place if we are to maintain the confidence within the Unionist community that is vital if the process is to succeed. Decommissioning is essential if the paramilitaries are to demonstrate once and for all that the war is over and that they are committed, in the words of the Belfast agreement, to
exclusively democratic and peaceful means".
The refusal or failure to decommission is clearly incompatible with that commitment. Until decommissioning takes place, there will always be a lingering suspicion about the true intentions of the paramilitaries: a suspicion that if they do not ultimately get their way through political debate, a return to violence remains an option. People will be entitled to ask why, if the terrorists are committed to peaceful and democratic means, they need to hang on to the weapons of terror.
Sadly, it still appears that Sinn
Decommissioning should happen because, quite simply, it remains fundamentally wrong in a democracy such as the United Kingdom's to have Ministers serving in government—apart from temporarily—while they are associated with an organisation that retains weapons. Decommissioning should happen, for as long the island of Ireland is awash with guns and explosives, the chance of them falling into the hands of dissident organisations that reject the Belfast agreement is significantly increased.
We are all aware of the serious threat posed by dissident organisations on both sides, not just in Northern Ireland, where serious loss of life has been avoided only through a combination of good fortune and skill on the part of the security forces, but here in Great Britain, as the recent bomb in Shepherd's Bush showed.
Decommissioning should happen because it is the clear will of the people of Northern Ireland and the will of the people of the Irish Republic. They voted in 1998 to take the gun out of Irish politics: they voted for decommissioning. They did not vote for an armed peace. By refusing to decommission, the paramilitaries show their contempt for the views of the people in whose name and cause they have so often claimed to act.
For all those reasons, decommissioning should take place, and it should take place soon. In their statement of 5 May last year, the British and Irish Governments set out the process for the full implementation of the agreement, which envisaged decommissioning taking place by June of this year. For that to happen, it would presumably have to begin in the next few weeks.
With that deadline in mind, we are somewhat surprised that the Government have chosen to extend the amnesty provisions in the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 for the fullest possible period, to next February. Is not there a case for extending the amnesty only until June, as a clear indication of the importance that the Government attach to that date and of the urgent need for decommissioning to take place?
The decision to extend the amnesty until next February risks sending out a message that the Government have already accepted that decommissioning will not take place within the time scale envisaged last year. If so, that would be truly regrettable. We look to the Minister to reassure us that that is not the case, that decommissioning remains an urgent necessity, and that all pressure will continue to be put on the republican and so-called loyalist paramilitaries to carry it out. Everyone else has done their bit and, often at great political risk, fulfilled their obligations. Surely it is time for the paramilitaries to deliver on theirs.
First, I apologise to the Minister for missing the first couple of minutes of the debate. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) was here and reported to me what he said. I listened to his careful words and to the careful words of the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), and I can be brief. The view in my party and among Members on these Benches is similar to that expressed from the Conservative Front Bench.
It is clearly right that when the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 was passed, a possible five-year period, renewable on a regular basis, was envisaged—that was the end point contemplated then. It is also clearly right that forward steps have been taken. The two people appointed to undertake the monitoring are held in great esteem internationally and are highly regarded in their job. Likewise, General de Chastelain has become an accepted broker with the paramilitaries.
However, we are getting near the end of the period—the new Secretary of State is as aware of that as anybody—and our nervousness is shared much more every day by people in the Province who have to live their lives in circumstances that the rest of us experience only occasionally. The promises and the indications given have yet to be delivered.
We will not divide the House. We accept the Government's good faith, and know that they are trying to bring about delivery of the agreement and decommissioning; but one or two matters appear to remain unspoken, and I hope that the Minister will deal with them.
First, the last Secretary of State and the Prime Minister implied that we could realistically expect an agreement to be concluded by June this year. We are now dealing with the order in early April. If pressure had been put on all the parties, there might have been a logic—as the hon. Member for Solihull implied—in delaying the order or giving it a shorter life, so that pressure could be seen to be exerted to achieve the June deadline. Will the Minister tell us whether he contemplated either a shorter order or delaying tonight's debate until nearer the June date—a date in May, when the current order runs out—to put pressure on the parties to deliver the goods which, as the hon. Gentleman said, have not yet been delivered?
My second point is this: it is obviously a good thing that the IRA has made two statements, one last year and one this year, saying that it is willing to engage with the de Chastelain commission, but that was against a background of talks having been broken off in the first place. Can the Government give the House and the people of Northern Ireland any idea of whether further progress has been made? Is there any possibility that a date is to be fixed on which General de Chastelain will be able to give a positive indication of progress? Are the Government aware of any good news in the pipeline? Have there been a number of meetings between the IRA and the commission on which the Minister can report to the House; if so, how many?
I know that we clutch at straws to some extent, but they must be more than straws before long. They must be solid pieces of building material, to enable the peace desired by the Government and all other democratic parties in the House to be achieved.
Obviously I do not deal with these matters as often as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), but I understand that the weapons dumps have been inspected twice in the past 10 months. That is all well and good, but what the people of Northern Ireland want is exactly what the hon. Member for Solihull said they wanted, and what the rest of us want. We want not just inspections, but destruction. We do not just want a monitoring process; at the end of the day, we want the weapons to go. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether, as of tonight, the Government have been given any indication that there is not merely a willingness for a further inspection to take place, but a willingness for the weapons to disappear by the end of the period.
Time is running out for the amnesty; time is running out for people to show that they mean what they say. Time is running out for a response to the perfectly proper initiatives that the Government have taken, with the support of all sides. We cannot call too strongly—on behalf of all the people of Ireland, north and south—for a response. We cannot go on saying, "Tomorrow, or later, will be time enough".
The order is a technical measure. It is necessary because, without such an amnesty provision, actual decommissioning could never occur. Obviously we shall want the order to be made, to provide for that. As the current amnesty period will expire on 19 May, it is clearly necessary for it to be extended. I therefore support the order, subject to a reservation similar to that mentioned by other Members, to which I shall return shortly.
Clearly, the debate will range beyond the technical measure to review what has—or, more precisely, has not—happened with regard to decommissioning over the period. The starting point is the discussions that took place in Hillsborough in May last year. At that time, the Government set June this year as the point at which full implementation of all aspects of the agreement should be achieved. The original date set for full implementation was May 2000, but in view of the circumstances at that time, the Government moved it to June this year, which was regrettable but necessary.
At that time—May last year—we were encouraged by the undertaking given by the IRA to put its weapons beyond use, completely and verifiably. Our expectation was that the IRA would engage with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and agree a method by which the weapons would be put beyond use. We expected the republican movement to approach de Chastelain with ideas about how that could be done, so that a fresh scheme could be made and the weapons dealt with. Provided that the weapons were permanently beyond use or unavailable, people in Northern Ireland would have been satisfied.
Regrettably, although there was some contact—a telephone call, I believe—in May or June last year, there was no engagement. The failure of the republican movement to keep its promise resulted in the decision that I took, supported by my party, to impose what sanctions we could on the political representatives of the republican movement, barring them from the North-South Ministerial Council and possibly other meetings. That sanction has been and will be maintained until serious progress occurs. I am convinced that the republican movement has moved only under pressure. Any thought that progress can be achieved without pressure being applied is, I believe, quite illusory.
Republicans have recently made undertakings to renew contact with General de Chastelain and his commission and to have further discussions, and reference has been made to a report issued by the commission on 22 March. I commend General de Chastelain's recent reports. The most recent ones have been quite detailed and are worth reading closely. When the report of 22 March is read closely, it reveals that no progress has been made. Some who have spoken today have drawn encouragement from some of the language used in that report, but it is clear that there has been no progress.
There has been a meeting—one—between de Chastelain and a representative of the IRA, but the language used about that meeting is interesting. De Chastelain says that the participants reviewed events over the course of the past year and discussed a basis for further discussions. One can contrast that with the references to meetings that de Chastelain has had recently with representatives of the UVF and UFF, at which he says they renewed their commitment to decommissioning and their general agreement on modalities.
There is commitment and agreement on methodology from the loyalist paramilitaries, but with the republican movement there has not yet been discussion on the means by which weapons would be put beyond use, let alone any agreement. As I read that report, I conclude that there has not yet been any serious engagement between the republican movement and the IICD—contact, yes; a meeting, yes; but no serious engagement. I regard that as a very serious matter. June is the date for full implementation. As has been said, if we are to see serious decommissioning in June, there will have to be agreement on methodology and various matters will have to be sorted out in advance of that date. The time in which to do that is running out.
The danger of this order is that setting or renewing the amnesty period right through until February of next year could create the impression that June was being undermined as the date by which full implementation will occur. It is very important that nothing that is said tonight on either side of the House should undermine June as the key date by which implementation has been agreed. Whatever the position might be in an amnesty order, de Chastelain's mandate was renewed in May of last year until June. That mandate derives from an agreement that was made by all the parties; it can only be extended by all the parties.
I know from discussions with General de Chastelain that he is aware that his credibility and that of his commission is at stake. If no serious progress is made between now and June, he is well aware of the possible effect on the decommissioning process and his commission's credibility. It is therefore important that all parties who wish to see progress on this issue should maintain the emphasis on June and maintain the pressure on the republican movement. They should make it clear to the republicans that there will be no extension of the de Chastelain mandate without serious progress on this issue. I intend to maintain that pressure, with regard not only to the sanctions that we have applied to the republican movement but to other matters. We shall take whatever course of action we consider most appropriate to reinforce the pressure on the republicans, because there has to be progress on this issue.
I shall not weary the House by saying why that progress is necessary. The reasons have been mentioned by the hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). An additional reason is that there is already a significant worry that material, explosives and weapons held by the mainstream IRA are leaking into dissident republican organisations. There is some evidence of that happening from the devices that have been used. For that reason if no other, it is necessary for these weapons to be made permanently unusable and permanently unavailable. If we have progress on that, we can then start to tackle—effectively, I hope—the way in which some paramilitary gangs are transmuting themselves into Mafia-type organisations.
The people of Northern Ireland appreciate the progress that has been made so far, but they are conscious of the fact that the job is not yet done. A lot of hard work remains to be done to achieve the goal that we have set ourselves of producing a normal, peaceful society that operates in a wholly democratic fashion.
The thesis that has been stated in this House over and over again about the agreement—so-called—has been a simple one. It is that we can wean people away from criminal acts, violence and murder by making concessions to them. The whole of the agreement is built on that thesis. We have heard it repeatedly. People have emphasised that if we give it time, it will certainly succeed.
The people of Northern Ireland see the leaders of Sinn Fein-IRA every day. They hear what they say on television; they hear what they say in the Assembly and at their political meetings. There is no reason to believe that they have changed any of their views. A recent leaflet from Sinn Fein-IRA circulated in west Belfast makes that very clear. It tells the people of west Belfast, "We are able to make an announcement that we have succeeded in ridding you of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The police reserve which persecuted and tortured you and helped to destroy you will be off the streets in one year's time."
The leaflet goes on to say, "These people carried out against the nationalist people this campaign of torture and murder and on every occasion did that which they ought not to have done." It says, however, that the RUC will be off the streets. It says that those people are scum. It also says, "If they take employment among you, you have to make their life hell on earth. You must report them, and you must break the scum." Those are not my words, but the words being circulated among the Sinn Fein constituency. The heart has not changed.
Anyone in Northern Ireland listening to us will know how far this debate is from reality.
I am sure that it is, and I am sure that it will be widely circulated.
Can any hon. Member bring me evidence showing that any of the leaders of IRA-Sinn Fein have changed at all in regard to the Royal Ulster Constabulary or the British Army? We remember the days when, every Christmas, the IRA and Sinn Fein issued the statement, "Have a member of the British Army for dinner—they taste beautiful." That is the nature of the matter.
We need to read the history of the republican leaders in the south of Ireland, De Valera and the rest of them. They knew that those men would not be changed. Their own leaders knew that they would not be changed. Hon. Members may think that they have changed because we have let them all out of prison, given them this, that and the other thing, put money into their hands and did all those other things, but they have not changed. There will come a reaping day for Northern Ireland, but it will be the people of Northern Ireland and not hon. Members sitting comfortably in this place who will have that reaping day. As was rightly said, why do they want to hold on to their arms if they are not going to use them?
It is absolutely wrong for any hon. Member to say that the IRA's arms are under constant inspection. Only a very small part of their arms has ever been properly inspected. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does not know how many arms they have or what percentage of arms is in those bunkers. Nor were those who inspected the arms in the bunkers the second time able to count every one of them and say, "They are all totted up and everything is all right." The inspectors had no idea whatever.
We have had a demonstration to try to alleviate people's fears, but they have not been alleviated. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) tells us that people are happy about the situation, but I have met no one who is happy about the situation. I have met no one of the Roman Catholic faith attending one of my advice centres who was happy about the situation. People are concerned when guns are in the hands of any section of the community and held on to. For what purpose are those guns held on to? As a leading MLA told us some time ago, if those people do not get their way, they will go back to doing what they do best. That man is the Chairman of one of the Assembly's important Committees. That is what we are up against.
We have put off this evil day. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann tells us that an agreement was made that June was to be the deadline. He says that we should not depart from that. If we are not departing from that, what are we doing by spreading the matter into next year? Why do we not stick to June and say that that is it? But we are not doing that; we are putting it off for another year because some Members of the House think that Unionist people will tire and say, "Oh, let them keep their arms. After all, they're not doing any harm."
No democratic Government can survive when members of that Government have access to arms that they will use if they cannot get their own way. That is the position in Northern Ireland.
As for the so-called loyalist paramilitaries, they will not disarm either. They have made that clear. No matter what they say to the general, they will not disarm. However, because they have little strength in the polls, they are not in the Government, whereas the leaders of IRA-Sinn Fein are in the Government of Northern Ireland.
Tonight, the House is putting its hand to a very, very foolish measure. It is giving IRA-Sinn Fein a prolonged period—another year—to plan, scheme and keep moving in the direction of their agenda. Their agenda is not peace; it is control. If that control does not come through the ballot box, it will come through the bullet and the bomb.
I shall vote against the motion. I think that the majority of people in Northern Ireland would want it voted against, because it extends to the IRA the liberty to go on and on—to hold on to weapons of murder and to attack those who bore the heat and the burden in those hard and evil days. It is a shame and a disgrace that we should be asked to do that tonight.
People in Northern Ireland who may be watching the debate on satellite television will consider it most unreal. Once again, the Government show that they are being strung along by the Provisional IRA. They are extending the amnesty beyond the time that they themselves said would be the final period for the full implementation of decommissioning in Northern Ireland.
It was a sad spectacle when the leader of the Ulster Unionist party made his comments in the debate. He should hang his head in shame. He was suckered by the IRA into making concessions to it, on the basis that he believed IRA members when they said that they would decommission within a two-year period. Although they have not delivered, he believes them again, makes more concessions and allows them a further year to decommission.
Does any hon. Member believe that the full decommissioning process will have taken place by the end of June, as required in the agreement that was reached last May? I suspect that not too many hon. Members believe that that will happen—if any. Certainly, the Minister of State does not believe it, because if he really did believe it, he would not be asking for the period to be extended beyond June to next February. That is a clear indication that the Government recognise that, once again, the IRA will not decommission.
The truth is that, far from decommissioning, the IRA is stockpiling more weapons. We had some evidence of that when a court case took place in Florida. The FBI in Miami undertook an investigation, at the end of which it concluded that the decisions that related to that particular gun-running effort were taken
at the very highest level of the Provisional IRA.
What is the highest level of the Provisional IRA? It is its army council. Who is on the army council of the Provisional IRA? The chief of staff is Thomas "Slab" Murphy. The assistant chief is Brian Keenan. The other members are Martin McGuinness, the Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Assembly; Gerard Adams, leader of Sinn Fein; Martin Ferris, another Sinn Fein member; Patrick Doherty, another Sinn Fein member; and Brian Gillen. They are the seven members of the army council of the Provisional IRA, a majority of whom are members of Sinn Fein.
Those are the people with whom the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has been dealing. They are the people who he is prepared to believe would decommission the weapons. According to the FBI in Miami, they are the people who took the decision to run more guns into the country, and we are told that their word is being taken in considering decommissioning in Northern Ireland.
How much do the Government have to be suckered? How much does the right hon. Member for Upper Bann have to be suckered before he recognises that Sinn Fein-IRA are simply stringing them all along, sucking the concessions from them and giving nothing in return? They may not understand that, but the people of Northern Ireland do. The people of Northern Ireland will take the earliest opportunity to tell the right hon. Gentleman what they think of his trusting the Provisional IRA.
When I sat down to read the order, I thought that it would be instructive to look at the chronology of events. I noticed that the first piece of delegated legislation on decommissioning appeared in March 1998, and the second appeared in February 1999, extending the deadline to February 2000. In February 2000, the deadline was extended to 23 May 2000, which gives an indication of the high hopes that were around at that time. On 20 May 2000, the deadline was extended to 20 May 2001—for a year, which is all that was possible.
It is fairly certain that the general election will be held on 7 June, although Ministers may not think so. If they do not, they must be the only people in the country who do not think that it will take place on 7 June. We are now debating the issue again today, so that the deadline can be extended to 27 February 2002—the last day of the five-year period, when the sunset clause takes effect and the legislation falls.
Of course, that raises a very interesting question. The Secretary of State made it perfectly plain very recently that the June deadline remained. What happens in June when no weapons have been surrendered for destruction? Beyond that, what happens in February next year when the decommissioning legislation dies? We have not been told that. Before we are finished this evening, we should be told what the consequences will be in June of the failure to decommission or destroy weapons and what happens as from February next year. Do all the benefits of the legislation fall? Can any weapons that are surrendered then be taken for forensic testing? I think that we should be told. If the legislation falls, surely we go back to the situation that existed before it went on the statute book.
The chronology of events shows that the Government have exhibited in relation to the IRA an annual triumph of hope over experience, We should not be under any illusions as to the views that Lord Mayhew—the former Secretary of State—took when proposing the legislation originally. As far as he was concerned, it was an absolutely vital element of the peace process that weaponry was surrendered and destroyed. It was not only Lord Mayhew who took that as a litmus test; it was treated as such by the right hon. Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam) when she was Secretary of State. She made it absolutely clear that this was a most unusual piece of legislation, in that it suspended the normal criminal law, as she said on 22 February 1999 when the legislation was being renewed.
We have taken the serious step of suspending the normal criminal law, allowing people to do things that normally constitute criminal acts and to get away with them without charge, all in the hope that we would get the Provisional IRA, their fellow travellers and other terrorist organisations on the republican and loyalist side to surrender their weapons.
The Minister of State made it clear in May last year that if there were no extension, there was no hope of progress on decommissioning. Apparently the right hon. Gentleman was convinced—less than a year ago—that there was going to be progress on decommissioning. I hope that he does not feel too disappointed this evening that he has had to come back for another year. Perhaps he is just a slow learner and has not yet understood that the Provisional IRA and their fellow travellers have not the slightest intention of giving up their weapons.
A number of different wordings have been used at one time or another and, given that the debate only has a short time to run, I will not go into them. However, the right hon. Member for Redcar made it perfectly clear that the Decommissioning Commission was intended to collect and destroy the arms or to bring about the destruction of the arms by those who possessed them. Other options were also open, including the handing over of weapons for destruction.
Later on, the language changed. We had "decommissioning", "putting permanently beyond use" and "looking at things in the round". In other words, all sorts of excuses were being made for not making it clear to the IRA that weapons had to be handed over and visibly and verifiably destroyed. If I were a member of the IRA and I saw the Government changing their language and softening their approach, 1 would be greatly encouraged not to move one millimetre. That has happened; the IRA never had any intention of giving up their weapons. They intend to hold on to them and use them as blackmail against the democratic process, the ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland and the Government. The threat is there; they have the guns and the bombs and, if necessary, they will use them to get their own way.
The Secretary of State made it clear a week or so ago that the target date of June this year would not be affected by the order. If he had not extended the deadline to February but had made the cut-off date 1 July, the Provisional IRA might have been more likely to believe him. Be that as it may, he has decided on February next year. His reputation in Northern Ireland will depend on whether he sticks to that date. It was not my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) or me but the Secretary of State—speaking for the Government—who said the end of June. If he cannot keep his word, he need not tell the people of Northern Ireland anything else. They will just not believe him.
June rather than February is still the operative date, but I still want to know what will happen at the end of June and what will happen next February if no weapons have been given up. What will the outcome be? Are we expected to forget completely the fact that an armed terrorist organisation with the capability to cause considerable death and destruction is sitting in government in Northern Ireland? It is being treated as a normal political party and it is feted across the world as though it has not been all that bad. Its members are viewed as though they fought a little war for freedom rather than as the ruthless, murderous thugs that they are. They live off the backs of the people of Northern Ireland and are involved in every sort of crime. They practise intimidation and terror every single day. The sooner we have clear answers to my questions, the better for all concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that the debate seemed to be very far from reality. When one considers the opening remarks of the Minister of State and the speeches of other Members, it is clear that they are far from reality. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred to clutching at straws and said that we needed solid building material. There is no doubt that we are clutching at straws when we try to get any reality or reason into this debate by considering what is happening in the Province.
The Minister's opening speech was revealing. I noticed that he was busily munching sweets when my colleagues were speaking, but I remind him of what he said. He took us back to the Belfast agreement and to the promise of May 2000 when we were supposed to have the total decommissioning of terrorist weapons. He reminded us that nothing happened in May 2000—just the empty void, being led by the nose and being suckered by the provos laughing all the way to the bank having got concession after concession from gullible Governments and previous Secretaries of State, especially the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam).
The right hon. Lady prostrated herself even in the prison itself in front of the provos to try to get them on to her train. It was a disgraceful and despicable act. She crawled to some of the greatest and vilest terrorists that have ever lived in our Province, who rained sorrow and tragedy on the people of the Province and the United Kingdom.
At the end of May 2000, nothing happened, but we were told that there had been a breakthrough. That breakthrough led to more concessions by the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who has just left his seat to carry out some other business. The breakthrough was restoring Martin McGuinness and Barbara Brown—Bairbre de Brun—to their special places holding ministerial office over the people they had murdered and destroyed during the years of terror.
We had the promise of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. I should like to ask the Minister of State this question: what has been the cost of that commission from the time that de Chastelain started his work to now? The people of the United Kingdom have met that cost and it would be interesting to find out exactly how much it is. People in the Province cannot get cancer operations and heart operations when they need them, but there seems to be an endless amount of money going to the commission. It would be interesting the learn the precise cost of that farce of a decommissioning commission.
Anyone who knows the reality knows fine well that the provos never had any intention and still have no intention of giving up their weapons. They are stringing people along in the knowledge that all they have to do is make another little gesture to get another round of concessions. They have every reason to believe that, because time after time they have got concession after concession—a stream of concessions has flowed to the republican movement. It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) say that we have to maintain pressure on the republican movement—that will make the provos shudder and tremble in their shoes, given what pressure has been applied until now!
The Royal Ulster Constabulary and its reserve have been trampled in the gutter. The leader of my party, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), has read a document sent in the name of Sinn Fein-IRA throughout the Province: it calls the gallant RUC, GC "scum". The leopard has not changed its spots. Previous Secretaries of State have thrown their arms around those people and photographs record the kisses they had along the way with the darlings of the movement. Decent people were sick and continue to be sick.
The Secretary of State might find that funny, but I tell him that the decent people will have an opportunity to speak in the forthcoming general election. Whether he likes it or not, he will have to listen to the authentic voice of the Unionist population, because the ballot box will give that authentic voice when, in a few months at most, the Prime Minister decides finally to call it. Roll on that election—let the people speak. The people of Northern Ireland are not those who are courted by the Secretary of State, lauded, applauded and given positions. The people are the ordinary, decent voters of Northern Ireland who sent me here, even though the Labour party did not want the hon. Member for South Antrim to be a member of the Democratic Unionist party. They sent me here as their authentic voice. They will return me as that authentic voice whenever the election comes, and I shall be happy to put my record before them at that time.
We are told that the deadline is June 2001, but June 2001 is coming and the Minister of State knows that there are no guns, so what do the Government do? They move the deadline to the furthest date possible under the legislation, to February 2002. None the less, the Minister of State knows the provos and knows full well that they have no intention of giving up their weapons. If they had such an intention, why would they be arming and re-arming?
I think that the Minister of State thinks that he is in a funny house. He should stand on the ground with the people of my constituency and the Province—the people who to this very day suffer under the terror of the provos. There was nothing funny about what happened last night, when the gunmen fired their weapons and houses were petrol-bombed in Glengormley and Cookstown. The provos go on day after day, week after week. They have not given up their old path and have never moved an inch from their original direction and what they espoused in imposing their weaponry of fear on ordinary people. Yet the Minister said that de Chastelain's report was "encouraging". It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann said that no progress has been made, and that there has not been any serious engagement. Is that encouraging?
Once the provos were applauded for letting two of their dumps be seen, but which dump were the guns from Florida going to? At the same time, they were taking part in the peace process and Martin McGuinness, who was involved, was making authorisations. The Secretary of State has told my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim that he does not believe in those pieces of paper. However, he knows full well who is the leader of the provos.
The Secretary of State may not discuss them, but the reason why he cannot is that he is embracing the people mentioned on them as Ministers over the people of Northern Ireland. They have committed murder. Martin McGuinness appears on one piece of paper as a member of the army council of the provos, yet that organisation carries on murdering to this day. It continues with intimidation and threats and holds its community to ransom. The Secretary of State knows that full well, but does not want to discuss it because the Government have embraced those people as the new democrats. If they are new democrats, God help democracy.
The leopard has not changed his spots. I wish with all my heart that it had, because I know exactly what it is like for the IRA gun to be fired, not at someone else, but at my own. I know what it is like for a bomb to come to my own house; I know what it is like to face terrorist activity; I know what it is like to sit with those who have constantly experienced that. The IRA are still going on. Why else were they bringing in guns? Was that for a Christmas party? No, it was for murder and destruction. IRA and Sinn Fein know that their arguments will never turn the Unionist majority into republicans, and they know that only one weapon can screw the heart out of the Unionist population—the gun. They have never been able, through the power of their oratory, to change the hearts of Unionists, who believe in the right of democracy and the right to decide their destiny and democratic future through the ballot box alone.
Irrespective of whether terrorists are so-called republicans or so called Unionists, there is no place for arms in their hands. That is why law-abiding people want all terrorist arms to be removed from everyone; no one should be left with arms, except the security forces, who have the right to defend the law-abiding people of the United Kingdom. I am therefore telling the House that the provos have blackmailed the Government and told us that they will go back to what they know best. When the stream of concessions stops, they certainly intend to move back to the path of brutality, murder and destruction. The only way to stop that is to have terrorist weaponry removed from terrorists. I know that the Secretary of State—and the Minister of State, who will reply to the debate—will tell me that they believe that this order is the best way to bring that about. In my opinion, and in the opinion of those who elected me to this House, that is totally naive, because the provos never intended to give up their weapons. That is why they are stockpiling more.
There were those who suggested that there was a seepage of weapons—to the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA. Is that why the provos were bringing weapons in? Is that why they had to renew their stockpile? It is said that they have espoused democracy, but no true democrat can have the Armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other.
I believe that the people of Northern Ireland deserve peace—a real and lasting peace—and that that will come about when terrorism and the terrorists, whoever they are, are defeated, and the democrats can rule.
I shall try to deal with all the points that were raised in the debate, and I shall deal first with those raised by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). I accept the fact that he welcomes the order in principle, and I understand some of the reasoning that he used to set himself a position slightly different from that of the Government. I know that he understands that the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, and the way in which the amnesty flows from it, were set up by the previous Administration, so this is continuum.
At that time, it was decided that five years was the period over which such a process was likely to be conducted, after which the Act would come up for further consideration by the House if no progress had been made. Of course, there was no suggestion then that we were likely to achieve the Good Friday agreement. That was a major step forward, as everyone, including the hon. Gentleman, recognised at the time.
In one sense, I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the possibility that some people may take the wrong signals from the extension. That may happen. There is not unanimity of opinion in Northern Ireland; not everyone marches to the same tune. There will be those who seek to exploit what we are doing for their own ends—although I do not say that that is the spirit in which he raised the matter.
Neither the IRA nor Sinn Fein is under any such illusion. They both know that the Government are determined to deliver on the commitment given last May that June is the target date, and remains our objective. That is the way in which the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and of the Republic of Ireland have gone about their business, time after time, constantly seeking to get all the parties round the table and move the process forward. No pro-agreement party should be under any illusion about the Government's determination.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked about the on-going discussions that there may or may not have been between the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the various groups with which it is in contact. It is for the de Chastelain commission to advise the Governments on meetings with the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Freedom Fighters or any other group to which it may be talking.
The commission's most recent report, on 22 March, said that its meeting with the IRA representative had been in good faith. It also stated the commission's expectation that further meetings would occur soon. That was how it reported not only to the Governments but publicly. I would analyse that as progress, and that was how the commission set things out in its statement; it used a word that could lead us to that conclusion. This was not the end of the process, but again, it was part of a momentum towards achieving what we all hope will be the end result.
Further to that, General de Chastelain has made it clear on a number of occasions that if he believes that progress is not possible, he will say so. He has not said that, but he would do so if that is how matters appeared to him. The general's integrity and judgment are beyond question. I know that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey would accept that. There are no secret deals and no secret knowledge. That which the commission obtains from its points of contact is eventually reported on. It is then for the House and the wider community to consider that.
I repeat that if General de Chastelain makes an assessment of the situation and concludes that no progress has been made, he would say so. I am sure that that would resonate widely and deeply in everything that we are doing, but he has not said that yet, nor is there an indication that he is likely to do so. A textual analysis of what he reported on 22 March shows the opposite to be the case.
I pay tribute to the resolute way in which the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has stuck to his task. It has not been an easy task, and I know that he receives many plaudits, but it is worth constantly paying him such compliments, because he has a difficult job trying to lead his party down a route that is difficult for him and for many in the Unionist community.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that he has stuck to his task, as has the Prime Minister. The way in which the two Governments have dealt with the issue and the determination that they have shown is what the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want. They may not necessarily have voted for it or even in support of the Good Friday agreement, but ultimately the objective that we seek is what they want, even those who at present may give electoral support to parties that have not yet totally turned away from violence. That is the mood of wider opinion in Northern Ireland. I am conscious of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman was not present for my opening comments. The June target date remains the operative date for the Government as well.
I shall not spend too long on the comments of the hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), and for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), or even those of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). I have heard their argument time and again. It contains no solution. I understand their criticism. I understand that they say that we offer hope, rather than delivering anything more substantial, but what is the alternative? Is it to go back to the violence and back to war? Is that what they want? Is that what they want to impose on the people of Northern Ireland?
In a moment. I shall deal with some of the offensive comments that the hon. Gentleman made. [Interruption.]
If bombast alone could remove the bullet from Northern Ireland, it would have gone long ago, but shouting, ranting and raving at it does not deliver peace. That will be achieved by careful analysis of the situation, by considering where the problems exist in Northern Ireland, by trying to find points of agreement and by creating the inclusive society envisaged in the Good Friday agreement.
The hon. Member for South Antrim has been shouting at me, but I hope that I have silenced him, for the first time.
It was the provos, not the Minister of State, who tried to silence this hon. Member. It was the provos who tried to murder my family and me. Does not the right hon. Gentleman know how hurtful it is to suggest that we are going back to violence, when we have been the butt of the terrorist violence? We are not taking up any gun. We never pointed any gun at them. We are not doing so now. I find it extremely insulting for him to suggest to someone who believes in democracy and whom the provos have tried to murder that we want to go back to the gun. We want the guns stopped.
I do not for one moment deny the threats that have been suffered by the hon. Gentleman and his family, but I can look around the House and see others who have suffered similar threats. They might not have suffered to the same extent, but the potential was there. Many families have had to accept the possibility of such violence being visited upon them because a member of their family—perhaps a Member of Parliament—had taken the arguments on.
That is the reality that is faced by all of us who deal with these issues, so the hon. Gentleman is not unique. I recognise the sensitivity that is involved. I have not been Minister for victims for so long without understanding the extent and depth of the grief that exists in Northern Ireland. We have tried to tackle that grief sensitively and not to turn our face away from it. We have tried not to exploit the situation, but to heal it. We do not want to create divisions or continue to exploit the sectarian bitterness in Northern Ireland. Instead, we want to try to achieve a better and more decent society. I think that my objectives are different from his.
The hon. Gentleman spoke earlier about the visit made to the Maze by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office when she was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, she did not visit the republican prisoners. She met the so-called loyalist prisoners. He might have recognised some of them, as he shared platforms with some of those very evil people. That is the reality. It was widely recognised that her brave decision ensured that the loyalist groups remained on ceasefire. As we have said consistently, we are not involved in a perfect peace. There are major difficulties—[Interruption.]
Order. I say to the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) that they should keep quiet while they are in a sedentary position. There are strong opinions and they can be expressed strongly in this House, but they must be expressed within the rules of order.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
There are heated views to be expressed, and the temperature has been raised by DUP Members. We are on a difficult road, and this is an imperfect peace. We are seeking a more perfect solution as best we can, so I ask them the same question: if we do not pursue that, then what? Is it more Army, more violence and more of what we had in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s? Is it more of what the DUP does when it says that it does not share government with Sinn Fein, but joins it in Assembly committees? They try to have it both ways. They say publicly that they do not support such arrangements, but I have met joint delegations consisting of DUP and Sinn Fein councillors, as well as other representatives of those two parties. If the DUP is not going to have dealings with Sinn Fein, that should be complete and total; it should do so in no way at all.
I accept that DUP Members understand the importance of democracy and are aware that there is sometimes a need to talk to one's enemy to further one's own political ends. That is what DUP representatives are doing when they participate in joint delegations to meet me as a Minister, as they have done a number of times. I shall not accuse them of hypocrisy, because I cannot use that word. I am sure, however that many people outside the House will question why they do not serve on the Executive with Sinn Fein, but join it in making a variety of other representations.
I would certainly not walk out of this House if Sinn Fein came into it, and I doubt whether any other hon. Member would do so.
The Minister asked about an alternative. I am not sure whether he heard the view that was belatedly expressed by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who said earlier that it is only pressure that has forced Sinn Fein to change its view. Of course, there is no pressure, because, as he conceded he gave in to everything, and that has always been his position. If pressure is the way to achieve progress, could not the utmost pressure be applied to Sinn Fein simply by saying, "You don't get into government until you have decommissioned", rather than by putting it into government first and then asking it to decommission?
The hon. Gentleman does not support the Good Friday agreement; he is therefore out of synch with the majority who supported it. The Good Friday agreement did not make the requirement that he outlined, and the people did not sign up to such a requirement. A series of iterative processes had to he undergone. Some were required of the Government and the Irish Government; others were required of other parties. They are all being taken forward.
Does the hon. Gentleman have a blueprint instead of the Good Friday agreement other than being resolute or saying "No" at a time when republicanism is writ large in the form of the dissident Real IRA? We have never hidden from the fact that violence exists, but we must determine the way in which to overcome it. All of us who are taking forward the Good Friday agreement are trying to achieve that. It would help the process of moving towards a different, better Northern Ireland immeasurably if members of the Democratic Unionist party found it in their hearts to be inclusive, and acknowledged that they might have to sit round a table with those who have opposed them in the past.
Absolutism will not succeed in Northern Ireland; it has not succeeded in the past, and it will not succeed in future. That is why the people of Northern Ireland voted for the Good Friday agreement in such large numbers. They knew the difficulties and problems.
No, I have only a few more minutes.
We have said time and again since May last year that June remains our target date. We are set on that course, which was decided at our last engagement with Sinn Fein at Hillsborough. It remains our position. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported on 22 March that progress had been made. Much more needs to be made.
I set out the reasoning behind extending the amnesty until February next year. It does not alter the target date; it simply takes the amnesty period to the point at which the five years outlined in the Act expire. As I tried to explain earlier, it avoids our retuning to the House time and again to renew the amnesty.
I also pointed out that some so-called loyalist groups said that they would begin their decommissioning only after they witnessed some tangible movement from the IRA. There is therefore a requirement for a period that extends beyond 19 May and the few weeks after that, which some hon. Members requested.
I accept that the order may not be wholly welcome, but we must agree to differ on that. The Government have shown that we can move forward. We have a much more peaceful Northern Ireland with an economic position that makes it stand out from many other regions of the United Kingdom. That would not have happened without the Good Friday agreement and without basing our economic approach on what the agreement will achieve. I therefore ask hon. Members to accept the order, which provides a framework for moving forward.