Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 17th December 2001.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 4:37 pm, 17th December 2001

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I intend to begin by setting out what the Bill does. I shall then explain the political context for the Bill and why it is necessary to introduce it at this time.

The Bill extends the maximum length of the period during which legal immunity may be provided in implementing a decommissioning scheme. It does so by amending section 2 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. Under that Act, the power to provide legal immunity expires on 27 February next year. Clause 1(2) initially extends the maximum period during which legal immunity may be provided until midnight on 26 February 2003. In other words, by today's proceedings the period will be extended by 12 months.

Under the 1997 Act, the Secretary of State has the power by order further to extend the relevant period. Such an extension may not run for more than 12 months after the order is made, or five years after the 1997 Act was passed. Subsection (3) does not affect the former condition: each order would still be subject to a maximum duration of 12 months and require parliamentary approval by affirmative resolution. However, it substitutes 27 February 2007 for the five-year period.

Subsection (4) provides for retrospective effect, if necessary. That means that anything done in accordance with a decommissioning scheme, even if the Bill is not enacted by 26 February next, will, once the Bill is enacted, fall within the legal immunity provided for by the 1997 Act. In short, the Bill extends the existing arrangements for one further year, with the possibility of further extensions, subject always to the approval of this House.

The background to today's proceedings will be well known to some of the participants who are present. Just over five years ago, when the now Lord Mayhew introduced the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill to the House, he observed that, in a democracy, politics and violence do not mix. I agree with that view and I assume that everyone else in the House agrees with it. We all know that in Northern Ireland, we are dealing with a peace, a process and a democracy that are all imperfect by those standards. That is perhaps an inevitable price of the transition from decades of conflict to a normal society. But no democracy can indefinitely tolerate the existence of private armies. No Government can allow people to advance their political objectives, however legitimate they may be in themselves, by the use or threat of violence.

An integral part of the peace process has been to convince those who were previously wedded to violence, including those brought up in the traditions of physical force republicanism, that there is another, better way in which they can pursue their political goals. Many of those so involved learned years ago that they could not achieve their ends by violence alone. It has inevitably been a more difficult challenge to get them all to accept unequivocally that bombs and bullets have absolutely no contribution to make to the work of a truly democratic movement. Indeed, violence is a self-defeating exercise even by the standards of the objectives that some of these movements proclaim, because so long as the use or threat of violence continues, it must follow that violence and the necessary response of society to it are the biggest obstacle to achieving a normal, open and democratic society—the very objective that those using violence so often claim to be pursuing.

It will therefore come as no surprise to anyone in the House that there is still a great deal to be done and more progress to be made, but it is worth reminding ourselves of what has been achieved. In recent years, the political landscape in Northern Ireland has changed beyond recognition. Huge strides have been made on the implementation of all aspects of the Belfast agreement and in improving the daily life of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

I have agreed with almost everything that the Secretary of State has said so far. However, his speech would have been marvellous four and a half years ago, when the Belfast agreement was secured. The agreement stated specifically that all paramilitary arms would have to be decommissioned within two years. However, after two years, plus another two years, plus six months, he is now saying that we will give the paramilitaries another year and perhaps another four years. What is going on?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

If the hon. Gentleman was being absolutely honest with the House, he would have read out the words precisely before those to which he referred, which dealt with a commitment by all the parties to use all their influence to see that all arms were put beyond use within two years. We have clearly not achieved that deadline. Nor did we achieve the deadline of June last year, which was given subsequently, and it seems to me likely that we will not achieve that of 26 February next year. That suggests that deadlines in themselves do not always achieve the objectives that they are meant to achieve. I shall return to that point later.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way on an important point. As he pointed out, the agreement set a target date of 26 May 2000 for the complete disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. Early in May 2000, the Government, with the consent of the other parties, substituted a fresh target date of June 2001. That has now passed. Under what target date are the Government operating for the full implementation of the agreement? Have they abandoned its full implementation as a target?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I shall deal with that exact point later in my speech. I shall comment on deadlines, target dates and the extension that I have already mentioned. Today's action means that we shall debate the matter not at the end of five years, but one year after the extension for which the Bill provides.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Clearly, we are considering a difficult issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that the one example of proper decommissioning by the IRA resulted from a deadline and massive international and national pressure? As he acknowledged, we must build on that if the peace process is to continue. Yet does not the Bill give the opposite signal—that decommissioning can be deferred indefinitely? It means reverting to quiescence, which, although one might hope that it would lead to decommissioning, has led to nothing in the past.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Several factors led to the act of decommissioning, but I do not believe that the pressure of a 26 February deadline was one of them. Pressure came from several sources, which may have included 11 September, the persistent application of pressure by Governments here, in Ireland and in the United States, and the resignation of Mr. Trimble. In my view, the most important factor, and the most important sanction on those engaged in the process, is the possibility of its failure. Such failure is almost beyond imagination for all of us who are involved in it, including those who have embarked on moving away from conflict to dialogue.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Let me take the Secretary of State back to an important point. He rightly cited the Belfast agreement as placing an obligation on the parties to decommission completely in two years. Does he accept that Sinn Fein-IRA was one party or does he buy into the fiction that Sinn Fein and the IRA are separate organisations?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

No. Obviously Sinn Fein was a signatory to the Belfast agreement, and the hon. Gentleman knows that the IRA was not. Sinn Fein therefore committed itself to using all its power and influence to achieve decommissioning.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

So the right hon. Gentleman accepts the fiction that Sinn Fein and the IRA are separate organisations, which make decisions separately and can be regarded as separate for the purpose of the Belfast agreement?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I do not accept that every member of Sinn Fein is a member of the IRA or that they are completely identical. [Hon. Members: "Answer the question."] With respect, that was the question. The hon. Gentleman appears to insist that the obvious relationship between them means that they must be identical in all ways. I do not accept that.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way yet again. He is at odds with the Prime Minister, who said at Balmoral on 14 May 1998:

"we know that for example Sinn Fein and the IRA remain inextricably linked".

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The Labour party and the trade union movement are inextricably linked but they are not identical.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

There is nothing incompatible between my comments and those of the Prime Minister, and if—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State, but David Burnside must not remain on his feet when the Secretary of State is responding to an earlier intervention. He must wait until the right hon. Gentleman has dealt with that.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

David Burnside is keen to catch my eye, but I assure him that I would not be discourteous enough to miss him, especially in the position that he has been in for the last minute or so.

I would say to Mr. Davies that, of course, all of us recognise that there is an inextricable link between Sinn Fein and the IRA, but that is not what he asked me. He asked me whether they were identical organisations. Plainly, anyone who knows anything about the matter understands that they are not, any more than the trade union movement and the Labour party are absolutely the same. If he thinks that the only analysis can be complete identity or complete separation between the two organisations, he does not understand—indeed, he underestimates—the sophistication of the opponents that he is trying to deal with.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a single leadership in Sinn Fein-IRA, which is personified at the top by Martin McGuinness being chief of staff of the army council of the Provisional IRA?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I have no information that Mr. McGuinness is chief of staff of the army council of the IRA, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is asking me. His sources might be better than mine and, if so, I would be extremely obliged if he would make them available to the state security apparatus. We do not have that information. If he is asking whether the leadership of the republican movement is known to all of us, then I would say that it is. We can carry on with a discussion of how many republican angels can dance on the head of a pin, or we can address the subject in front of us. I suggest that the second option might be more productive for the whole House.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Does the Minister accept that, given that Sinn Fein and the IRA are clearly linked, the main point is to recognise the momentous symbolic importance of the first step that they took in the decommissioning process? We should discuss the Bill in that strategic context, rather than in the tactical context in which we have been discussing it for the last few minutes.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I entirely agree. That is what I am trying to do. We must remind ourselves that, although there have been huge imperfections in the transition period, huge strides forward have also been made on all aspects of the Belfast agreement. These are not esoteric or academic matters, because they are the very advances that make so much difference to the lives of millions of ordinary people in Northern Ireland and, to some extent, here in Britain as well.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that since 1998, we have witnessed the establishment of the democratic institutions, not only in terms of the north-south dimension, but of the stronger British-Irish relationships. We have seen the principle of consent enshrined in the agreement, thereby putting Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom beyond doubt, and the removal of the Republic's territorial claim to Northern Ireland, which was previously enshrined in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution.

Those are gains that I believe all hon. Members would warmly welcome, as is the incorporation of human rights in all aspects of life by the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Human Rights Commission. We have also seen the advancement of equal opportunities for all in Northern Ireland, irrespective of their background, by the implementation of the equality provisions and the establishment of the Equality Commission.

In addition, since 1998, we have made a new start on policing and criminal justice, with the completion of significant reviews of policing and the criminal justice system. These are merely some of the major strides forward that have been made. None has been easy; all have required the participants to challenge their preconceptions. Those challenges have, however, been met and overcome in the course of this process, however difficult or impossible they seemed. Despite all the difficulties, the progress continues.

It is natural in a debate of this nature that people will have in their minds some of the scenes that we have witnessed on television over the last six months. There is no reason why they should not do so; indeed, it is probably essential that we all bear them in mind. However, even in the last six months, some of those headlines have camouflaged significant steps forward in the peace process.

There is formal cross-community support for policing for the first time in Northern Ireland's history. There is successful recruitment to the new police service, drawn from both traditions, and it is worth remarking on the cross-community support for the new police service badge, as shown by the Policing Board last week—another seemingly impossible challenge, which was met on the run by the new Policing Board. In deference to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, I should say that he has a theory that the Policing Board was able to reach a conclusion so quickly on a cross-community basis because the designs that I gave to it were so awful as to drive everyone else into agreement. There has been further progress towards normalising security arrangements, and the criminal justice Bill and the draft implementation plan have been published.

In that context, and perhaps most relevant of all to today's debate, following a four-year ceasefire and arms dumps being opened up to inspection, there has been an unprecedented act of decommissioning by the Provisional IRA. Whatever hon. Members, or, indeed, those who deny the significance of that, may think about the timing, let us recall that we were told that it would never happen, that it was impossible, that it was too huge a challenge even to contemplate and that it was not worth waiting another six months for it. I believe that it clearly demonstrates the enormous progress made in such a relatively short time.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Before I take this intervention, I must say that I hope that that shorthand style of delivery on those issues on which we have made progress does not detract from the fact that each and every development that I listed has in itself been hugely significant.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

The Secretary of State described the act of decommissioning as truly significant. To allow the House of Commons to judge whether that is right, will he tell us, very simply, what the IRA gave up to be decommissioned? If he will not tell the democratically elected House of Commons what it was, will he describe his rationale for not doing so?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of this fact, but the House of Commons decided how those matters would be dealt with when it decided that there would be an international commission under General de Chastelain. The House of Commons decided the schemes under which decommissioning would be carried out. The House of Commons placed General John de Chastelain's remit in statute, so the hon. Gentleman already has his answer.

The manner in which the most delicate and difficult of all the challenges facing any society in the transition from decades—indeed, in some cases, centuries—of conflict through to the route of peace was precisely arranged by the House of Commons so that it would be dealt with by General de Chastelain. Finally, it was not my word that the act was significant but that of General de Chastelain, to whom Members entrusted the task of reporting, through the Governments, to the House.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, because I am concerned about the tone of the previous intervention. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if it is not the intention of Mr. Francois to undermine confidence in General de Chastelain and the commission, he should make that clear?

Does my right hon. Friend further agree that that intervention departed from the position of Mr. Trimble, who told the House that it was vital that we have faith in an independent international body, and that of Mr. MacKay, who said:

"I am not too fussed about the way in which the weapons and explosives are decommissioned . . . provided that General de Chastelain and his staff can police them at all times."—[Hansard, 25 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 191.]

Is not that the central issue on which we should concentrate and is not it important for the hon. Member for Rayleigh to make it clear that he is not seeking to undermine General de Chastelain or to depart from the positions adopted by two respected right hon. Members?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I cannot speak for Mr. Francois, but I am sure that he would not seek to undermine the status, role, remit or integrity of General de Chastelain. I understand the natural frustration at these circumstances, but I caution people that, having given General de Chastelain such a difficult role, having set the remit and statute by which he should carry it out and having agreed the scheme under which he would be able to verify it, we should not let our natural inquisition into the course of history in any way impute to the general a lack of integrity. It is General de Chastelain himself who referred to the event as significant.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me make a little progress, because I have taken quite a few interventions.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

The right hon. Gentleman said he would give way again.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I did not say that I would give way to him. I said that I was sure that he would make his view clear. I have no doubt that he will have a chance to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I cannot devote my whole speech to the hon. Gentleman's or other interventions. If I can make a little progress, I shall take further interventions.

I believe that all the developments I referred to have been hugely significant in building trust, in building confidence, and in building a new Northern Ireland, where local, accountable politicians are working towards a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland supported by a modern and efficient system of justice and policing, capable of engendering the trust and confidence of all sides of the community. That has been underpinned by a robust rights and equality agenda, and reinforced by a steady, though slow, move away from the politics of the bomb and bullet towards an inclusive, democratic and peaceful pursuit of political ends.

If people ask me whether the process is complete, perfect or even almost perfect, the answer is obviously no, but it is significantly different and in advance of anything that we previously experienced and that most people reasonably thought possible, given the history of Northern Ireland. The fact that we have not achieved everything should not lead us to believe that we have not gained anything. There has been huge and historic movement. However, despite these improvements and important developments, our efforts to bring an end to the conflict that has blighted Northern Ireland's past is not yet over by far.

As I said earlier, the nightly scenes of violence on our television screens during recent months, the harassment of school children, the unwarranted violence of the Sinn Fein youth movement last week and the continuation of paramilitary punishment beatings all testify to the ingrained nature of a culture of violence that persists, even in those areas where a commitment has been made to move to a democratic and peaceful resolution of our conflicts.

Above all, there remain those elements, both dissident republican and rejectionist loyalist, who absolutely refuse to acknowledge the democratically expressed will of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and who seek to impose their own will by nothing but force and violence. With their sectarian bombs and blind hatred, they are the true enemies of the people of Northern Ireland and will be opposed by all means by the people of Northern Ireland.

In the face of all that, I am sure that the entire House will wish to take the opportunity to give grateful thanks especially to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and to the Garda Siochana, for their excellent work and considerable recent successes against those organisations. I remind the House that in the past two years alone the efforts of the police service, formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and their colleagues in the Republic of Ireland and on the British mainland have thwarted numerous potentially deadly attacks. In just the past few months, they have intercepted bombs at Londonderry and Six Mile Cross, and only last month they intercepted a fully primed, 220 lb car bomb in County Armagh, probably en route to a police station, and arrested the driver. Any one of those bombs could have decimated innocent civilians as well as security personnel.

The security forces are resolute in their pursuit of those people, and we will continue to do everything we can to support them in that.

Such republican dissidents, and violent loyalist organisations, are becoming increasingly isolated. As is demonstrated by the developments I described earlier, the tide has turned irrevocably against them. Their only role now is as the most major impediment to the completion of progress towards an open, democratic and normal Northern Ireland. However, crucially, the IRA has carried out the significant and unprecedented act of decommissioning. Only a few years ago, such a thing would have been inconceivable.

Not only is that act a measure of the transformation that has taken place in Northern Ireland; I believe that in itself it helped to further improve the political climate. It came at a crucial time, when the political institutions established under the Belfast agreement were facing their stiffest test. It has now been possible for those institutions to restabilise, and they are established on a firmer basis than ever before.

In putting a quantity of arms and explosives beyond use, the IRA has sent the clearest possible signal, not only to the House but to the international community, that it is moving away from violence. That process must continue; but it goes without saying that it is time for the loyalists to follow suit. It is a source of huge regret to me that some of them are not even engaged in the process—that they remain wedded to their violent past and seem unable to take any steps towards a peaceful path, even short of decommissioning.

In the face of IRA decommissioning, I cannot see what possible reason loyalists now have for retaining their weapons. They certainly need not do so for the protection of their communities, which is the rightful preserve of the police and the security forces. They used to argue that they would decommission if the IRA made the first move. Well, the first move has been made: the crucial act has been carried out. It is now up to loyalist paramilitary organisations to demonstrate their support of peaceful and democratic ideals.

We want to see loyalist decommissioning; we want to see further decommissioning by the IRA and, indeed, other republican organisations; and we want to see dissident groups outside the process brought to the point of realising that democratic dialogue is the only way forward, so that they too decommission their weapons. It goes without saying that until they do so, we will robustly counter their violent activities.

Of course, we all recognise that if it is to be effectively sustained, the decommissioning process must be a voluntary process. Ultimately, the Government can resist violence—we can pursue robustly those who engage in violence—but we cannot force any paramilitary organisation to give up its weapons, and to dismantle or refrain from renewing its apparatus of terror. Where the will exists, however, the process has begun. We want to, and must, see it sustained.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving way to me again, but I think we need not over-complicate what is actually a straightforward matter.

It is perfectly proper to be able to tell everyone what has been given up, but as far as I am aware, having checked, no definite resolution of the House states that what has been surrendered will remain secret. If the Government argue that this was a significant act, they should put the information in the public domain and—in a free society—allow everyone, from all traditions, to judge just how significant it was. Is not the truth quite simply that what was given up was so minuscule that Ministers were embarrassed to admit it?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman has made a completely unsubstantiated assertion for which neither he nor anyone else has any evidence. It is impossible to conduct any rational discussion on the basis of a series of unsubstantiated assertions from Members on both sides of the House. I make no such unsubstantiated assertion; I make an assertion based on the evidence provided by the person to whom this job was given by the House, who was witness to it, and who said that it was a significant event.

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he does not agree that General de Chastelain should have been given the job, that he does not agree with General de Chastelain's judgment and that he does not agree with General de Chastelain's estimate, he is perfectly entitled to say so. People in the country and the House can then decide whether to believe General de Chastelain, who was given the job, who is acting within a remit and under statute and who witnessed the event, or the hon. Gentleman, who seems to have a propensity for making unsubstantiated assertions, pertaining to a remit that he has not been given and contrary to the remit of the House, about an event that he did not witness. I have no doubt on whose side the vast majority of people would come down. All I have said about the event is what General de Chastelain himself said about it.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

It is clear that the House is not to be told how substantial—or not—the surrender of arms was, but has the Secretary of State been told the extent of the arms that were surrendered?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

That is entirely a matter for General de Chastelain. [Hon. Members: "Answer."] The answer is that I have not been told, and I accept the word of General de Chastelain. If the hon. Member for Rayleigh does not want to accept his word, that is entirely up to him. The reason that the quantity was not made public has been explained by General de Chastelain himself, the person to whom the House entrusted the job.

For the first time, the Irish Republican Army has been prepared to put weapons beyond use. If people in this House, or indeed other politicians, feel that that historic progress would have been better achieved by the intervention and judgment of partisan politicians, all I can say is that they are wired to the moon. They know nothing of history and are far removed from the reality of the problem with which we are dealing.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I will, provided that the House will accept that my speech will last a little longer.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way and apologise for having missed the first few moments of his speech. Does he not understand the difficulty faced by Members on this side of the House? This week, we are being asked to make significant decisions about the future of decommissioning and the future of Parliament's relationship with Sinn Fein-IRA, but we are being asked to do so in a vacuum because we have no clear idea about whether what has happened is a single step or the first of many steps. Our concern is that we are being asked to move further and further on, but we have no clear indication of what comes next and nor, apparently, does the Secretary of State.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. Indeed, I said at the beginning of my remarks that I understand hon. Members' concern and frustration. However, if the hon. Gentleman is asking whether this House, before it embarked on a monumental project, should have had a guarantee of success in any area, I can tell him that if that had been the case, none of us would have embarked on it. If, however, he is asking for a review of what has happened since we embarked on the process, I can tell him that I have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining that. On decommissioning, the process has moved from a ceasefire, through weapons dump inspections, to a historic act of decommissioning, but that has happened alongside progress in many other areas.

I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that there will be success on any given aspect of the Belfast agreement. I shall turn later to a number of other issues that have still to develop as part of the process. It is not within my power to promise the hon. Gentleman that there will be success on all those issues, whether we are talking about criminal justice, policing, the Assembly or decommissioning. All I can say is that, in the past two and a half years, we have achieved things that were beyond the imagination of anyone in the House when we set out on that journey.

Is it possible that the process will continue? Yes. Is it necessary that the process continues if the Belfast agreement is to hold together? Yes. Will we bring whatever pressure we can to bear on all aspects of the process? Yes. But can I guarantee that there is an inevitable route to success in all aspects? No, I cannot; nor can anyone else in this House. But it is a damn sight better to try and to succeed as far as we have done than never to have tried and to have languished where we were.

One of the commentators in yesterday's press told those who thought that there was an alternative to the political process that there was one, which was not to have a political process. If we wanted to see where we might end up with that, the commentator said, one needed merely to look at the middle east.

I cannot guarantee success, but obviously the greatest sanction on all of us will be if the process fails, because we will all have lost, including some of those who are engaged in the process of putting arms beyond use. If anyone in this House honestly believes that we can realistically say that all decommissioning can be finished by 26 February next year, let us know. If not, and if we are to continue the process, we must look to provide the legal framework as well as the democratic framework to make decommissioning a reality.

In plain terms, we cannot ask those groups to hand in their weapons if, by so doing, they would be breaking the law. This is exactly what we would be asking if we did not renew the legislation to continue past February, which is when the legislative cover in the 1997 legislation to provide legal immunity for those decommissioning weapons expires; that is why I am bringing the Bill before the House today.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

Clearly, there are grave reservations among Conservative Members about the potential for five more years of leeway, albeit with an annual review and vote, which we appreciate. The Secretary of State has rightly said that pressure must be put on paramilitaries, that there must be decommissioning quickly from the so-called loyalists who have not decommissioned and that the Provisional IRA should decommission further. Will he give a guarantee that if, in February of next year, there has been no further decommissioning, he will not bring forward the order for extension for a further year?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Every Conservative speaker today seems to demand from me and seek to instil in me some foresight, whereby I have a crystal ball that can dictate the circumstances. Whether I bring the order forward in February would depend on the circumstances at the time. I do not think that anyone here would say that many of the aspects of the Good Friday agreement, including decommissioning, have progressed as quickly as we would have liked, but that does not diminish the fact that what has happened is of huge significance. I would have liked the stability of the Executive and the Assembly to be up and running and flowering more quickly than it has done. That is a regret. I would have liked decommissioning from the Provisional IRA to move more quickly than it did, and I would have liked decommissioning from some others who have not even started to decommission.

However, I cannot predict to the right hon. Member for Bracknell either what is likely to happen six months' ahead or my automatic reaction to that. That will depend on the circumstances and that is a sensible way to proceed. This issue will be brought to the House regularly because, even with tonight's Bill, the measure must be brought before the House, as the Bill would merely extend by 12 months, in the first instance, the legal immunity for decommissioning. It will then have to be discussed, debated and decided by this House again.

We cannot allow the great potential that we have to make further progress to be simply thrown away because we have come across what is largely an arbitrary deadline. Given the considerable developments that I have outlined today, we have to be realistic and provide the legal framework to enable further progress to take place.

I recognise that some say that we need to have deadlines and that without pressure the Provisionals will not move. To some extent, that addresses the point raised earlier by Mr. Grieve, and that may reflect a difference of emphasis on that point. I do not know whether that is the case, but I shall be as honest as I can with the hon. Gentleman and the House. Some people will point to occasions in the past few years when we have achieved progress only by taking matters right to the wire. I understand that argument, although I have to say that the Provisionals are not the only people in Northern Ireland who regularly take matters to the wire.

However, the Bill includes a provision for Parliament to approve any extension beyond a further year. Though it is not set up as a deadline in any way, there is, therefore, a point at which the matter will have to be discussed and approved again by the House. Notwithstanding that, the simple point is that we will not sustain the peace process merely through deadlines and public ultimatums. Hon. Members constantly point to deadlines that have been passed, and by definition the objective has not been achieved, even through the power that some hon. Members seem to assume lies in deadlines.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Conservative, Wycombe

The IRA argues that it is not bound by the agreement because it is not a signatory to the agreement. On this side of the House, it has been argued that the IRA is a signatory to the agreement because Sinn Fein-IRA are inextricably linked. Is not it clear from the debate that the Secretary of State is accepting the IRA's definition, not the definition put by hon. Members on this side of the House?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

No, I am accepting the Belfast agreement. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can assert that the IRA signed the Belfast agreement. He can assert that Santa Claus signed the Belfast agreement, but that does not make it true. It is, however, obviously the case that Sinn Fein's signature of the Belfast agreement gave rise to a reasonable expectation that since Sinn Fein had signed that agreement, there would be full decommissioning within the specified period, during which people would work towards a target. That is partly why there was such disappointment. I wish that that had happened at the specified time, and I also wish that it had happened by the end of the further extension in June.

I wish that the Provisional IRA and all the loyalist groups will have decommissioned by next February, but I cannot wish away the fact that it is now extremely unlikely that that will be accomplished. Therefore, the choice before the House is whether to make it illegal, by voting against the extension, for people to decommission after 26 February, when the legal immunity will end. Yes, it will take continual pressure, but it will also take patience and—obviously—it will take time.

It will take time to complete every aspect of the Belfast agreement, including the changes that we have inaugurated in policing, and the full flowering and stability of the Assembly and the Executive. I hope that more powers can be passed to the Assembly and the Executive. It is only with time that we will see the normalisation of Northern Ireland society, and that will mean a reduction in the military presence to levels found in the rest of the UK. We need to continue to make steady progress on all of the issues covered by the Belfast agreement, but we cannot exclude decommissioning and the putting of arms beyond use from that. Decommissioning is an integral and essential part of the progress that has to be made. As ever, if we stop moving forward, we will not stand still but will start sliding back.

It would not be helpful to dictate that there must be an absolute, and by definition arbitrary, end, to just one aspect of the agreement. To pretend that that would deliver the objective that we seek would be neither an honest nor a practical application of our experience. I am firmly convinced that that is not likely to be a sensible or effective way to proceed.

I have already paid tribute to General John de Chastelain and his colleagues in the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. I extend to them my heartfelt thanks. Their integrity, diligence, skill and, above all, perseverance have been instrumental in bringing us this far. Whatever disappointment hon. Members may feel about how far we have come, they will, at least, have the dignity to accord due thanks to John de Chastelain for the significant distance that we have come.

The commission's life is not time-bound. Its mandate comes from the Belfast agreement and the pursuit of the objective of decommissioning all arms can and must be continued. Many hon. Members will no doubt concentrate tonight on what has yet to be achieved. That is, perhaps, natural, and I understand their concerns and frustrations and the occasional anger that accompanies them.

Legitimate debate remains to be held on the matter before us tonight, but it is worth recalling the nature of the project on which we have embarked. We are addressing a problem whose roots lie deep in decades—indeed, centuries—of conflict. We are addressing it through a process that seeks nothing less than the reversal of that history in Northern Ireland and in the island of Ireland. The Bill is central to that purpose, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 5:26 pm, 17th December 2001

I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Bill because it provides for such an extended deadline for decommissioning which it does not believe will be conducive to the completion as soon as possible of the process which is already more than a year overdue."

I move the amendment more in sorrow and anxiety than anything else. My anxiety has been considerably enhanced by what we have discovered this afternoon about the Secretary of State's extraordinary gullibility in buying the Sinn Fein-IRA line that they are somehow separate organisations.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The right hon. Gentleman seemed to agree with me when I put it to him that that was what he was saying. He then made the most inappropriate analogy with the trade union movement and the Labour party. Perhaps he would like to think about that again.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I did not say that they were separate organisations. I said that they were not identical organisations.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The right hon. Gentleman is somewhat confused and is taking refuge in jesuitical and retrospective reinterpretation of what he said. I am anxious that he should put the record straight if he wishes to do so.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I must refer to semantics, because the hon. Gentleman seems not to realise the difference between two things that are entirely separate and two that are not identical. Something can be linked to something else, or can overlap with something else, without being identical to something else. If the hon. Gentleman studies a dictionary when he leaves the Chamber, it will all become clear to him.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Let me put to the Secretary of State my conception of the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA so that he may tell me whether he disagrees with it. They are two facades of the same organisation. The distinction is an entirely artificial one, contrived with typical and cynical ruthlessness to enable Sinn Fein-IRA, for it is one organisation, to advance its cause with, in its favoured phrase, the Armalite rifle in one hand and the ballot box in the other. It is absolutely terrifying to know that that strategy, duplicity and artificiality should have been so successful as to bamboozle the Secretary of State.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The recent exchanges raise an extraordinary question. If, because he is not so gullible, that is entirely what the hon. Gentleman believes, why in God's name did he support the Belfast agreement? Has he signed up to support an organisation that he believes is not committed to moving away from violence but continually committed to its use? That does not leave me embarrassed, but it leaves the hon. Gentleman in an extraordinary position.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The right hon. Gentleman is trying to change the subject, but I shall certainly answer him very directly indeed. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I support the Belfast agreement. We recognise that one of the parties to it is—and must be—Sinn Fein-IRA, which is certainly a former terrorist organisation. I trust that the word "former" is appropriate. We wish it to cease to be a terrorist organisation. We wish it to give up its arms and to pursue its objectives in future by democratic and peaceful means. That is precisely the effect of the Belfast agreement—or what its effect ought to be.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman should follow Healey's first law of holes: when in a hole, stop digging. I do not believe that the Irish Republican Army is a former terrorist organisation—it is a terrorist organisation which is on ceasefire. It is a terrorist organisation which is moving away from that description. However, the hon. Gentleman is in an extraordinary position: he believes that the IRA is only former terrorists but that it is still committed to terror, and yet—with all those deep misgivings—he apparently supports the Belfast agreement. The hon. Gentleman should get his thoughts sorted out.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I said—Hansard will bear me out, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman listens carefully—that I hoped it was a former terrorist organisation. It certainly was a terrorist organisation and it certainly was a unified terrorist organisation, which operated with two arms to bamboozle the innocent—such as the right hon. Gentleman. In his negotiations, he no doubt believes it when Sinn Fein says, "Oh no, we are awfully sorry, although we'd like those concessions and we'll pocket them thank you very much, we cannot deliver the IRA". No doubt he falls for that line, and it is a fascinating but very, very depressing indication of what has gone wrong with the peace process over the past two or three years. If this debate achieves nothing else, it will have made clear that the Government have been operating under an extraordinarily facile and naive illusion in an extremely dangerous situation.

That error of judgment completely eclipses another one that has arisen during the past few weeks and which I also regret, although it has nothing like the importance of the matter to which I have just drawn attention. That error of judgment was committed at a time when there has been some good news, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, in that there has been a first act of decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA—I repeat: Sinn Fein-IRA. There is also encouraging news, which has nothing to do with Sinn Fein-IRA, on other fronts; for example, other nationalist organisations—especially the Social Democratic and Labour party—the Catholic hierarchy and the Gaelic Athletic Association and so forth have all accepted the new police service. It is extremely good news, which I strongly welcome, that the Policing Board has been able to agree on a new cap badge for the new police service in Northern Ireland.

It thus seems extraordinary that, instead of allowing that good news to sink in, the right hon. Gentleman and his Government have set about deliberately eclipsing it by making a series of extraordinary proposals, one of which is included in the Bill, while another—even more pernicious and abhorrent—is to come before the House with a Government motion that I trust we shall be able to debate tomorrow.

The situation is unfortunate and sad. It is a matter of considerable anxiety to everybody who cares about the future of the peace process—the future of peace in Northern Ireland and successful, devolved democratic government in Northern Ireland.

I had not anticipated, nor indeed had I ever conceived, coming to the Dispatch Box to disagree with the terms of a decommissioning Bill. I had expected, as we had all expected, that it would be necessary to extend the regime under which General de Chastelain operates for a few months beyond February, perhaps for a year. I thought that the exact timing might be a matter for consultation. There has been no consultation whatever—at least none with Her Majesty's Opposition. There may well have been consultation with much more sinister forces, including those that the right hon. Gentleman thinks are not part of a terrorist organisation. Perhaps he would like to let us know to what extent the deadlines in the Bill have been negotiated—or whether the motion that the Government are to move tomorrow has been the subject of discussions or negotiations with Sinn Fein-IRA.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

On the first one about decommissioning, none; on the second, discussions have been going on for over two years, including discussions with the hon. Gentleman's party.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I can testify that there has been no discussion with my party on the timing of deadlines in the Bill. The deadlines were a bad surprise and a shock, and we had absolutely no reason to suppose that they would be in the Bill. If the right hon. Gentleman has been discussing some of those things, including tomorrow's motion, with Sinn Fein-IRA, it will be interesting to know what, if anything, he has been able to get as a counterpart to some pretty extraordinary concessions.

In the absence of clear answers and consultation beforehand, we must simply look at the Bill as it stands. It contains a fundamental error: it extends the deadline for decommissioning, for whatever reason, to five years from February. For some reason that I do not understand, instead of the Bill stating five years, a particular date in February 2007 is given, but the effect is exactly the same and the Bill's purpose is absolutely clear. I believe that to be a disastrous mistake, for two separate reasons. It will have bad consequences of two kinds. Unfortunately, they will reinforce each other and both contribute to damaging rather than supporting the peace process.

The first mistake is that extending the regime for decommissioning for another five years sends the wrong signal to Sinn Fein-IRA, loyalist paramilitaries and others with arms in Northern Ireland. The signal is, "Relax. Take your time. You are not up against a deadline; there is no particular urgency." I am as aware as anybody that deadlines may not be met, but the idea that extending a deadline will speed up the process seems hardly credible. Not only does it seem hardly credible: the Secretary of State himself does not believe it. He has said this afternoon that Sinn Fein-IRA and other groups in Northern Ireland go down to the wire, taking at least the time that they are given under the deadline whether they meet it or not. It follows, therefore, that extending the deadline extends the time that they take. The right hon. Gentleman is not even willing to learn the lessons of his acknowledged experience. I find it extraordinary that he should come to the House with a Bill extending deadlines, and then tell us that that will have no effect on the time taken by those concerned to fulfil the commitments under those deadlines.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that what we are hearing is exactly what he said to Lord Mayhew in 1997? Did he tell him that a one-year period with the extension of up to five years was the wrong deadline? Did he disagree in this House? Is there a record of that in Hansard? Does he think that any of the loyalist groups, including those which are not even currently engaged in the process, could decommission within a few months? What deadline did he think in 1997 was appropriate? How long does he now think it would take loyalist groups to decommission?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Unless the hon. Gentleman has been asleep for the past five years, I can only imagine that he has deliberately come to the House to produce manifest absurdities. In 1997, we did not have the Belfast agreement. We did not have the beginnings of a mechanism to produce decommissioning. Since then, in case he has not noticed, we have had the Belfast agreement. In case he has forgotten, that agreement provided a deadline of two years, as we have heard from Mr. Trimble. Nothing happened under that deadline; it was extended for a year, but still nothing happened. Eventually, some progress was made after 11 September.

In producing a regime under which decommissioning might take place—if initial agreement between the parties is secured and if the international commission and the other organisations required can be set up—to start off with a five-year period may well be reasonable, but once four or five years have elapsed, deadlines have been missed, people have failed to live up to the commitments they made, and the law-abiding and peace-loving people of Northern Ireland have been disappointed, to go back to square one and start again with another five years seems less absurd than irresponsible.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Mr. McCabe is trying to waste time by pretending that he does not know what has happened in the past five years, so I shall not give way to him again this afternoon, but I shall give way to Lembit Öpik.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Given that the Good Friday agreement did not exist when the Conservative Government decided to create an amnesty, does he not agree that that required a greater act of faith on the part of Parliament than this Bill, which we are discussing in the context of the Good Friday agreement?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Yes, that is true. That took place right at the beginning of the peace process launched by the Conservative Government and it required a considerable act of faith. I take the hon. Gentleman's remark to be a compliment to my right hon. and learned Friend Lord Mayhew, who I am sure will be pleased to have the approbation and recognition of the Liberal party and its official spokesman for once.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Conservative, Wycombe

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the most remarkable feature of the debate has been the Secretary of State's statement that under the terms of the Belfast agreement the IRA is not obliged to decommission—a position exactly the same as that of the IRA?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am sorry to have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. The Secretary of State's statement is enormously significant—and enormously depressing.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am sorry to keep intervening, but Opposition Front Benchers appear to be genetically incapable of either hearing or understanding words. I made no such statement—that the IRA were not so obliged. I said that they had not signed the Belfast agreement, and that is a statement of fact, not of opinion.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Fortunately we in the House have the institution of Hansard, so we need not spend any more time on that issue. I sincerely hope that when I read my Hansard tomorrow morning I will find that the Secretary of State is as fully aware as other reasonable and experienced people in Northern Ireland of the fact that the distinction between Sinn Fein and IRA is a complete fraud, and that when he speaks to any representatives of either organisation he is probably speaking to individuals who hold positions in both organisations and represent them both.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

May I take my hon. Friend back to deadlines for decommissioning? Is it not true that when an organisation determines to give up its weapons, that can be done relatively quickly? In Macedonia recently, there was a 30-day limit, and I recall that 20 years ago in Zimbabwe—an enormous country with fighters out in the bush—there was a two-month limit. If an organisation is determined to give up its weapons, surely it does not need a rolling five-year programme?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I totally agree. It is ironic than on a day when we have discussed sending 1,000 British troops to Afghanistan to participate in a peace process—the decommissioning of what remains of the Taliban and the establishment of peace in that country—that is supposed to be completed in a matter of months, we are extending by a further five years the deadline for getting rid of terrorist arms in our own country, and doing so apparently thoughtlessly and on the basis of an extraordinarily sanguine acceptance of Sinn Fein-IRA propaganda about its operations and structure.

The Secretary of State would be extraordinarily naive to think that offering an extending deadline is likely to get the action he requires sooner. He made an absurdity of that notion when he said that everyone in Northern Ireland tends to go to the wire, but it would be absurd in almost any context. Suppose that the right hon. Gentleman wanted to buy a house, and he thought that he might get it for £100,000 and the most that he was prepared or able to pay was £150,000. Does he think that he would be more likely to get a bargain, or more likely to get any deal at all, if he signalled to the vendor that if pressed he would go to £500,000? That is precisely what he has done by offering five years. It is thoroughly reckless.

It is deplorable for another reason. I said that there were two reasons, and the second is a matter of even greater concern than the first. The right hon. Gentleman has sent the wrong signal to those who have to decommission—Sinn Fein-IRA, the loyalists and other paramilitaries. He has also sent the wrong signal to the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland who are peace loving and law abiding and desperately keen to get the gun and Semtex out of politics in Northern Ireland. They are now being told that after all the sacrifices, all the delays, all the disappointments of recent years and all the enormous concessions to paramilitaries, they must wait a lot longer. They must wait for another five years. That is the time they were told in the first place would be required for the framework to get the process started and completed.

It is an extremely depressing signal to send to the people of Northern Ireland. It can only undermine people's confidence and their hopes in the peace process producing the dividends for which they all hope. The signal will inevitably have a particularly devastating effect on morale in the Unionist community. That concerns me very much.

The Secretary of State may recall that when I responded to his statement on 24 October I said that we should take into account

"the concerns and feelings of all the people of Northern Ireland in both communities."—[Hansard, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 304.]

A few weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman made a speech about Northern Ireland not becoming a "cold house" for Unionists. I welcome his use of that phrase. I welcome also what appeared to be the spirit behind it. Although the right hon. Gentleman managed to say a few words in the right direction, however, it is easy to say a few words. After the tragedies of the past 30 years in Northern Ireland, we can hardly expect words to be sufficient to influence anybody very much.

Apart from that easy declaration, what have the right hon. Gentleman or his predecessors done? There has been an endless stream of concessions. There have been the release of prisoners and the abolition of the RUC—extremely difficult concessions for Unionist sentiment to accept. We have said and I have said that we must accept those moves, reluctantly of course. There is no question but that they stick in the gullet, but they are a necessary part of the process.

It is important that the Belfast agreement is implemented. I have done my best to counsel patience and forbearance. What has happened? The Government have gone endlessly further. As if the release of prisoners and the implementation of the Government's obligations under the Belfast agreement were not enough, they went to Weston Park and made a new raft of concessions that were not required under the Belfast agreement. In recent weeks, they seem to have gone almost berserk with the concessions that they are offering.

We have before us the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, which includes a proposal to remove the royal coat of arms from new courthouses in Northern Ireland and to abolish the loyal oath for judges. Those concessions are deeply offensive to Unionists. They are deeply worrying to anybody who takes seriously the idea, as at least we all do on the Opposition Benches, that we are part of one kingdom in this country.

The matter has not stopped there. At Northern Ireland questions on 5 December, I put to the Secretary of State the article that had been written by his predecessor, Mr. Mandelson. I will put to the Secretary of State his right hon. Friend's predictions, or assertions. The article stated that the Government were proposing

"an amnesty for former terrorists on the run".

That is in the Weston Park agreement, but it had no basis of approval from the House. The article refers to

"the dismantling of British security facilities . . . further inquiries into past British security 'misdeeds'".

As I said then, there was no suggestion of any inquiries into other people's misdeeds or atrocities.

The article also refers to "further changes"—I underline "further" again—

"'to the new police service, the successor to the RUC, on top of those reforms already agreed to make the police acceptable to nationalists and Republicans.'"

In response, the Secretary of State did not deny that at all; he did not deny any suggestions that new concessions were to be made. I greatly regret the fact that he came close to being disingenuous by saying that the measures were not new; he said that I was wrong to say that they were. I emphasised "further inquiries", "further changes" and the phrase

"on top of those reforms".—[Hansard, 5 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 318.]

If "further" and "on top of" do not mean incremental—something added to what is already there—and if that is not fairly described by the word "new", with which the Secretary of State took issue the other day, he will have to spend his retirement revising the Oxford English dictionary.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Having had problems with semantics, the hon. Gentleman now has problems with his chronology. There were no new promises made after or around the time of the publication of that article; there was nothing that was not entirely in the public domain, including the inquiries. I take it that the hon. Gentleman has read the Weston Park communiqué, which does not exclusively comprise inquiries demanded by republicans. In fact, it consists of three inquiries long demanded by those of a loyalist and Unionist persuasion, as well as three demanded by those of a republican or nationalist persuasion. There was nothing new at the time when my right hon. Friend Mr. Mandelson was writing; there was nothing that was not fully in the public domain. To say that my remarking on that made me almost disingenuous is a bit unfair, to say the least.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman thinks that I am being unfair to him; I have simply quoted for him—twice now—the words of his right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool. If his right hon. Friend was wrong, it would have been simpler to say so; perhaps the Secretary of State does not want to quarrel with him because, as we know, he is such a powerful personage in his party and has the ear of the Prime Minister. That may well be the explanation.

We must get back to the position that I put to the Secretary of State before, which he does not seem to want to acknowledge. He acknowledged it once with two or three words but, as far as I know, he has never acknowledged it with any deed. The Unionist community in Northern Ireland understandably feels that the process is a one-way street; everything that the Secretary of State has done, every statement that he has made, all the concessions to which I have just referred, all of Weston Park, the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill which is now before the House and, worst and most obnoxious of all, the motion that the Government will introduce tomorrow, only reinforce and re-emphasise the impression that the process is a one-way street without end. The Unionist community believes that the Government have embarked on a limitless and uncontrolled process of making concessions to republicans.

The Government now acknowledge that there is some kind of distinction between Sinn Fein and the IRA, so they make concessions to Sinn Fein, but the IRA does not deliver on the other side. If that situation should not worry everybody, not merely Unionists, in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, everybody in the United Kingdom—I do not know what should.

If the Secretary of State does not already know—he certainly acts as if he does not—I must tell him that one cannot build successful peace in Northern Ireland, establish successful devolved institutions and democracy and normalise that part of the United Kingdom without the support of the Unionist majority. He seems to believe that the Unionist majority can be taken for granted and will end up accepting just about anything he comes up with. The course on which he has embarked is extremely dangerous and that is reflected in the Bill. Once again, there is an open-ended approach to the IRA or Sinn Fein-IRA delivering its side of the agreement; more and more concrete concessions are made at the expense of Unionist concerns and sentiment, as well as justified Unionist pride.

The strategy of making concessions without any quid pro quo was flawed from the start. I have no hesitation in saying that the Government's decision to let out all the prisoners within two years of the Belfast agreement being made without the IRA decommissioning a single weapon or giving up a single ounce of Semtex was a colossal mistake. That was recognised at the time by my right hon. Friend Mr. MacKay, who wisely and sensibly tabled amendments to the census legislation for Northern Ireland that would have established that linkage. Those amendments were resisted by the Government but, had we established the linkage, we would have an instrument of leverage on Sinn Fein-IRA; all those instruments of leverage were thrown away by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors.

It is hardly surprising that two years passed without decommissioning. Why should people decommission when there was no particular reason why they should? In fact, the Government deprived the Sinn Fein-IRA leadership of any arguments to use among its membership. It could not say that it had to decommission to get its prisoners out because they had been let out anyway. The strategy was extremely naive and incompetent, and it damaged the peace process. A third year passed, but still there was no decommissioning. The Government panicked, went to Weston Park in desperation and made a whole lot of new gratuitous concessions, which were not required at all in the Belfast agreement, to somehow appease Sinn Fein-IRA and hope that nevertheless they would come up with some decommissioning. Even then, they did not do so. Two weeks after the talks at Weston Park, the IRA went back on the agreement on the methodology of decommissioning that it negotiated with General de Chastelain at the time of Weston Park, and publicly withdrew it. That was a real blow in the eye for the Government and, much more important, for the peace process.

As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged earlier— I do not know whether he always remembers what he says 10 minutes after he has said it—but he certainly accepted that the situation changed only after the autumn, with the exposure of the IRA's involvement with FARC in Colombia and particularly after the events of 11 September, to which he rightly referred in this context. The position changed as there were new international pressures on Sinn Fein-IRA, particularly from the United States, which were unanswerable. I agree that another major factor was the threat that the whole process was about to break down, but that was nothing to do with what the Government did; it was entirely to do with what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann did with what I have previously referred to in public as the three Trimble sanctions—first, withdraw Sinn Fein members from meetings of all-Irish bodies, secondly, withdraw Ulster Unionist Ministers, then resign himself. Pressures brought to bear elsewhere by political parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government, no doubt, and particularly the United States brought about decommissioning.

Nobody could have anticipated—the Government certainly did not—that the international context would be transformed tragically and appallingly by the events of 11 September and that that would have a critical and decisive knock-on effect on the situation in Northern Ireland. The Government must not allow themselves to continue down their previous path. If they want to continue with unilateral concessions, the House must not allow them to do so. Tonight, we have the opportunity to prevent them from acting in that way by changing the Bill, sending it back and getting the Government to return with a much more limited deadline, which will impose greater discipline on the whole process. I hope that the House will take that opportunity.

I shall draw conclusions both from the way in which the Government handled the process which I have just detailed and their extraordinary illusions about Sinn-Fein, which have been startlingly and dramatically revealed in our debate, which will go down as an historic debate for that reason alone. We need a fundamental rethink of the position in Northern Ireland; we must consider the right approach and strategy that the British Government should adopt to maximise the chances of a succesful peace process and successful decommissioning. There are two aspects to that. First, it must be made clear what the deal and price will be ultimately to achieve complete and full decommissioning, which will be defined by General de Chastelain saying that the process that he has been supervising has been completed.

How do we get there? How do we bring in all the other parties as well as Sinn Fein-IRA, including the loyalist paramilitaries, to which the right hon. Gentleman was right to refer? We all know that Sinn Fein-IRA thinks that its opposite number is not the loyalist paramilitaries, but the British Government. It likes to think it is dealing with the Government on an equal basis. The right hon. Gentleman's illusions about dealing with Sinn Fein-IRA will greatly have comforted it in that belief.

In an exchange at the Dispatch Box on 24 October, I suggested the negotiation of

"a programmed process leading to full decommissioning"—[Hansard, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 305.]— a balanced process, a global package—so that it is clear to all concerned what needs to be done by whom by when, and what the price will be. If General de Chastelain can negotiate such a process, that would be ideal. If he feels that that goes beyond his remit, the Government—in conjunction with the Irish Government, no doubt—should take the initiative.

That is important for at least two reasons. One is that only on that basis will it be clear how far the concessions go and what we will have to pay for decommissioning, and it will be clear what must be done by when. There will be some rigour and discipline in the process. Secondly, only by such an open, transparent deal will it be possible to restore confidence in Northern Ireland that we are not engaged merely in a process of endless appeasement of terrorists or former terrorists—commonly known as, and often called in Northern Ireland, a sell-out. By definition, a sell-out will not have the support of the great majority of law-abiding people.

The Bill provides us with the chance to introduce a tighter, more disciplined and more transparent process. I hope that the House will take that opportunity. If we do not, we are left with the prospect that, if decommissioning happens at all, it will happen because others have made the moves that the British Government ought to have made. We will not know how many moves need to be made or how long it will take until we get arms out of politics in Northern Ireland.

I can well believe that Sinn Fein-IRA may be under pressure from other sources. It is generally expected in the Republic of Ireland that Sinn Fein-IRA will need to make at least a cosmetic further act of decommissioning before the Irish elections in May, in order to maximise its respectability and chances of picking up seats in Ireland. I do not know whether that is true, but if so, it in no way absolves the British Government from doing everything possible to facilitate the process and make decommissioning more likely, rather than slowing down the process or leaving it to an indefinite future.

Above all, the British Government must make a new effort to ensure that they carry with them all the communities in Northern Ireland. They must explain to the Unionist community, as well as to the nationalist and the republican communities, what needs to be done, why it must be done, how the concessions that need to be made are limited and what their purpose is. That aspect of the peace process has been dangerously neglected by the Government.

I am not in the business of criticising the Government without making positive and, I hope, helpful suggestions. The issue of changing symbols will arise in connection with other Bills in the near future. Let the Secretary of State think about the matter before then. If he considers it necessary to change symbols in order to create the feeling that they are part of the new constitution in Northern Ireland among communities that up till now have felt disadvantaged, let the right hon. Gentleman bring in new symbols, but let him not destroy old ones. Let him add. Let him show the same respect for the Unionist tradition as he is showing in order to accommodate or appease other traditions. That is the way forward. We need greater balance, rigour, discipline and fairness in the process.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green 6:04 pm, 17th December 2001

When I came to the Chamber this afternoon, I assumed that we would hear genuine concerns and anxieties being expressed by some of our friends from Northern Ireland. I expected that that would be difficult and that ground that had already been covered would have to be covered again. I understand that for people who have worked hard for peace, the length of time that the process takes is disturbing, and it is difficult for them to keep others on board.

Anyone who has listened to Mr. Davies will realise that the focus of the debate lies elsewhere. We are back to the old question of deadlines and the position that the only decommissioning that should concern us is decommissioning by the Provisional IRA. That is extremely regrettable.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I cannot let the hon. Gentleman misquote me so soon after my remarks. I made it clear that it was extremely important that all the organisations with arms in Northern Ireland should be part of the decommissioning process. On several occasions I referred specifically to the loyalist paramilitaries.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting the record straight. I must have slept through that part of his speech. Were I judging it on quantity, I would recognise the number of references that he made to one group in particular.

Back in July 1999, Mr. Trimble said of the decommissioning scheme:

"It does not refer to timetables. . . there is no explicit reference in the decommissioning scheme to a timetable."

He went on to say that the decommissioning scheme states:

"'The Commission may make such arrangements as it considers appropriate to facilitate the decommissioning of arms.'"

He continued:

"I repeat:

'such arrangements at it considers appropriate to facilitate' decommissioning."—[Hansard, 13 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 189.]

I welcomed that statement by the right hon. Gentleman, as the issue of timetables has bedevilled the process.

Listening to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, I came to the conclusion that the Opposition amendment is not a reasoned amendment. It does not seek to alter the process. It does not recognise that we are dealing with an amnesty. It is an attempt to renege on the agreement. It represents the end of bipartisanship. I am shocked and horrified by the comments of the hon. Gentleman and of Mr. Francois, who is no longer in his place.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said— I listened carefully to this part of his speech—that nothing had happened in the first two years of decommissioning. I recall that on 18 September the LVF decommissioned a small quantity of weapons, which General de Chastelain described as a significant event. To my recollection, no one queried those remarks.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

The LVF gesture was made in the full glare of publicity—in front of the television cameras. In the case of the latest so-called gesture of decommissioning, no one has seen it and no one knows what it amounts to, not even the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There is a record of decommissioning and it is verified. Unless the hon. Gentleman is joining others in saying that he does not trust General de Chastelain and his commission, he should accept that there is a record of the IRA decommissioning and it has been verified. Most hon. Members were prepared to accept the procedure when the commission was established. There have been two significant acts of decommissioning. The first occurred in 1998 and was a very early and welcome gesture. I entirely agree with those who suggest that we waited far too long for the second such act; none the less, a second important act of decommissioning has occurred.

We must make a simple choice before we consider the Bill any further. We must decide whether the House will continue to place faith in General de Chastelain. If hon. Members are saying that they are not prepared to do so, the whole process will come to an end, as that is the basis on which agreement was struck and on which they said they would have confidence in the process. Now that General de Chastelain has announced that a second act of decommissioning has occurred, that basis has been challenged.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that the issue of concern is not General de Chastelain, but the continuous process in which the Government have made concessions during the past two to three years without any response from Sinn Fein-IRA? We have seen the process of releasing prisoners, the creation of the new institutions and the reform of policing, and we are now dealing with the issue of accommodation in the House of Commons for Members who have not taken their seats. There has been concession after concession, but we have had only one item in return, and we are being asked to take it on trust that that is sufficient. Does not he understand that the concerns arise from the continued process of give but very little take?

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I am tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman to give way.

As I understand it, we are dealing with the question of extending an amnesty for those who are prepared to decommission weapons on the loyalist and republican sides. That is what we should be considering now. I accept his concerns, which are genuine, but not his analysis of events since the Good Friday agreement was signed. It seems to me that General de Chastelain's remit has not expired. As I understand it, his remit is established by treaty, so nobody should be querying his right to continue in his current role. However, we are entitled to ask what will happen when we hit the 27 February deadline. If people to whom an amnesty applies are poised and ready to decommission weapons, are we prepared to turn our backs by not agreeing to take another step to allow them to do so? I cannot believe that any reasonable human being in this place who wants to see peace and decommissioning in Northern Ireland would come to that conclusion, which is utterly wrong.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I recognise that decommissioning must be one of the crucial elements of the peace process. I was in South Africa with other members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs a couple of years ago. We witnessed first hand some of the problems that had occurred in that country despite the peace process there, because of the failure successfully to decommission weapons. If the entire peace process in Northern Ireland is to succeed, successful decommissioning must be a part of it. I do not take the view that we should put unnecessary obstacles in its way. Whatever people feel should have happened in the first two years, tentative moves have been made. They are insufficient, more is required and it is to be hoped that we can persuade those involved to deliver more, but tentative moves have been made—one on each side—which show that the process can work, given the right encouragement.

Unfortunately, we must recognise that the UDA, a specified organisation, is not currently prepared to engage in the process. How on earth we could expect it to decommission before 27 February or within three months of that date—I think that that is the preferred time scale of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford—I do not know. I think that that is utterly absurd. We know that the UVF and the LVF are currently engaged in discussions with General de Chastelain, although I do not think that there is much information about exactly what stage the negotiations have reached. It is possible that they are considering the time scale for further acts of decommissioning, but the hon. Gentleman is prepared to sweep that possibility aside unless such an act takes place within his three-month time scale. That position is frighteningly absurd and I think that we are entitled to expect better from Her Majesty's official Opposition.

On decommissioning by the Provisional IRA, I want to make this simple point: we know that it has taken the first vital step and we hope that a succession of steps will follow. I share that view with my colleagues from Northern Ireland. I dearly want such progress to happen soon and I hope that we might even see more of it before 27 February. I also want total decommissioning, which can happen only if we retain faith in the process. That is why I am shocked and disturbed to be told that the official Opposition spokesman wants to rewrite the de Chastelain brief. He is not content to accept what his predecessors and this whole House were happy to accept: that the onus is on General de Chastelain and the commission to say that they are happy and satisfied, that they have a record and that they were able to verify the process. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford does not want that. He wants a new set of conditions and timetables, the result of which would be to undermine General de Chastelain at the very stage when we have seen what he describes as the first significant act. I cannot for the life of me work out how any reasonable individual would come to that conclusion.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. He said that he did not understand how any reasonable individual could come to the conclusion that he described, but surely the evidence of the past three years shows that every time Sinn Fein-IRA sees an opportunity to string the process out or grab an extra concession, it does so. The message of a five-year time frame is that decommissioning is anything but urgent. I put it to him that it is urgent and that we need a tighter time frame and tighter guidelines in respect of Sinn Fein-IRA to try to encourage it to come to a resolution.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

The evidence of the past few years is that we have been engaged in a stop-go process with regard to the whole Good Friday agreement. Sometimes we have had the Executive and the Assembly, sometimes there have been deadlines and sometimes we have moved away from them. However, despite all those difficulties, we have seen two significant acts of decommissioning. We should now be doing everything we can to encourage further such acts. There is nothing wrong with the proposals in the Bill, which contains no provision saying that a further five years are necessary. It states that a further 12 months are necessary and that, beyond that time, the Secretary of State can extend the time scale by 12-month periods, if necessary, for up to five years.

Given where we were when Lord Mayhew made the original proposals, it is clear that we have moved forward. An agreement is in place and various acts are occurring, many of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. Any reasonable individual would regard them as progress. Not enough progress has been made, there is anxiety about the future and concerns have been expressed about how quickly we move forward; none the less, progress has been made that was inconceivable 10 years ago.

At the very point when we could be in a position to generate further and, I hope, much more rapid progress, the official Opposition claim that they want to defeat the Bill that would allow an extension for the minimum period required to complete the job. That is not bipartisanship, and the Opposition's actions are not those of people who believe in the peace process or have decommissioning at the top of their agenda. For that reason, they are wrong. We should therefore reject the amendment and get on with removing the bombs and guns from Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 6:20 pm, 17th December 2001

We need to discuss the Bill in the context of what all parties, including the former Conservative Government, have created. To some extent, the process is an act of faith, but we can also examine the evidence when we determine the Bill's merit.

Mr. Davies presented a fluent and logically argued case for the Conservative party. He made two core points. First, he said that the Bill weakened the bargaining hand of the Government to speed decommissioning. Secondly, he claimed that the Bill extends to five years the minimum period that the people of Northern Ireland have to wait for significant decommissioning. Those points lie at the heart of whether we support the Bill.

It is a contradiction for the Conservatives to argue that the Bill weakens the Government's bargaining ability. As the hon. Gentleman correctly pointed out, the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 came into force on 22 February 1997, during John Major's Administration, before Conservative Members lost their hold on the Government Benches. Clearly, if the Bill weakens the Government's hand, the 1997 Act must have weakened that of the previous Government, especially as we did not even have the structure of the Good Friday agreement for pursuing lasting peace and normalisation in the Province.

If the hon. Gentleman's logic holds true, it was a worse mistake for Conservatives to argue in favour of the amnesty in 1997.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The hon. Gentleman is missing an important distinction. Because of the Belfast agreement, no decommissioning now means leaving in government the chief of staff of the Provisional IRA with an army at his beck and call that is totally armed.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will attempt to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to expand on that. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford implied the same. It is a legitimate position, but to take it, one must argue primarily from principle rather than from judging the best way forward to normalisation in Northern Ireland. It may be such a controlling principle for Mr. Robinson that the gentleman to whom he referred is in power in Northern Ireland that any softening of the position on decommissioning is unacceptable. That is not where I stand.

In my view, the fundamental principle is finding the best way forward to normalising life in the Province. The evidence of 1997 suggests that the argument for repeating the gesture in 2001 for another five years is compelling. It is up to hon. Members to decide whether to adopt the position of the hon. Member for Belfast, East—I believe that it is a position of principle—or that of the Liberal Democrats. An amnesty was set previously, and we believe that nothing suggests that we should go back on it.

The earlier amnesty was established in a political vacuum when there was no process. The Bill re-establishes the amnesty after the Good Friday agreement has provided an imperfect but nevertheless tangible structure for us to compare the performance of the organisations involved in decommissioning. If the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford condemns the timetable, he must condemn what happened under Lord Mayhew in 1997 even more. I did not hear him make such a condemnation. He implied that I had praised Lord Mayhew and the former Conservative Government for their actions. He is right.

I have previously praised John Major for his visionary and courageous decisions when he was effectively forced to deal with terrorists who were bombing our security forces. I also praise Lord Mayhew, who made a courageous decision that could have backfired, but was one of the necessary if insufficient conditions for the subsequent success of the Good Friday agreement and the ceasefire.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

Surely the difference between 1997 and today is that actions in 1997 were a genuine attempt to open a door to the process. Today, an agreement is in place, the British Government and the Irish Government have made concessions, but Sinn Fein-IRA has not yet fulfilled the decommissioning terms in the Belfast agreement. Extending the time for five years does not apply the thumbscrews to make it deliver.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

That is a good link to my second point. The hon. Gentleman asked the right question. Is there a difference in 2001? Could we achieve a stronger position by not renewing the amnesty? Tonight's debate is not about creating pressure to ensure that the paramilitaries decommission, but about whether we want to close a door on them. It is about whether we want to provide a gateway through which they can decommission.

In 1997, the amnesty was a necessary but insufficient condition to achieve decommissioning. In the same way, the Bill is a necessary but insufficient condition. It makes it legally possible for paramilitary organisations to decommission, but I do not believe that that is an incentive to doing it. However, I sure as hell am convinced that if we make it illegal and create the possibility of prosecuting for decommissioning, it will be harder to find mechanisms to provide the political pressure for it.

As the hon. Gentleman suggested, some hon. Members may believe that the debate is about applying positive pressure by making it illegal to decommission. On the other hand, some of us believe that the Bill keeps a door open so that we can move on through dialogue and other means to find pressure points that will cause the IRA and others to decommission. I suspect that the Secretary of State was also arguing that.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford claimed that the measure would extend the process by another five years. Again, I take a different view. Paramilitary organisations have been bombing, killing, maiming and destroying property for decades. I do not believe that they will be persuaded to decommission by 26 February 2002 simply because we tell them that we will prosecute them if they do not. That is not real-life politics. Such people do not worry about not owning gun licences, but they probably worry about the political implications of making it difficult for linked organisations such as Sinn Fein to achieve the sort of concessions for their communities for which they allegedly got involved in the troubles. I therefore take issue with the hon. Gentleman, not because he did not argue cogently but because my premise is different. I believe that the Bill is a gateway measure rather than a pressure.

The evidence suggests that the Liberal Democrats and the Government are correct. As I said earlier, I genuinely believe that the roots of the successes lie in the former Conservative Administration's decisions. There is all the more pressure now, therefore, for the current Conservative Opposition not to impugn one of the few great triumphs for which they can justly take credit. A few individuals such as the former Prime Minister and Lord Mayhew are worthy of special mention in that context.

Let us be honest, the driver behind the first limited act of decommissioning in October was not the amnesty. The key driver was probably 11 September, in that the IRA—and perhaps Sinn Fein as well—could foresee its funding from the United States drying up, as well as an unquantifiable military response being made against it in the post-11 September environment. In addition, the IRA scored a tremendous political own goal in Colombia, where it was found to be carrying out activities wholly in contravention of the alliance against terrorism that was being established across the world. The drivers were, therefore, external to Northern Ireland.

I suspect that it would have been somewhat more difficult for the IRA—and those Sinn Fein politicians who, I am pretty sure, have sway over it—to meet its goals and to achieve the first act of decommissioning if the de Chastelain process had not been in place. Let us not pretend that that process could continue after 26 February if the Bill were not passed. There would be no structure within which to achieve a logical de Chastelain-type procedure to manage decommissioning if we did not pass the Bill. I have not heard what alternative proposals the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford would put forward if he were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and did not allow the Bill to go through.

I have some questions for the Minister on the mechanics of the Bill, and I hope that she will be able to answer them in her summation. I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that we need clarification on certain questions, one of which concerns the degree of contact between the IRA and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning since October. After the IRA's symbolic gesture, everything seems to have gone rather quiet. It has always been recognised that decommissioning is a process, but it is not a one-incident process. Pressure must be brought to bear on the IRA to do more than simply make a gesture to cover its own financial backside one day when it was clearly under the hammer to do so. We need to know what has happened since October. That was an important step, but is the Minister aware of any further steps that we can expect from the paramilitaries? Secondly, to what extent has the IRA met de Chastelain since October? Have there been any bilateral meetings, and has any pressure been brought to bear by Ministers to achieve that?

Thirdly, to what extent have loyalist paramilitaries been in contact with the IICD? The incidence of loyalist attacks is increasing, and steps must be taken to reduce them. As hon. Members, including Unionist and Conservative Members, have rightly pointed out, there is an underlying level of violence in Northern Ireland that is unknown on the mainland of the United Kingdom. For many people in Northern Ireland, the peace is not a peace. They are still living under paramilitary regimes that are far from our concept of peace. Will the Minister enlighten us as to whether we can expect a statement from the loyalist paramilitaries as well? We cannot expect a real dialogue on decommissioning by the loyalists while such violence is continuing, but the aim must be to achieve a total decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons. Strategically speaking, we have to recognise, while focusing primarily on the IRA for obvious reasons, that there is a pressure elsewhere too.

I would like to make a suggestion as to how we should generate the kind of pressure that could create genuine decommissioning. Clearly, the Bill is part of that process, in that it will leave the door open for that pressure to be applied. Secondly, it is necessary now to start moving in the direction that we all hoped that we could, and to make it clear to the paramilitaries that they will maximise the benefit to their communities and achieve the goals that they have been bombing and shooting for only through their political representatives.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, East rightly pointed out, there are some very senior members of the republican movement who have, at the very least, formerly served time on account of being actively involved in a paramilitary operation and who now enjoy a great deal more power than they could ever have dreamed possible when they were operating in a paramilitary environment. So long as the success of the Stormont Assembly in giving power on a genuinely bipartisan basis is sustained, and so long as the Stormont Assembly really means something to the people of Northern Ireland, we can be confident that it is the right vehicle to show those paramilitaries who are serious about their communities that they should move forward in that way.

There has to be balance in these matters. Unionists and loyalists can rightly be nervous about what they perceive to be an endless series of concessions to the republican and nationalist communities. I agree with what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said about that. Whatever my personal views on the degree of balance, perception is everything. The current perception is that the Unionists have given too much, and that the republicans have given too little back. Does the Minister agree with the concern that I am raising now, which has already been raised by Conservative Members? Is there anything strategic that the Government can do to ensure that both sides feel fairly treated?

It is also necessary to remember that there is public pressure in Northern Ireland to eliminate the maiming and killing. As we have said so many times before, the overwhelming majority of the people in Northern Ireland oppose violence. They have got used to peace, although it has been more successfully achieved in some areas than in others. Will the Minister tell us how we can harness the increasing intolerance of violence among the large sections of the public who have benefited from the peace, to make it clear to the paramilitaries—and those politicians involved with them—that violence will no longer be tolerated and, more to the point, that if the violence restarted, there would be a tremendous political price to be paid, which would have a direct consequence on the communities allegedly being protected by the paramilitaries?

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

The hon. Gentleman said that there would be a political price to be paid. The reality is that the main parties in this House would not have to pay that political price, because they do not stand for election in Northern Ireland. Does he recognise that, despite his placid idea that people are against violence, there is now more criminal and terrorist violence in ordinary everyday life in Northern Ireland? The shops on the Lisburn road are attacked day after day, but the police and security forces cannot deal with it. The clear-up rate for crime has been lower over this last year than ever before. Is it not time for him to come down from cloud cuckoo land and deal with reality?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

The hon. Gentleman's point is exactly the one to which I hope that the Minister will respond. He expresses a genuine and sincerely felt concern that things are getting worse in the Unionist communities in an area of Belfast that I know something about, having lived there myself, although not for some time. Regardless of the perceptions of those of us who think that things are getting better, we have to build confidence in the communities in which people think that things are getting worse. He says that I am living in cloud cuckoo land. I accept that I am an optimist—and, as a Liberal Democrat, perhaps even an idealist—but I do not have time to fantasise to that extent. I dare to think that the points that I am making are practical enough to warrant a significant response from the Minister, and the Unionist community, in particular, deserves a response to the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

It is possible to put forward a case, on the basis of principle, that we should not extend the amnesty for decommissioning—there has been at least one speech to that effect—but that is not the argument that I heard from Conservative Members tonight. In the interests of consistency, therefore, I suggest that it would be wise for Her Majesty's official Opposition to do in 2001 what they did in far less favourable circumstances in 1997. In the absence of anyone in this or any previous debate in the last few years coming up with a better alternative to decommissioning than the content of the Good Friday agreement, I suggest that voting the Bill down would simply close a door without providing an alternative to the Good Friday agreement and the de Chastelain procedures. The Conservatives were right to introduce a very similar proposal to this in 1997. The Liberal Democrats think that it would be right for them, and for us, to support the same proposal, for very much the same reasons, in 2001.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire 6:40 pm, 17th December 2001

I agree with a great deal of what was said by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Lembit Öpik, especially in connection with the need to respond to Unionist concerns without throwing the Bill out. That would not respond to those concerns. However, the speech of Mr. Davies, the shadow Secretary of State, was quite amazing. He huffed and he puffed a great deal, although I may have misinterpreted him, because his style rather obscured the content. For about three quarters of his speech, I thought that he had jettisoned any last remnant of bipartisanship and moved into the No camp and alliance with the Democratic Unionist party, although it became obvious that he is not in that position.

The hon. Gentleman supports the reasoned amendment, which means that he wants the Government to attach a different timetable to the Bill. Although the arguments for amendment can be made on the Floor of the House, they can also be made in Committee, so all the strident opposition turns out to be almost nothing—a minor position that ties him in with some views that the Conservative party held in the past—and Unionists of different persuasions should not be misled by all the noise that he made in producing that particular view.

The hon. Gentleman seems not to realise that water has flowed under the bridge as certain measures have proceeded. My strong opinion is that the Government should not have been involved in the prisoner release programme in the way that they were without digging in and using that involvement as an avenue to gain movement on decommissioning by loyalist and republican paramilitary groups. Unfortunately, that was not done and we have to consider that reality of the current situation.

More water has flowed under the bridge, because a certain number of arms have been put beyond use by the IRA. Of all organisations, the Provisional IRA, because of circumstances round about it and pressures from different areas, has jettisoned one of its distorted principles, to which many of its members said they would always adhere. That change needs to be taken into account.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman mentions the prisoner release scheme. He is aware that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 provides for prisoners to be returned to prison should they default on the terms of their release licence. Does he agree that the Government should consider extending that provision to cover paramilitary organisations that breach their ceasefire or whose ceasefire has been declared null and void and that the Government ought to consider a measure to return to prison all prisoners associated with such an organisation should it fail fully to reinstate its ceasefire and decommission its illegal weapons?

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

Perhaps there should be greater surveillance of the activities in which released prisoners become involved. They may not strictly re-enter fully fledged paramilitary activities, but introducing measures on association with organised gangsterism and other stuff that goes on in Northern Ireland should be considered seriously. I am in favour of being tough in connection with the rules that have already been determined.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

The hon. Gentleman has a long and honourable record of trying to find a new dialogue in Northern Ireland, but does he not think that his position and his criticisms of the Conservative party are essentially a triumph of hope over experience? The experience following the Belfast agreement is of giving way, giving way, giving way—on prisoner releases, as he says—yet we have received nothing. What is his determination of when all weapons must be decommissioned by organisations such as the IRA and loyalists who are currently, allegedly, on ceasefire? Is it 2007, 2010 or 2020?

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

It is not correct that there has been no progress in pushing back the position of Sinn Fein and its links with the IRA. Many measures have been introduced and we have just discussed one on the Floor of the House: the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill is directed almost entirely against Sinn Fein's manipulative activity at the ballot box and we in the House should be proud of its introduction and development.

Perhaps it needed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to produce a report and press for the measure, and pressures had to be placed on the Government to respond, but the Bill has been introduced. It is clear that Sinn Fein was benefiting most from electoral fraud. We took that on board and some of us are keen for the Bill to function properly, so we shall look to see whether it is strong enough to push back the Sinn Fein position, as far as it manipulates in the political game. I have no illusions about the techniques and tactics that it will be involved in.

An interesting exchange took place between the Secretary of State and his shadow on the matter of Sinn Fein and the IRA. My right hon. Friend argued that, although those organisations are not identical, that does not rule out the argument that they are inextricably linked. He used the interesting example of the link between the Labour party and the trade unions. That analogy can be carried so far, and it has relevance to the situation involving the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. Provisional Sinn Fein came out of the Provisional IRA; it is the political wing of the organisation that was established in order to act.

The analogy falls down in respect of the Labour party, because the trade unions were not the only organisations involved in its development. Political manipulators, organisers and activists such as Keir Hardie in the Independent Labour party also had a considerable say. When Labour came out of the trade union movement, it changed, although many of us would say that there is now a problem with how far the trade unions are involved.

Interestingly, the Labour party altered, and if the Sinn Fein party comes out of the Provisional IRA, we may be at the start of a process of change, which means that, in time, those close links and what is seen as identity will begin to disappear. It is likely that the Provisional IRA and those left in it will move to Mafia-type activity and manipulation of their own and away from the political game. We must hope that, as a result of being more and more involved in the political process, Sinn Fein will detach itself from those activities.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Is not the whole point of the Belfast agreement that Sinn Fein can deliver the Provisional IRA. The worst thing that could happen would be for Sinn Fein to become divorced from the Provisional IRA and for a split to occur? Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are one and the same, but on the hon. Gentleman's assumption, a split would leave the Provisional IRA as an armed terrorist group able to go back to violence.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

I was not necessarily envisaging such a split. I drew an analogy with the Labour party and the trade unions. Just as the trade unions have become somewhat distanced from the Labour party, I hope that the Provisional IRA will become distanced from Sinn Fein. There may be a formal break. There was a formal break between the official IRA and the body that was known as the workers' party. Those who represented the democratic left in the Republic of Ireland had a battle inside the workers' party, which they failed to win and had to establish a separate organisation. Heaven knows what the future holds for the activity and organisation of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA.

Why did the Provisional IRA put a certain number of arms beyond use? Unfortunately, it was not the pressure of deadlines. Pressure was put on the IRA by the Leader of the Ulster Unionists because of his party's position, which was an important part of the network of pressure that was brought to bear. However, the essential element was the pressure from the United States, especially that in connection with the Colombian incidents, although the events of 11 September increased the pressure.

What does that tell us about Sinn Fein-IRA? It will act as an organisation to maximise its political advantage or minimise its disadvantage according to the circumstances. That is not the position that the Provisional IRA has traditionally adopted. Sinn Fein-IRA stood to lose heavily in elections in the Republic of Ireland, where it was hoping to hold the balance of power in the future, and it was being pushed back in the republican community in Northern Ireland, so it was willing to consider minimising its disadvantages. Therefore, it was responding to those pressures.

More pressure may be put on Sinn Fein-IRA from America as a result of Gerry Adams's visit to Cuba. I do not usually criticise Castro, but he seems to have made a fundamental blunder in inviting Gerry Adams to Cuba and to celebrate provisions dealing with the problem of the people who died in the Maze. That political responsiveness and interest in gaining political seats is of considerable importance, and alters Sinn Fein's position on the situation in the island of Ireland and our response to it.

I have no illusions about Sinn Fein and the IRA. I want to undermine their political stance. We should all try to engage with the electorate and people of Northern Ireland to ensure that Sinn Fein is not able to make progress. I regret the fact that the Labour party refuses to organise in Northern Ireland. It is the one place in the world where a person is not allowed to be a member of the Labour party, which is not only an injustice, but is politically naive. We should be there arguing these alternative positions.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Sinn Fein took 51 per cent. of the so-called Catholic- nationalist community—I do not like using that term—at recent elections, and overtook the SDLP because of the amount of concessions from Her Majesty's Government towards republicanism and not towards unionism?

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

I was concerned about the concessions that were made, as I showed with the point I made about prisoner releases. However, I do not want to keep going over yesterday's arguments. We must move from our current position. Much advantage has come out of the agreement and the progress that has been made under it. If I had had control of or great influence over the situation, I would have operated it differently and would have brought different values to the fore, and I think we might have been in a stronger position. I did not have such control, and the role that the present Government and the previous Conservative Government have played has been honourable. We must now move on.

We must stress to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland that the IRA and Sinn Fein have shifted their position. They have more or less given up the military struggle—their paramilitary activities. Unacceptable activity still takes place, and the loyalist and republican paramilitary groups have much control over their communities. They want to retain that control. We should enable people in exile to return and ensure that the paramilitaries back off. Such matters should be brought forward on behalf of the Unionist community so that the Government can respond. That is the other side of the coin. I do not entirely accept the argument that there should not be a balance of concessions to both sides. It has always been a matter of trying to get people involved.

There has been a dramatic change in Sinn Fein-IRA's principled attitudes. They were distorted principles, but it adhered to them. It would not involve itself in the institutions of the Republic or of Northern Ireland, because it was a divided Ireland. Now, not only is it keen to manoeuvre to win whatever seats it can in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, but it is on the Executive. That poses problems because of the nature of its links, and it is trying to get rid of its past connections. It would take its seats in the United Kingdom Parliament if it were not for the problem of the Oath. That is a dramatic change from any position it has held in the past, but it means recognising the body that it believes has divided Ireland into two. It sees the possibility of advancing politically by engaging in the De Valera technique.

Those who were associated with paramilitary activity at one stage and lost out should switch to the ballot box. When they do so, they will take a constituency with them—a constituency that never wanted them to engage in such activity, but will support them now because they have proved that they are the stronger, as it were, republicans through the very activity that they engaged in before.

That is the avenue that those people are going down, the avenue that they should be encouraged to go down, and the avenue in which we should defeat them politically by saying that there are alternatives that will give people in Northern Ireland a better life. I am thinking of Labour's provision for pensions and welfare generally—for instance, its attempts to improve health services. Such matters should form part of day-to-day discussion of politics in Northern Ireland, and it would help if we engaged in the tussle.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

As my hon. Friend knows, more than 100 Labour Members agree with his last point. How quickly does he think we could give all United Kingdom citizens the right to be members of the Labour party?

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

That involves an internal battle in the Labour party. It is not a question of constitutional positions, unless some feel that human rights are infringed when people are not allowed a say and an involvement in a body that forms the Government of the country, but must sit and watch on television a Labour party conference that will affect their lives. The sooner my comrades do something about that, the better.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that those Labour supporters could register their protest by joining the Northern Ireland branch of the Liberal Democrats?

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I think we are straying rather wide of the Second Reading debate.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

I agree, Madam Deputy Speaker. When we talk of joining the allies of the Liberal Democrats, we are moving very far from the politics that need to develop in Northern Ireland.

I said earlier that certain moves had been made to tackle Sinn Fein and its links with the IRA, and referred to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill. I think that discussion of the basic building block of a democratic system—the right to a vote—is tremendously important. I know that democracy cannot be secured merely through votes; there must be the proper pressure groups and other organisations, there must be some freedom of expression, and there must be an end to pressures that have existed for too long in Northern Ireland communities. I think, however, that we are beginning to move in that direction.

What I have said does not mean that I will agree entirely with everything in the Bill if it is given a Committee stage, but the general principles strike me as necessary at this stage. I am not sure what the objections in the amendment are meant to be about, apart from an attempt to establish some political link with various members of Unionist communities and to carry them along—and to sound as though something very different is being said from what is actually being said.

We could have a much more sensible and open debate today about what, in Committee, could be added to the Bill to deal with problems that still exist in Northern Ireland, such as the increasing Unionist disillusionment with the whole process. We must be very aware of the need to do that, but we can do it without damning the Bill.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 7:05 pm, 17th December 2001

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Barnes, who, as always, made a serious speech—although I fear that his keenness on the trade union movement and its relationship with the Labour party led him to stretch an analogy a bit too far, in a way that was not entirely helpful.

The Bill relates to arms decommissioning, and in that context we must first welcome a first act of such decommissioning by the IRA. [Interruption.] It is important. Those whom I hear offstage to the left should bear in mind, when trying to cast doubt, that they are undermining their own case. They want to see the transition of organisations away from paramilitarism; they want to see an end to terrorism; they must want to see decommissioning. Therefore, they should not try to undermine the progress that has been made.

I have no doubt that the decommissioning did occur, and I have no doubt that it was significant. Indeed, I suspect that it was more than just significant: I think it was substantial, and that that should be welcomed. The act of decommissioning was carried out by the IRA, and after a beginning of decommissioning by the IRA—a beginning that we hope will lead to a continuation; indeed, must lead to a continuation—it is appropriate to make a couple of points. First, we hope the decommissioning will indeed continue. Secondly, it returns the focus to loyalists.

Until the IRA's act of decommissioning, loyalist paramilitaries hid behind the IRA—engaging in discussions with the international commission, agreeing the modalities of decommissioning in general terms, but not actually doing anything, and saying that they would not do anything unless republicans did. Now republicans have acted, and consequently I think loyalists need to think very seriously. I hope they will think very seriously not just about their relationship with the agreement and the political process in Northern Ireland, but about their relationship with society in Northern Ireland as a whole.

Over the last year or so, we have observed with great sadness the lack of coherence in certain elements of the loyalist community, and the continued and increasing violence perpetrated by some of them. There have, however, been a few hopeful signs in recent weeks and months. The fact that some loyalists helped to resolve the difficulties in north Belfast with regard to Holy Cross is welcome, and they should be congratulated. There are other signs of an effort to bring about coherence and serious thought in loyalism, which should also be welcomed. I think the Secretary of State could do a bit more to encourage the process.

Nevertheless, there is a difficulty involving loyalists, which others have mentioned today. A certain leverage can be exerted in the case of republicans. Sinn Fein participates in the Administration, and is therefore vulnerable to political pressure. Loyalist paramilitaries are not vulnerable in the same way because they are not part of the Administration; indeed, a whole segment is not represented in the Assembly. The only pressures that can be exerted are pressures of a different kind, one of which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Donaldson. If the Secretary of State were to look more closely at the prisoner release scheme and the legislation, he would find that they contain means whereby he could exert pressure, so I hope that he will consider that.

The Bill can be regarded as a technical measure to facilitate decommissioning, because if decommissioning is to occur, there must be a legislative framework for it and a provision whereby the Commission can, when it is appropriate, grant amnesties for those engaged in decommissioning. However, I can understand some of the frustration of Labour Members because it is clear that, despite its being a technical measure, the Bill's consideration this evening has become a point of controversy, leading to the tabling of a reasoned amendment. I have signed that amendment and will support it, along with my colleagues, in the Division Lobby.

The reason for that controversy over what would otherwise be a technical measure is simple. When the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act was passed in 1997, providing a five-year period in which renewable intervals could be set for amnesties, it was not controversial. The Act itself does not contain any element of timetabling, any deadlines or any target dates. Those came separately, from the agreement. We had hoped that they would come from the original report by Senator Mitchell and his colleagues way back in January 1996, but it was not until we had the agreement in 1998 that we had a framework that gave targets.

As I said in an intervention, those targets were in the agreement itself, which set a deadline of 22 May 2000, which was extended to June 2001. Now, there is no target, and that is where the Secretary of State is making a serious mistake. That is why we have to register our position through tabling and voting on the reasoned amendment. We need targets.

The Bill would not have been controversial if the Secretary of State had done what I thought the Government were going to do a few months ago. They should have responded positively to the ideas expressed by Mr. Mark Durkan, now the leader of the SDLP, when he said, after the first act of decommissioning, that it was necessary to get together the parties that support the agreement so that they could recommit to the decommissioning process to General de Chastelain. Inevitably, a fresh target would have had to form part of that recommitment. That target, like the original one in the agreement, would have been endorsed by all the parties, which is important because it would have been better than a target that does not really exist. The best that the Secretary of State could say in response to my intervention was that the target is implicit in the date that has been set, which is 27 February 2003. That is where the mistake has been made.

The Secretary of State made comments with which I profoundly disagree. Unfortunately, they are almost an accepted part of the normal discourse on this matter. He said that deadlines do not work and that there should be no pressure. That is absolute rubbish. No other word can be used to describe it. Of course pressure works. Of course deadlines are important. Targets may not always be met, but if we do not set them, we do not have the opportunity to say to certain parties, "You are in default." It will not now be so easy to tell republicans that they are in default, and being able to say that is the beginning of being able to apply pressure to them. That is the Government's mistake.

Over the past three years, there has been movement by republicans on decommissioning. They started off, in April 1998, denying that they were under any obligation from the agreement. They were wrong, but worse was the error made by those who supported republicans in their error. [Laughter.] We hear them laughing, but the agreement placed a clear obligation on republicans and we moved them, by stages, to a point at which they accepted that obligation. At the first Hillsborough meetings, Sinn Fein accepted that an obligation stemmed from the agreement. In May 2000, the IRA accepted that obligation. It was on the basis of their acceptance of it and their promise to fulfil it that the Government, with the consent of the parties, shifted the timetable.

Those moves were achieved only as the result of pressure. We got the IRA's promise to decommission only after devolution was suspended in February 2000. That produced movement. The IRA were dilatory in carrying out its promise, thus confirming our suspicion that, given time, it would spin things out and Mr. Adams would waste that time. That is precisely what he did. It was necessary then for me to take action. Are the Government going to hide behind me again? Are they going to leave it to other people to start to take action?

The Government need to think about this very carefully. It is primarily their responsibility to achieve decommissioning. It should not be up to us to carry that burden, to a large extent without support from others. Tonight the Government are shirking their responsibility. They should have faced up to it, and could have done so by taking the opportunity offered by Mr. Durkan to bring the parties to agreement on the way in which the process would continue.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman with great attention and in great agreement. Does he agree that if the Government abdicate their proper duty to take the lead in pressing for decommissioning and applying pressure using whatever instruments are available, rather than simply throwing them away as has too often been the case up to now, pressure will need to be applied by himself or the new institutions in Belfast, which will guarantee a series of political crises that could destabilise those institutions every time a new act of decommissioning is needed? Surely, that would be a fatal recipe for achieving the peace, stability and decommissioning that we all need.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. If the Government reflect on the matter, they will realise what a bad thing it is for the development of the political process to have these recurrent crises. Those are not good for the development of the Administration or of confidence in it. One has to ask why the Government are sitting back and adopting the approach that they will do nothing until a crisis occurs. A responsible Government should be acting in advance, particularly as the development of such a crisis is clearly predictable and should be anticipated by them. It is not responsible government, nor is it desirable, to bring about a situation in which such a threat to the political process in Northern Ireland is inevitable.

I find the Government's attitude disappointing. They know that people in Northern Ireland compare the supine attitude that the Government have adopted to events there with the hyperactivity that we see on other fronts, and they are not encouraged by it. If the Government wanted to increase confidence and a sense of community in Northern Ireland, they would address the disparity between their domestic policies and their international policies. The continued gap between those approaches deepens the crisis of confidence in Northern Ireland, and a sensible Administration would not allow that to develop.

Our experience in dealing with republicans reinforces the need for clarity and firmness. We are dealing with an organisation that does not operate on the normal principles that we understand; it does not reciprocate; it never displays any generosity; it acts only when it has to; and if given an opportunity to wriggle out of anything, it will do so. There is a clear need for firm lines. That need is based on pragmatism, but it should not just be based on that. There are principles here that have to be vindicated. In terms of the level of confidence within the community in Northern Ireland, the Government must show that there is no moral vacuum in their approach to the issue, that they understand the basic principles and that they will be firm on them. Those basic principles come back to the underlying point of the Good Friday agreement; that it is there to support peace and democracy and to support the democratic process.

The comments made by the hon. Member for North–East Derbyshire on electoral fraud were significant and I hope that the Government listened and will act. We must support the democratic process, but the objective at the end of the day is to produce a normal society in Northern Ireland that operates by normal, peaceful and democratic methods. That necessarily means an end to paramilitarism; we should be clear about that. Weapons decommissioning is part of the process, but that process must continue with the dissolution or the transformation of the paramilitary organisations into something that is entirely peaceful and democratic.

We may find that some elements, individuals or even organisations are not prepared to make that progress and wish to continue racketeering. As the hon. Member for North–East Derbyshire knows, the Official IRA started a ceasefire in 1972 but, 25 years later, we discovered there were still elements of it in parts of Newry and West Belfast, simply in order to maintain rackets in which they had been engaged over the years. There will be a need to deal with racketeering, and the Government have come across a good example of how that can be done in recent weeks. I hope that the response is positive.

As my hon. Friend Rev. Martin Smyth has pointed out, there is a need to tackle the criminal activity that has developed; again, probably largely from former paramilitaries who are now lining their own pockets. All those things need to be done to produce the situation that we want, but we will not be able to move paramilitary organisations down this path unless a firm framework is put in place and it is made clear to them that they need to move that way. Essential to that is the setting of some form of target date. The Government have failed to do that, and for that reason I am afraid that this measure, which would otherwise have been a technical one, has to be opposed.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk West 7:22 pm, 17th December 2001

It is a privilege to be called to speak in this debate, which represents the latest incremental step in what has been a long progress towards normalisation in Northern Ireland. I am aware that many hon. Members here tonight have a detailed knowledge of the subject at hand, particularly those Members with constituencies in Northern Ireland. However, they, too, will be aware that many of us with constituencies outside Northern Ireland have constituents with a great deal of interest in the subject. My constituency is no different.

That makes the comment of Rev. Martin Smyth—that the Labour Government have nothing to lose in Northern Ireland—seem a bit cheap, given that Mr. Trimble spent several minutes saying how large the responsibilities were of the Labour Government in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I did not miss the point. The hon. Gentleman said that the Labour Government had nothing to lose in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

In an intervention on Lembit Öpik, I said that there was no political price to be paid by the parties in this House because they did not stand in Northern Ireland. I was talking about parties, and not the Government.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk West

I appreciate that, but the Labour Government have a great deal of responsibility in Northern Ireland and therefore a great deal to lose in terms of the interpretation of constituents, including my own, of what happens in Northern Ireland.

The technical purpose of the Bill is to extend the Northern Ireland arms decommissioning process and associated amnesty, initially for a year, in order to maintain the momentum of the decommissioning process. It is essentially a technical Bill.

Of course, on one level it is disappointing that this measure is required at all. We might think that, in an ideal world, the violence, and the arms that have represented the means for maintaining it, would have disappeared from Ireland by now, but that would be a false construct since in an ideal world the violence would not have started in the first place. We should temper our disappointment with the knowledge that, for most people, not only is Northern Ireland a far more hospitable place to live today than it was 10, 15 or, indeed, five years ago, but that, in the more immediate sense, there has been some real progress recently in the decommissioning process.

It might not always be the wisest thing for a politician to apply the term "optimism", as Lembit Öpik did in relation to Northern Ireland. I would not go that far, but there is room for a real sense of progress when we reflect on the historic act of decommissioning, witnessed by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and reported on 23 October of this year.

That single act of decommissioning may or may not have been modest in terms of volume—it certainly satisfied the commission—but its significance lay in the fact that it represented an acceptance by people formerly of violent intent that their methods had to change for good. I would not wish to say today that these individuals do not desire the same political ends as they ever did, but the important thing is that their recent action serves as powerful evidence that they recognise they can pursue their objectives only through peaceful and democratic means. That is why it would be a wholesale failure of peaceful governance if the decommissioning momentum—achieved, most notably, in recent months—were not maintained by means of the legislation under debate this evening.

Of course there will be other objections to the extension of the decommissioning process. One objection is that, in negotiations of any kind, it is sometimes useful to be able to put those on the other side of the table under some form of time pressure, or constrain them to given time horizons. That is the essence of the amendment tabled by the Opposition today and supported by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann.

But surely it is clear that, in the circumstances that pertain today, even if all paramilitaries agreed tomorrow to decommission, it would not be possible by February 2002. That is not a practical proposition, and it should lead us to the not unreasonable conclusion that what is important is that things are steadily moving forward, rather than to attempt to present artificial and unhelpful time frames.

Indeed, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann agreed with the broad principle that artificial time frames are unhelpful in 1999 when he said

"It would be beneficial if people looked carefully at the decommissioning scheme. It does not refer to timetables. Timetables have been mentioned, but there is no explicit reference in the decommissioning scheme to a timetable."—[Hansard, 13 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 189.]

Another objection sometimes made is that the act of decommissioning witnessed by General de Chastelain and his colleagues was somehow bogus—a very weak objection indeed. Like all of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I take the integrity of the members of the commission as axiomatic and I would suggest that people who wish to doubt it prove by their very approach the wisdom of removing from the political arena the physical process of verification itself.

A wider objection is to argue—as Rev. Ian Paisley has done before today—that the IRA has control rather than peace in mind, and would simply return to violence if the Good Friday agreement as a whole did not provide acceptable outcomes. That objection seems to miss the point that, in a democracy, people and groups can have whatever objectives they want, provided the means by which they pursue them are peaceful and lawful.

The objection also ignores the way in which the world has changed, even since the events of 11 September, so as to make a return to the bullet and the bomb unacceptable to all but a tiny splinter of people who will, in due course, be mopped up by sound policing in the Province and elsewhere.

Our concern this evening should rest with progress in the short to medium term. This debate is not so much about the ultimate constitutional structure that is to pertain in Northern Ireland, but rather with the processes that ensure that, however the people of Northern Ireland choose to order their affairs, guns and explosives have no part in the public, or indeed private, discourse. The recent history of Northern Ireland has sometimes been characterised by the rejection of arguments based on process on the grounds that they could lead to political solutions not in accordance with the views of one group or another. However, in the 21st century, and post-11 September, that is not a view that even many former paramilitaries find sustainable.

Indeed, 11 September, when a similar number of people died in one day as have died in Northern Ireland in 30 years, is likely, through its apocalyptic scale and effect, to have helped to force the hand of the Provisional IRA by closing off the remnants of support for terrorism in any form that may have existed outside Britain or Ireland. It is true that that argument allows for the fact that without the violence in New York some in Northern Ireland—other than the splinter groups I mentioned earlier—may still have considered violence to be a feasible option. It is also fair to say that Ministers must make fine judgments regarding who among the several groupings in Northern Ireland with a history of violence is to be specified and who is not. At the end of the day, the finer points of detail surely have to yield to common sense. The bare fact is that there has been progress, and there is good evidence to suggest that it will continue. It is therefore now time for loyalist paramilitary groups to enter the decommissioning process, too.

Specification is not a one-way street and the decommissioning process is therefore a most fundamental part of the process of ensuring that competing visions of Northern Ireland's future are reconciled in democratic, rather than lawless, fashion. It is essential that all sides are able to press their cases, and it is fairly clear that if loyalist groups are to come on board, there is no real possibility—as hon. Members on the Opposition Benches know full well—of the process being completed before February. That is why the Bill is so important in helping to ensure a peaceful future for the people who live in Northern Ireland. It is pity that some hon. Members cannot see that and prefer to put up mindless opposition for its own sake.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke 7:32 pm, 17th December 2001

I hope that Mr. Joyce will forgive me if I do not pursue the points that he made, although I listened to his speech with interest. I strongly agreed with Mr. Trimble when he said that decommissioning was essentially the responsibility of Government. It is an issue on which the Government to date have been defective. I was also intrigued by the right hon. Gentleman's assertion that the IRA's decommissioning event was substantial. The rest of us are unaware of any evidence that supports that view. If I may say so somewhat lightheartedly, we look forward to him sharing that evidence with us.

It has been predictable for three or so years that one day this Bill or something like it would come before the House. It was only a matter of time before the Government reflected in legislation their lamentable failure to deliver meaningful decommissioning. Further, nowhere is the saga of our surrender to domestic terrorism more clearly illustrated than in successive Governments' handling of the issue of decommissioning. I say successive Governments, because I am mindful of the retreat on that point that was made between 1993 and 1997. The unpalatable truth is that what started as a peace process long ago degenerated into a process of appeasement. The Bill is largely the consequence of capitulation to the threat of terrorist violence and fear of renewed terrorist violence.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way on that point, because it was earlier argued that the Conservative party is going back on 1997 in the reasoned amendment. Does he agree that when one realises a mistake has been made, the best thing to do is to rectify it?

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke

I strongly agree, but I have also been intrigued by the frequent references to the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, because I remember clearly its passage through the House and the arguments in the Chamber and behind the scenes. That Act was aspirational. It prepared the way, controversially, for the recommendations of the Mitchell committee and it came at a time when the Conservative party was still uncertain how strongly to insist on decommissioning as a precondition for entry to the talks. So the climate was very different from today.

The Bill will lengthen the timetable for decommissioning and, therefore, represents the Government's failure to deliver an integral part of the Belfast agreement. It is an expression of that failure, the reasons for which significantly lie in the agreement itself. During the past three or so years, my hon. Friends and I have lamented the absence of linkage. We lamented the absence of linkage between early release and decommissioning and between places on the Executive and decommissioning. If only that linkage had existed, the situation today could have been very different.

There was no linkage, and far from decommissioning being completed by February 2001, another five years will be allowed in which it may take place. That will bring the entire decommissioning process even further into disrepute and it will make fraudulent nonsense of Sinn Fein's position at the heart of Government in the Province.

A simple principle is at stake and we lose sight of it at our peril. It cannot be morally right to sustain a system of democracy in which one side reserves the right to use force if its will does not prevail. How can a power-sharing Executive possibly work when parties are asked to share power with political opponents who have kept open the option of recourse to violence?

I am sorry that Mr. Barnes is no longer in his place, because I listened to his speech with interest. He got close to saying that decommissioning is like the icing on the cake, or an added attraction. That is not true. It is a core imperative for the maintenance of democratic society.

A long time ago, Mr. Hume said:

"You cannot negotiate with people who have guns on the table, under the table or outside the door."

If one cannot negotiate with such people, one most certainly cannot share power with them. The requirement that terrorists must decommission their weapons embodies a basic democratic principle, and that principle has been diluted by the Government's failure to achieve meaningful decommissioning and is diluted further by the protracted timetable that the Bill provides.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Davies said, if the Bill had provided for a reasonable and limited extension of decommissioning of, say, one year, we might have been prepared to support it, but five years is totally irresponsible. A state that agrees to give executive power to people who are members of an armed body is undermining the rule of law on which its stability rests. That principle seemed to be understood by British and Irish Governments at the beginning of the process. So great, however, has been the desire to appease domestic terrorism that they have regressively diluted that principle.

Let us consider the past few years. We were told that decommissioning would be resolved by May 2000. That did not happen, and a new deadline was set for June 2001. It did not happen then, and the deadline was extended to February 2002. The Bill gives a new date—February 2003—and makes further extension available. The point is that if we extend the deadline, we shall extend the time until decommissioning becomes reality. That is the fundamental flaw in the Bill.

I remember that, shortly after the agreement was signed, the Prime Minister wrote to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to say that decommissioning should start straight away. A few weeks later came the Prime Minister's handwritten pledges to the people of Northern Ireland. On the basis of what proved to be worthless pledges, the majority of voters in the Province backed the agreement. They were essentially conned.

So it has gone on—fudge after fudge after fudge. There came the joint communiqué in April 1999, which the IRA's Brian Keenan described as an Easter bunny. There followed the Prime Minister's initiative and his article in The Times in June 1999, then "The Way Forward" document in July. The Mitchell review of the process followed, and then the IRA's so-called seismic change of thinking. So it has gone on.

The objective has been to secure Unionist acceptance of Sinn Fein's participation in Government without decommissioning. The Government have largely succeeded in that. I find it wholly unacceptable that they should now seek more time for decommissioning when they have squandered so much and shown themselves incapable of delivering the goods. The Bill should be rejected.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 7:42 pm, 17th December 2001

Some weeks ago the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland seemed to say that he understood something of the alienation in the Unionist community. He seemed to understand—given the results of recent elections, he could hardly have done otherwise—that the Unionist community did not support his agreement. He referred to the cold house that seemed to exist for Unionists in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State has done himself no favours in his performance today. He demonstrated clearly that he was prepared almost to be a spin doctor for Sinn Fein-IRA and to put the best possible gloss on Sinn Fein-IRA activity. He could have said that Sinn Fein-IRA is full of despicable people who have failed us time and again. He could have said that they had made us promises and pledges, and then broken them. He could have said that they were still going on with their violence, but that the Government feel that we should give them a final chance. We could have disagreed with that judgment, but at least it would have been clear that he did not think that anything in the behaviour of Sinn Fein-IRA was worthy of commendation.

As it was, however, the Secretary of State came to the Dispatch Box, and the worst that he could say of Sinn Fein-IRA was that there had been massive imperfections in the way in which it had operated within the so-called peace process. By and large, he referred to the great significance of what Sinn Fein-IRA has done.

Before I turn to what Sinn Fein-IRA has done, let me leave one fact with the House. Any Member who has not been following events in Northern Ireland may be unaware of it. The Provisional IRA has more weapons and explosives in its stockpiles and armouries today than it had when it declared its ceasefire: so much for decommissioning.

The security forces will make it clear to those who inquire that the IRA has continued to bring weaponry into the country. Indeed, it was caught bringing weapons in via Florida when its network was uncovered by chance by a scanning machine in Great Britain. The IRA has continued to bring in weaponry while talking of the great need for decommissioning, its great desire to see that happen and its preparedness to be part of such a process. Rather than reducing its number of weapons, it has, during the so-called peace process, increased the weapons at its disposal.

It is essential to consider the backcloth against which our debate takes place. Several hon. Members have mentioned that the Provisional IRA and others have given a number of commitments over the past few years. The Government's position before 1994 was that there had to be complete decommissioning of weaponry before Sinn Fein-IRA could be part of any talks process. That position was weakened during the period of the three Washington principles. Lord Mayhew, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, changed the position so that if Sinn Fein-IRA started on the road to decommissioning, Sinn Fein could be part of the talks process.

The position was weakened further when the Government brought in Senator Mitchell to consider decommissioning. His report said that some people wanted decommissioning to happen before talks could take place, but the IRA did not want to decommission until after the talks were over. Perhaps we should do something in the middle, he said, and he judged that decommissioning should occur during the talks process. Of course, it did not. After the talks took place, we had the Belfast agreement, and all that it gave was a commitment on the part of all participants to use best endeavours to bring about decommissioning by May 2000.

When that date came, another change was made. It was decided that June 2001 would be the appropriate hour. In June 2001, the Government stretched the deadline until February 2002. The measure before the House tonight will take us right through to 2007.

We are told that there is great reason for hope today because there has been a decommissioning event. We are told that that event was of some significance, not because anyone knows what was decommissioned, but because General de Chastelain thought that it was significant. If his judgment is to be used, we should consider just what General Chastelain has said. His statement talked about our having witnessed an event that "we regard as significant".

In the desire to know and to test what the general considers significant, my colleagues and I went to see him. We asked if the commission considered the amount of weaponry to be significant, or whether the fact that anything at all had occurred was significant. He replied that the fact that an event took place was, to him, significant. He said that he had seen written on the gable ends of walls in republican areas, "Not a bullet; not an ounce". In that context, what had happened was significant, he said.

I asked whether the general regarded his meeting with us that day as significant. He said that yes, it was. That might give the House some idea of how easily he is persuaded that any event is of significance. I then asked him whether, if the IRA had decommissioned one gun—just one—he would have considered that to be significant. He said, "Yes, I would." It would thus have been significant if the general had seen only one weapon put beyond use. We are asked by some hon. Members to take as evidence of the Provisional IRA's bona fides—its willingness to see total decommissioning—the fact that in some unspecified place an unspecified event took place, whereby an unspecified amount of weapons of an unspecified classification was put beyond use in an unspecified way, with no suggestion that there would be a further act to put weapons beyond use.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

In the light of the "Not one bullet, not one ounce of Semtex" slogan, one might accept that meaning of "significance". However, is it not more significant that people talk about seeing decommissioning although they did not see it, and that the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Irish Republic demands further steps from the British side so that demilitarisation—knocking down the watch towers and so on—is visible? Surely, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I could not agree more. Mr. Trimble said that we saw that act of decommissioning, but we saw nothing at all. The only people who saw it were a bunch of IRA men and three people from the international decommissioning body, who left the site of the so-called act of decommissioning, while the IRA men stayed behind with whatever weaponry was there.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not intend to mislead the House, but when he says that the general said that he would regard the decommissioning of one gun as significant, is it not the case that the general's report stated that a quantity of guns, arms and explosives were decommissioned?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

It would not be correct to say that. The report said that arms, ammunition and explosives were included—no quantities were given. My reference to the statement that one gun was significant was intended to show Members how easily the general is persuaded that something minor is of significance—something that might also be considered minor by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.

In a legal context, we are often told by respected members of the judiciary—people whom we have learned to trust—that for justice to be done, it has to be seen to be done, yet we tell a bunch of gangsters, "Oh well, we don't need to see it." Why should we need to see weapons destroyed? If the whole idea of decommissioning is to build up confidence within the Unionist community, to let it know that the IRA has changed its ways for ever and that it has left its horrible past behind, it is essential that people see decommissioning take place.

However, all we have is that unspecified event—and no timetable. We specifically asked the general whether he had any indication as to when another act of decommissioning might take place and he said, "No, there is no timetable for further decommissioning." Indeed, the Bill is testimony to that fact. If there had been a timetable for decommissioning, the Bill could have fitted into it, but the Secretary of State, on a wing and a prayer—if he either flies or prays—tells us that we shall let the process go on for another five years and then see what happens.

The shadow Secretary of State turned the arguments of the Secretary of State back on to him in a way that was evident to everyone. If the Secretary of State says that it is in the nature of deadlines that people in Northern Ireland—the Provisional IRA and others—will take things to the wire, that must also apply to the Bill. If he shows them that five years are available, we can be dead sure that, when that five years come around, either the Provisional IRA will be looking for more concessions to meet the demands placed on it, or the Secretary of State or his successor will have to come to the Dispatch Box once again to extend the period.

It is clear that the Secretary of State has the difficult task of convincing people in Northern Ireland and throughout this kingdom that the Provisional IRA deserves that further chance. The reality is that the Provisional IRA has not been acting solely as democrats since the signing of the Belfast agreement. The House needs to know something about what a ceasefire means to the Provisional IRA. During that period, the Provisional IRA murdered 12 people—the last of them only last week. The Provisional IRA shot 150 people. They carried out so-called punishment beatings on 250 people during that ceasefire period.

As I pointed out earlier, the Provisional IRA has been running guns in from Florida. It has been involved in its usual gangsterism throughout the Province, including major robberies when millions of pounds worth of goods were stolen. As everybody knows, it has been engaged with the FARC in Colombia, attempting to improve its terror machine. As recently as this weekend, we heard that it was leaving manuals so that FARC could learn the deadly business of terrorism at the feet of the masters—the Provisional IRA.

That is the record of the Provisional IRA—still engaged in terrorism. Who are these people? They include, as chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, the Minister of Education. Let us think about that for a moment: the Minister of Education in Northern Ireland, as chief of staff, sits down in the army council of the Provisional IRA and sanctions the murders that take place. That is the reality. That is what he did last week when a person was killed in south Armagh at the hands of the Provisional IRA, when the IRA was sent off to Colombia and when the guns were being run from Florida. While that same Mr. McGuinness was talking to the general and, indeed, Senator Mitchell, about decommissioning, he was sanctioning the bringing in of weaponry from Florida.

That is the organisation with which we shall be rubbing shoulders in the corridors if the Government have their way during the next few weeks. Three of its four Members of Parliament are members of the army council of the IRA: the head of its southern command, Pat Doherty; Gerry Adams, former chief of staff of the IRA; and its present chief of staff, Martin McGuinness. Those are the people we are dealing with—people with high positions in the Government of Northern Ireland.

That is the difference from the position adopted by the Conservatives in 1997. They took that position when the Provisional IRA did not run Departments in Northern Ireland—but now it does. The Secretary of State urges us to allow the IRA to continue its ministerial role in Northern Ireland without handing over its weaponry for five years, because everyone knows that for the IRA that deadline has become a period of relaxation.

It is essential to consider a further factor. The measure takes us beyond the last possible date for the next Assembly election in 2003. In theory at least, that means that the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister—whichever of those positions is held by Sinn Fein after that election—will have the power, under Government-sponsored legislation, to appoint High Court judges. At the same time, they will be in command of an armed terrorist organisation. That certainly should give people some cause for concern.

The Bill shows that the Government are not really serious about imposing deadlines on decommissioning. They have relaxed, taken a laid-back approach and shown that they have no bottom line when it comes to dealing with Sinn Fein-IRA. The Bill removes the pressure from the IRA and shows that it has until 2007 to bury the issue. The Government have made it fairly clear—this Bill is evidence—that they have not agreed with the Provisional IRA a timetable for decommissioning, which proves that the event that took place was nothing more than a stunt and a con. Indeed, it makes a mockery of the Prime Minister's statement that the event was in some way historic.

The Bill is evidence of weak government. There is nothing that requires the scheme to run for five years. The legislation could say one year just as easily as five; it could say two or 10. The Secretary of State chose five years so that he can stretch out the process and allow the IRA even more time in government.

It ill becomes the purported Northern Ireland First Minister to indicate to the House that, as far as he is concerned, the burden of ensuring decommissioning rests on his shoulders. The purported First Minister would not have done anything if it had not been for the reality of facing the electorate. As he faced the consequences of the concessions that he made to secure decommissioning, he was forced to take some action by way of putting the matter to Sinn Fein-IRA.

I agree with the comments of hon. Members across the Floor that by far the most relevant issue to the IRA's event—whatever it may have been—was it being caught out in Colombia, and the fact that it was losing support in the United States, losing its funding and losing the gentrification that its leadership had been given over the previous months. The bottom line is of course that, since then, the events of 11 September have shown clearly that there is a view in civilised democracies across the world that those who engage in violence to advance political causes are persona non grata and that to a much greater extent it is hard for Sinn Fein-IRA to peddle its argument across the world.

The Government, by this Bill, have become complicit in Sinn Fein-IRA's charade. If the Secretary of State had meant what he said and shown that he felt that the Unionists were in a cold house, he would have approached the Dispatch Box very differently today. Indeed, I recall it being said—I think by Lembit Öpik, although it may have been the Conservative spokesman, Mr. Davies—in reply to the Secretary of State, that words simply would not be enough to do that. If, as I believe, that is right on that point, is it not also right on decommissioning?

To a community of people who were born under the threat and actuality of IRA violence and witnessed its activities over many decades, words simply are not enough. The general's few lines in a press statement will not convince them. Opinion polls have shown that the majority of Unionists are not convinced that the event is one of some significance, so decommissioning needs to be seen to be believed.

Nothing that the Secretary of State has said will have convinced by one iota any Unionist in Northern Ireland that he is right in giving the IRA a further period of time. It would be far better if it did what the Prime Minister indicated should be done. If it does not meet its obligations on decommissioning, we shall have to make proposals to ensure either that it does so or that its representatives are put out of Government until it does so.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby 8:05 pm, 17th December 2001

I come to this debate in disappointment as much as anything else, as it is a very sad day. Those of us who want a lasting and just peace in Northern Ireland—I hope that includes everyone present—will agree that there must be concessions and some pragmatic ways of making progress, because to get an agreement one must be pragmatic. Unfortunately, experience of the past three to four years teaches us that the pragmatism is all on one side and that a long history of appeasement began with the Belfast agreement.

I was in the Chamber when the original Bill was passed in February 1997. It implemented a framework to allow an amnesty for people handing in weapons in the future. It did not say that people could have an amnesty. That was nearly five years ago, and as some Labour Members have said, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Sadly, we have since seen nothing, apart from an event that General de Chastelain believed was significant. I do not think that that is really what anybody expected when the Belfast agreement was trumpeted as such good news in April 1998.

I say with sadness, not with anger, that this Bill is another step down the road of appeasement. I remind newer Members of the Mitchell principles and what Senator Mitchell said in 1996 for John Major's Government. He produced six principles and said in the second that to be involved in all-party talks, participants had to agree to

"the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations".

Talks occurred in 1997–98, but I do not think that all participants did so agree. That was a pity, but of course we were being pragmatic and as a result went one step down the road.

Then we had the Belfast agreement. It is now getting on for four years old and some hon. Members may not have read it. I remind Members present that it says on page 20:

"All participants . . . confirm their intention . . . to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsements in referendums North and South".

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

On a recent television programme on Ulster Television, the hon. Gentleman stated that he did not support the Good Friday agreement and said that that view was shared by many members of the Conservative party. Will he take this opportunity to clarify once and for all whether he is with his party or without his party?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

There must be some mistake; I do not remember doing any interview in the past year or so with Ulster Television. I have done one in the past, but I think that that was before the hon. Gentleman became a Member of the House. I will clearly state that the Belfast agreement was entirely reasonable. I did not agree with everything in it. There are disagreements in all parties, but that is why there is a coming together to form a consensus. My point has always been—I do not think that I said it on Ulster Television—that all parts of the agreement had to be implemented. Indeed, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Marjorie Mowlam, said that we cannot "cherry-pick" the agreement and that "all parts" must be implemented.

The two years ran out in May or June 2000—some time ago. The two years came and the two years went. There was then another year of extension, and then another six months. There is still 10 weeks left to decommission all loyalist as well as IRA weapons. Apparently, the IRA has made the decision to decommission. How long does it take to tell everybody? There are all sorts of ways to let people know—telephone, e-mail, even snail mail. How long does it take to tell the fighters in the field—or whatever those ghastly terrorists call themselves—to hand in their weapons? Surely not longer than 10 weeks. As I said previously, it took only two months in Rhodesia, as it then was, in 1980, and 30 days in Macedonia. It does not take very long to organise the handing in, the destruction or the decommissioning of weapons.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I do not want to trespass on the House's patience, but is the hon. Gentleman really positing Rhodesia-Zimbabwe as a model of a peaceful, pacifist democratic state?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

No—I would not insult the hon. Gentleman's intelligence by pretending anything of the sort. My point is that the handing in of terrorist weapons in 1980 under the Lancaster House agreement was given a total of two months—it might even have been less, and the process certainly took less than two months. That was a far more difficult situation, with fighters out in the bush, not a country that has e-mail, television and other means of communication.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly unhappy, so let me help by quoting from his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. In February 1996, before the Mitchell principles were published, in reference to the IRA attack on the tallest building in London—he was very firm on that, as he was on the attack on New York's twin towers—Mr. Blair said:

"On this matter, we shall stand foursquare together in the cause of peace."

He added:

"Decommissioning weapons was one way. In our judgment it is, and remains, the obvious way."

Two years later, on 22 April 1998, in reference to the Belfast agreement, he said:

"We said that we want the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations . . . Meanwhile it would obviously be a travesty of democracy if parties associated with paramilitary organisations held Executive office in the Assembly while they continue to be engaged in or threaten terrorism".

We know that McGuinness, Adams and the IRA are still engaged in intimidation, in threatening terrorism and possibly—as Mr. Robinson says—in carrying out acts of terrorism. The IRA has continued to commit terrorist acts while McGuinness sits as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that everyone agrees with the Prime Minister on how that is a travesty of democracy.

It is important that we all understand what it is we are to vote on. Last Thursday, my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley pointed out that when he interviewed Martin McGuinness in 1974, McGuinness told him that

"he had had a dozen Catholic informers killed."—[Hansard, 13 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 1-17.]

I do not recall Mr. McGuiness ever being put on trial for that. He remains a member of the Provisional Army Council of the IRA—if the Minister has any intelligence that says otherwise, perhaps she will tell us about it. We all know that he is deeply involved, as is Adams, yet the Secretary of State says that we must give those people more time.

My hon. Friend Mr. Davies made an excellent point about whether the Secretary of State was again trying to distance Sinn Fein from the IRA, as he appeared to be doing. The right hon. Gentleman said that Sinn Fein had no power over the IRA, yet on 22 October—seven or eight weeks ago—Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness both made statements indicating that they had asked the IRA to begin the decommissioning process and, amazingly enough, General de Chastelain put out a statement on 23 October saying that the IRA had decommissioned some weapons. Is the juxtaposition of the two events mere coincidence, or is it conceivable that Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have significant influence on—or might even be the same people as—the IRA?

The Government are being disingenuous in the extreme, they are being economic with the actualité, they are guilty of dissembling. I shall not name individuals, because I would be ruled out of order. We are fighting a laudable war against terrorism in Afghanistan—a war that most hon. Members present support—yet we will not fight a war against the terrorists who have killed British citizens on British soil on the mainland and in Northern Ireland. We will not fight a war against those who attacked the tallest buildings in London, but we will against those who attacked the tallest buildings in New York. I am not arguing that we should fight such a war; I am saying that we must be honest with ourselves.

In the Terrorism Act 2000, at the top of the list of proscribed organisations we see "the Irish Republican Army". In March last year, when asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Wilshire whether that meant the Real IRA, the Provisional IRA or Continuity IRA, the then Home Secretary said that it meant all the Irish Republican Army: Provisional, Continuity, Real, Official if that still exists—the lot. That Act specifically states in section 11:

"A person commits an offence if he belongs or professes to belong to a proscribed organisation."

We know that Martin McGuinness is a member of the Provisional Army Council—the Secretary of State is free to intervene to tell me otherwise. The Act further states in section 12:

"A person commits an offence if he arranges, manages or assists in arranging or managing a meeting which he knows is . . . to be addressed by a person who belongs or professes to belong to a proscribed organisation"— or—

"if he addresses a meeting and the purpose of his address is to encourage support for a proscribed organisation".

I seem to recall Gerry Adams visiting America once or twice to collect money. There seems no doubt that those people should be prosecuted under the Government's own Act, yet they are not.

I am willing to accept that the Real IRA and Continuity IRA are splinter groups—different from the IRA. However, the truth is that the explosives used in Omagh had been in Provisional IRA stockpiles. Anyone with knowledge of Northern Ireland knows that in the organisations in which Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are involved much is known about where those explosives came from, and that they might be able to help. They could show good faith, as we are doing by giving them an extra five years, by letting us know who committed that outrage and providing some evidence, instead of shedding crocodile tears. They could help us to nail the bombers who murdered those 20-odd people in Omagh.

We have seen little good faith from the IRA since the Belfast agreement, except for the fact that, although they have not stopped killing people, they have, very decently, killed fewer people than they killed before. They have not stopped intimidation beatings, nor have they ceased organising. We all want peace, but the Government—motivated by the good intentions with which the road to hell is paved—have acted shamefully. They have, as a Government, been dishonest and dishonourable. Ministers should hang their heads in shame over their appeasement on decommissioning.

The Prime Minister has been quoted as saying:

"as the Agreement expressly states, the ceasefires are indeed complete and unequivocal; an end to bombings, killings and beatings, claimed or unclaimed; an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence".

None of that has happened. We should be honest about that. Although the end may desirable, we should remember that only rarely is an end justified by dishonest means.

Unbelievably, in their appeasement, the Government intend to allow public funding for IRA propaganda by allowing four Sinn Fein MPs to take the generous—over-generous, in my opinion—office allowances. The money will be public funding for propaganda on behalf of an organisation that commits murder—an organisation that has in the recent past murdered Members of Parliament, as every one of us remembers.

It will allow terrorists with access to illegal weapons to walk the corridors around us all. Surely that can give no one any pleasure, and should worry everybody. I know the Sinn Fein office in the Falls road. I used to walk past it with a rifle quite often. I was well protected by several other people. It was known then, and now, that that office acts as a nerve centre or control centre for intimidation and beating. People could be found who have been beaten and knee-capped. They are taken there first to be told—

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

The hon. Gentleman has referred to one Sinn Fein office in west Belfast. Is he aware that there are now 18 such offices in west Belfast? Does he agree that the Government's decision to allow fundraising and to make Sinn Fein an exception from the other political parties in the House has allowed the financing of one of the strongest organisations in western Europe?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am out of date. I did not know that there are 18 offices. That surely makes my case. Fundraising is still allowed in America and, more terrifyingly, British taxpayers' money will be funding the offices of a terrorist organisation. Surely that should worry us all. It is disgraceful, shameful and dishonest. All Ministers should recall from their days at school, if they learned any history, that we do not buy peace by paying danegeld, and that is what we are doing tonight.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East 8:21 pm, 17th December 2001

I apologise for the fact that I was unable to be present at the beginning of the debate, but I had a previous engagement elsewhere in the House. I think that the entire House respects the views of Mr. Robathan on these matters, especially given that he served in the armed forces in Northern Ireland, although I think that by overstating his case he has undermined it somewhat.

I turn to the underlying analysis of Mr. Robinson. He quoted the statements that were made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a few weeks ago that for Unionists, Northern Ireland had become a "cold house". There is much truth in that. Many of the examples that the hon. Gentleman quoted are evidence that it has, indeed, become a "cold house".

I accept that people such as Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Mitchell Mcloughlin and many others have made the psychological adjustment from terrorism to politics, but the activities of the IRA have not necessarily always followed that course. That is all the more regrettable because I believe that, certainly in the case of Martin McGuinness, and almost certainly in the case of Gerry Adams, they have the authority within republicanism to deliver what was meant to be delivered in terms of decommissioning in the Good Friday Agreement.

It is a matter of regret that, for whatever reason, they have not been able to use, or have chosen not to use, that authority to exercise the leadership that is undoubtedly theirs within republicanism—especially in terms of the IRA, with which they are intimately connected—to deliver everything that was promised. There is an interesting contrast between the way in which they behave on decommissioning specifically and the leadership that Mr. Trimble has exercised as the leader of his party.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann has often been some way ahead of his party in this context. He has been willing to accept difficult situations. He has also been willing, often with a great deal of reluctance and a great deal of concern, almost to take a leap in the dark. He has been willing to accept stepped progress as it moved forward. That has often been difficult for him within his party, and it has certainly been difficult for him in acting as a spokesman for Unionism within Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, he has done that in a party structure that is far more democratic than the structures of republicanism, and in a climate of public opinion that has often been doubtful, afraid and worried. He has kept the process together. So far as he was capable of delivering all of the things that he was meant to under the Good Friday agreement, and so far as he has been able to provide leadership as First Minister, he did so and has done so.

That record stands in marked contrast to the leadership of republicanism. As I have said, I accept that it has made the psychological shift from terrorism to politics. However, it seems not to be able to make the organisational shift that all of us believe is necessary.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East made a good speech that was based on a long involvement in politics in Northern Ireland and on an intimate knowledge of all of the events that we are discussing, but he was not able to provide an answer to the "What if?" question: for example, what if we did not extend tonight the legal framework within which decommissioning can take place? What would happen next?

There is much criticism of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about some of the activities that have allegedly been carried out by the IRA since the time of the Good Friday agreement. Specific allegations have been made about certain incidents of violence, which have been well recorded and well documented. The hon. Member for Belfast, East alluded to the continued so-called punishment beatings. The word "justice" is used, which I find bizarre.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

Yes. Community-administered justice is a bizarre way of defining justice.

There have been occasions on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had to consider extremely carefully whether to specify organisations in relation to which some of the activities that were taking place were close to the line. I know that that was true of my right hon. Friend's two most recent predecessors. There were times when the determination as to whether the IRA could continue to be regarded as being on ceasefire was on a knife edge. The hon. Member for Belfast, East was right to point out that those incidents are of great concern.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who played a constructive role in Northern Ireland during his time in office. He chided me for not answering the question, "What if?". The House has already decided that question in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, when it determined that there would be a consequence if parties associated with violence did not commit themselves to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The answer to the question, "What if?" is that they are put out of government.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I acknowledged that that was the case just before giving way to the hon. Gentleman. I made the point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the two Secretaries of State preceding him came close to acting on that basis. Indeed, my right hon. Friend has specified one of the loyalist organisations and, as far as I am aware, that still stands.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that that power is available. I was not chiding him; he knows that, although I do not agree with him, I respect the view that he and his colleagues share as a view within the Unionist community that needs to be discussed. If I had to choose between different political grounds of Unionism, I would go with that espoused by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann every time, because his approach is more constructive and, in the long term, more likely to bring about peace. However, it is important that we are aware of the different views within Unionism and, indeed, the wider community in Northern Ireland.

I come back to the question, "What if?". What if my right hon. Friend or one of his predecessors had excluded Sinn Fein from the process? They made a careful study of the facts available at the time before determining not to do so; it was not an easy decision to make. Had they excluded Sinn Fein, it is possible that the peace process in which we are involved, imperfect as it is—and I entirely accept that—would have been derailed, and the consequences of that are too horrendous to imagine.

I would not have wanted to do what we are doing tonight 12 months ago or at the time of the Good Friday agreement; I do not think that any of us would. I am not absolutely certain that, by approving the Bill tonight, as we are being asked to do, we shall ensure that everything is delivered in the specified time, but I hope that that is so. The fact that I can still hope that it will deliver is sufficient reason for me to support the process. I honestly believe that it would be dangerous to take any course of action that results in someone saying, "Too late. We are not accepting decommissioning unless you decide to do it voluntarily—and then we will consider what action we shall take in recognition." All those things are uncomfortable and difficult; nobody pretends otherwise.

I do not wish to chide any hon. Member from any quarter of the House, and I am making this statement because I believe it to be true: frankly, there is not another way available to us. I shall therefore vote for Second Reading without any difficulty, not because I have infinite trust that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or anybody else will now walk a rose-strewn path to a better tomorrow—they may choose at some point not to do so, although I do not think that they will—but because I do not think that there is a viable alternative.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

The hon. Gentleman may be pleased or perhaps surprised to learn that I respect him also. However, if he believes that decommissioning is important—it is in the Belfast agreement—when should it take place? There has to be a deadline, the purpose of which is to achieve an objective by a certain time.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

One reaches a point in one's career where praise from any quarter is welcome; I like and admire the hon. Gentleman, and his praise is well taken. He asked me when the deadline for decommissioning should be. I am somewhat detached from all the discussions that are taking place, although I have seen a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing on the subject in the past, so for me to specify a time would not be helpful. The only answer that I can give the hon. Gentleman is not a satisfactory one, but it is the best that I can give: decommissioning should happen as soon as possible. There cannot be a balanced political system in Northern Ireland while one of the major political partners in that system is still intimately involved with an organisation that has a large quantity of arms available to it. If I were a member of the Executive or the Assembly in Northern Ireland, I would still look with suspicion at Sinn Fein because of that connection and the continued existence of those arms.

Imperfect though it is, and unable though I am to give a realistic deadline, the proposal before us is better than any conceivable alternative that I or any other hon. Member could offer.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 8:35 pm, 17th December 2001

The Secretary of State will be aware from the briefings that he received when he entered office that decommissioning has been a major item on the Northern Ireland political agenda for a number of years. I was involved in the negotiations that culminated in the Belfast agreement; decommissioning was discussed at length in those negotiations.

The Mitchell commission, which had the task of considering the decommissioning issue, drew up proposals for decommissioning to take place alongside those negotiations. As each party entered the negotiations, it committed itself to what became known as the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. It is worth recalling that one of the principles to which all the parties—including the Progressive Unionist party, linked to the UVF; the Ulster Democratic party, linked to the UDA; and Sinn Fein, linked to the Provisional IRA—committed themselves was the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. That commitment existed even before the agreement was concluded.

The agreement itself reiterates the commitment, albeit in language that I felt did not go far enough towards ensuring that decommissioning was not only a commitment made by parties and thus, in a sense, an aspiration, but that there were clear obligations on the parties linked to other aspects of the agreement.

The agreement has two essential characteristics, one of which deals with the constitutional and institutional arrangements for Northern Ireland. Within those arrangements, political compromises have been made between Unionism and nationalism. The other feature is the confidence-building measures, which were designed to run alongside the implementation of the institutional and constitutional arrangements. They were intended to give people confidence that we were making the transition from 30 years of violence to a new era of peace based on democracy and political stability.

The difficulty for Unionists, which the Secretary of State recognised, at least verbally, in his recent speech in Liverpool, is that the confidence-building measures specifically designed to build confidence in the community, particularly among Unionists, that those who had engaged in violence in the past had moved to democracy, have not been fulfilled to the extent that Unionist confidence has been built. The Secretary of State spoke about the "cold house effect", and it is true that, in respect of many of the proposals flowing from the agreement, Unionists have felt the breeze of change, which they considered unbalanced. In particular, their sense of British identity has been eroded in a way that has made them feel extremely uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, Unionists want the Assembly to provide good, stable government for Northern Ireland. Among Unionists right across the board, there is support for the Assembly. There is also support for the principle that parties should work together to achieve the objective of good government, but when we entered the negotiations it was clearly understood that parties that participated in the new institutions should commit themselves exclusively to peaceful and democratic means. It is clear that in respect of the republican movement, such a commitment has not yet been fulfilled to the extent that I, as a Unionist, feel comfortable with the idea that republicans are in the Government of the part of the United Kingdom in which I reside and which I represent.

I share the views expressed by Mr. Robinson about the difficulty for many in Northern Ireland of having Martin McGuinness as the Minister of Education, when that individual is still linked to an illegal terrorist organisation, as a member of that organisation and part of its leadership. That presents enormous difficulties for ordinary, decent people who want a better future and stability and peace for their children. I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State not only recognises but genuinely understands the discomfort that Unionists feel.

That brings us to the nub of the issue. The Secretary of State will have heard the comments of the Conservative spokesman and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. We do not oppose in principle an amnesty for those who decommission their illegal weapons or extension of that amnesty, but we are against creating circumstances in which there is no deadline and no target date for the completion of the process of decommissioning, and in which the amnesty period is potentially extended until 2007. That sends completely the wrong signals to the Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries, as it suggests that they have bought themselves more time through their procrastination and delay, and also to the Unionist community, to which it says that the decommissioning process is becoming open ended, will never be completed and will continue to be a shadow that is cast over the political process. That does not engender stability and confidence.

We have recently seen some positive steps. The agreement of the Policing Board on a new police badge was significant. My preference would have been to retain the existing badge. I have argued in this House that it represented fairly both traditions in Northern Ireland with the harp, the crown and the shamrock. However, I believe that the new badge is a sincere attempt by representatives of both traditions to reach agreement on something that was controversial and shows what happens when democratic political representatives from different traditions come together to try to resolve a problem.

There was, however, a missing dimension in that decision: Sinn Fein-IRA. It is worth recalling that Sinn Fein-IRA has so far refused to support the new Police Service of Northern Ireland and to participate in the Policing Board. Thus, Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive are participating in the government of that part of the United Kingdom but refusing to support its police service. Surely, that is an absurdity in any democratic scenario. It demonstrates that Sinn Fein has not yet made the transition from a past in which it was engaged in violence—and, indeed, a present in which it is continuing to engage in unacceptable levels of violence—to a commitment to exclusively peaceful means.

Decommissioning is not only an end in itself, although the removal of the gun from our politics is important, but a means of building confidence in the political process in Northern Ireland. It was a confidence-building measure in the agreement, but the problem with such a measure is that if it is not delivered, it has the opposite effect and undermines confidence. That is precisely what has happened within Unionism. I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will understand that there is a wide degree of scepticism among Unionists, whether they support the agreement or are sceptical about it, about the speed with which the decommissioning process is being implemented. That is why, on this side of the House tonight, there are some hon. Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland who strongly support the agreement and some who strongly oppose it, but all of them will be supporting the Conservatives' reasoned amendment. We are dissatisfied with the Government's extension of the amnesty, potentially to 2007, when they have not clearly established a deadline or a target date for completing decommissioning.

Mr. Trimble referred to the Government's responsibility for decommissioning. In the past, we have had to bear responsibility for applying pressure to the republican movement to decommission. We will not shirk that responsibility in future. If necessary, we will take action to bring pressure to bear on the republican movement and loyalist paramilitaries to decommission.

I do not agree with the Secretary of State that pressure does not work: it does and it has. I do not agree that deadlines do not work: they have worked in the past and they can work in future. If necessary, we will apply pressure through the political process and democratic methods on the republican movement and on loyalists to decommission.

We want loyalists to decommission. As Unionists from a Unionist tradition, we have always unequivocally opposed the violence of so-called loyalist paramilitaries. We want them to end the violence and decommission their weapons. The Secretary of State can apply pressure to those groups through the prisoner release scheme, under which individual prisoners are released on licence. If they breach it, they forfeit the right to freedom and have to return to prison.

The Secretary of State and his predecessor have so far twice returned people to jail. In view of continuing loyalist violence, surely there is a case for the Secretary of State to review the matter and make it clear that if the violence continues and organisations fail to decommission, he will return the released prisoners to prison. That will put pressure on the groups to end violence and enter meaningfully into the decommissioning process.

If we turn a blind eye to the violence, we breach the agreement and the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which clearly linked the ceasefires to the release of prisoners, albeit imperfectly.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that deadlines sometimes work. What mechanism would make the deadline that we are considering work? The Bill is an enabling measure, which does not create pressure. If it is passed, we can provide meaningful deadlines and staging posts for decommissioning.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Several mechanisms might be used to bring pressure to bear. I have mentioned the prisoner release scheme; another possible mechanism is excluding from office those who have failed to fulfil specific decommissioning obligations. The Government could apply some pressure points if they have the will.

If the Secretary of State is trying to build confidence in the Unionist community and deal with the cold house effect, he is going the wrong way about it. Every time we make suggestions or proposals, they are rebuffed. Every time we make suggestions about how the Government should handle decommissioning, they are not backed. The Secretary of State expects the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to show leadership, make concessions and stick his neck out, yet he is not prepared to give us the means to apply the pressure on the republican movement and on loyalists to honour their commitments under the agreement. If he is not prepared to do it, we must do it, but that should not be the way. The Government are responsible for ensuring that decommissioning works.

My difficulty with the Bill is that it sends out the wrong signal to the paramilitary organisations. It says to the UDA and the UVF, "You've got until 2007 to do something." It says to the IRA, "Don't worry, boys—2007." That is the signal. It may not be the Government's intention, but that is how it will be read by the paramilitaries on the streets, and that is how it is being read by the communities in Northern Ireland, which see decommissioning becoming an open-ended process. That is not a recipe for creating political stability in Northern Ireland.

If the Secretary of State wants to address the confidence issue with regard to Unionists, he should understand that they want him to be more resolute in dealing with decommissioning. They want him to send out stronger signals to paramilitaries that their violence and their procrastination on decommissioning will not be tolerated, and that if they fail to deliver an end to the violence, and the decommissioning of their illegal weapons, there will be political consequences.

Some right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the process of concession—others have called it appeasement. Whatever it is, the reality is that on the ground among Unionists, it has sapped any confidence that they had, and the Government need to address that issue. They are not addressing it to the extent to which Unionists can feel that there is now a balanced approach.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford 8:51 pm, 17th December 2001

I am pleased to follow Mr. Donaldson and I concur with everything that he said. It is very sad—disappointing is too weak a word—and I am appalled at the fact that nearly four years after the Good Friday agreement, the IRA-Sinn Fein and other paramilitary organisations continue to hold the threat of a return to violence. I sincerely believe that we must stop being weak, and show resolution. We must show that we intend to treat people who act, or threaten to act, with violence as the criminals and gangsters that they are. We need a much stronger approach from the Government, but we are clearly not getting it.

Mr. Joyce spoke about the momentum of decommissioning, as if the amount of weaponry decommissioned in October represented a momentum. I do not believe for a moment that we would be in this position today had it not been for the atrocities of 11 September. The IRA-Sinn Fein clearly knew that, for political reasons, they had to do something. They had to present an image of wanting to decommission so that we would believe them to be sincere. I do not believe that they are.

We need to show that we mean what we say, and that weakness is not the way to defeat terrorism, or to encourage those who hold weapons to decommission them. I speak in this debate with a heavy heart for the future of Northern Ireland, because I fear that the Bill will set a precedent that will send a dangerous signal to those who bear arms there. The British Government appear to be too weak to stand up to those people, and too afraid to call their bluff. There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about historic moments. The Prime Minister spoke of "the hand of history" on his shoulder at the signing of the Good Friday agreement, yet the true markers of historic significance do not come with such agreements, but with the effect and success of their implementation.

There is no doubt that the peace process has moved forward since the mid-1990s. There is now an open dialogue among parties that would not even have acknowledged one another as having a vaguely relevant case 10 years ago. Indeed, since the Belfast agreement was signed, most sides have kept to their part of the bargain and significant changes have occurred. I can think of three: Northern Ireland has certainly gained devolved government, terrorists have certainly been released early from prison and, shamefully, the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been abolished.

What is not certain is the status of decommissioning, which remains dubious at best, as limited decommissioning has occurred only under duress and following extreme political pressure. Furthermore, it is important to note that even when such decommissioning takes place—that in October, for example—it is further rewarded through the dismantling of British military structures such as the observation tower at Sturgan mountain in south Armagh, an observation tower at Camlough mountain and many others.

I appreciate that good will needs to be shown, but the decommissioning episodes by Sinn Fein-IRA in October, supposedly part of a reciprocal deal, were delivered late, given the sacrifices made by the Unionist community and the Governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. There is a limit to how far good will and trust between groups with no fundamental reason to trust each other can go. We must not forget that ceasefires have been broken before and that hopes have been shattered.

I shall never forget the disappointment and anger that I felt in 1996 when the IRA broke its ceasefire and planted a bomb in docklands, killing two people and injuring many more. Indeed, that very day, I was at South Quay station an hour before the bomb went off. I shall remember it for the rest of my life. There was so much hope for peace in Northern Ireland, and, most significantly, the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties were starting to believe that real progress was being made—a bit like now, as the position today is similar.

There is hope for the future, but so long as full decommissioning is continually delayed and the message goes back to those who hold weapons that the Government will keep moving the deadlines, we cannot know what might happen as a result and we shall betray those who acted in good faith, believing that decommissioning would happen.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he think that the Conservative Government were correct to introduce the original amnesty in 1997?

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

I shall not comment on what Conservative Governments did; I have never been part of a Conservative Government. I shall speak about what this Government are doing today. Over many years, there has been not so much a peace process, but a process that seems to appease those who act violently. The situation must not be left open ended. The time has come to deal with it and show paramilitaries on both sides that the Government will not be forced into continual compromise, and that they will stand firm.

I knew two Members of the House who were killed by the IRA—a former Member for Eastbourne and a former Member for Enfield, Southgate, who was killed in the Grand hotel in 1984. I was there that evening. Such events leave a scar, and we cannot go on compromising with these people. At some point, we must make it clear that the vast majority of law-abiding people in Northern Ireland are the people whom we shall defend. Compromising with the men of violence will not result in true peace in Northern Ireland.

Groups on all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland are determined and passionate about what they believe in, and violence has been used for decades as a way of articulating those beliefs. The consequence of that has been the deaths of thousands—3,321 according to the latest statistics published by the Northern Ireland Police Service. The violence and intimidation continues. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau estimates that, following terrorist threats, more than 1,000 people have been forced to move to the mainland since the Good Friday agreement was signed, with a further 2,519 families having to be rehoused since 1998.

It has also been reported that the ceasefire years have seen some of the most intense and sustained vigilante campaigns of the entire troubles. That does not necessarily mean that there will be a return to the widespread terror and violence of the past, nor is it likely that the better known groupings will recommence their campaigns of violence. However, the threat from the dissident groups remains high. It would be extremely naive to ignore those threats, and to allow the weapons used as central to them to remain in use or ready to be used.

It is particularly bizarre that, when there is so much action against terrorism and so many precautions being set, the Government should introduce a Bill that potentially gives those capable of more terrorist atrocities a further five years, when they have already had nearly five years to hand over their weapons. I do not believe that any Member of the House would have argued in favour of giving international terrorist groups such a long time to remove from bank accounts moneys raised for terror campaigns. It was right that extra moves were made to freeze such assets immediately. Little international credence would have been given to the suggestion of giving the Taliban seven years to hand over Osama bin Laden before military action was to commence. Immediate action was taken to deal with that serious threat.

I appreciate that decommissioning of arms in Northern Ireland is a matter of delicate political negotiation. I understand that some give and take is necessary to build up some semblance of trust. However, I urge Members to recognise that there is a clear threat. So long as those weapons exist, there is no guarantee that they will not be used. So long as others, such as the Unionist community, make sacrifices and receive nothing in return, whatever trust has been established will soon fade.

Indeed, the Northern Ireland Assembly has already been suspended three times due to lack of progress on decommissioning. That signals that faith in the agreement has already sunk. If we permit the Bill to extend the lack of progress, how many more times will the Assembly have to be suspended? How many more times will Northern Ireland Ministers have to resign simply to force a tiny show of decommissioning? How long will we have to extend the deadlines beyond 2007, if full decommissioning has still not occurred.

My hon. Friend Mr. Davies argued that the Government have tied their hands behind their back by permitting the early release of terrorists without any reciprocation. The Bill destroys any remaining sense of urgency.

The Bill is soft on terrorism at a time when, in every other respect, the civilised world is being hard on terrorism. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to oppose the Bill, and send a message to the holders of arms in Northern Ireland that we will not tolerate this threat any longer, and that we will not keep on extending deadlines year in, year out until the whole agreement has been utterly undermined. The agreement can work only when all parties stick to their side of the bargain. If we do not send out that message, we shall be permitting the scenario to continue indefinitely, and setting a precedent that the British Government will always back down.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North 9:05 pm, 17th December 2001

Before I begin what will be a fairly brief speech, in view of the time, let me apologise for having had to pop out for about 20 minutes. Although I was here for the beginning of the debate, I had to stand in for Father Christmas earlier. If there are any small bits of white fluff clinging to my head, they are what remain of my hair rather than the beard—but I must not extend this suspension of disbelief too far.

Let me say this to Mr. Rosindell and Mr. Robathan. I doubt sincerely whether the cause of Northern Ireland is best served by speeches such as theirs—the Manichean descriptions that we have been hearing. I observed some Northern Ireland Members almost wincing when the lines were trotted out yet again.

It is very easy in this life, and in this place, to play the plastic Palmerston and hurl the bombast on the Floor of the Chamber. It is very easy to come up with marvellous expressions of undiluted negativism. I have slightly more respect for the hon. and gallant Member for Blaby, who has worn the Queen's uniform and knows a bit about the realities of life on the streets of Northern Ireland; but too many of us seem over-keen to establish what we think it should be, rather than what it can be.

History, as we know, is written by the winners. History is not a matter of black and white. It is not a matter of people beyond redemption. It is not a matter of someone remaining as they are for ever. I understand the pain and distress that are felt when those who in the past have either espoused the cause of violence directly or been associated with it become part of a democratic process—I can imagine what has been described tonight as revulsion—but we have been here before.

Politics is a business for grown-ups. We all know that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned as a terrorist. Menachem Begin—a close associate of a former Conservative Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher—was a member of the Stern gang back in the 1940s, and a member of Irgun, the organisation that slaughtered British army sergeants in Jerusalem and was responsible for the massacre at the King David hotel; but when that group made peace, did anyone in this place say "We will never treat with Menachem Begin, because he has been a member of the group that directly murdered our soldiers in what was then the Palestine mandate"? No, we did not say that.

I am not trying to make comparisons between Palestine and Northern Ireland. The late Golda Meir was asked precisely that question: whether an analogy could be drawn between the two states. She said, "The problem is that in Israel and Palestine there are two sides who are both in the right, whereas in Northern Ireland there are two sides who are both in the wrong." I do not happen to agree with that analysis. I think that there is a future in the north of Ireland, which lies before the eyes of those of us who visit the Province regularly.

Let me say something about the speech of Mr. Robinson. Almost against my expectations, I have come to feel considerable respect for Northern Ireland politicians over the years. I have not had a great deal to do with loyalism and Unionism in the past—that is no secret—but I have worked with those politicians. I have sat in Committee Rooms with, and talked to, Members such as Rev. Martin Smyth, whose home was blown up around his ears less than 30 years ago.

We are talking about something very serious—far too serious for bitter, nonsensical talk of appeasement from the safety of London seats. When the hon. Member for Belfast, East, who I suspect was not educated by Jesuits, talks of his meeting with General de Chastelain and applies Occam's razor to "If we said it was this, would you say it was that?", I begin to doubt whether he is not too close to the situation to be truly objective.

It is presumptuous of me, from the safety of my London constituency, to claim objectivity in this matter, and I would not even begin to do so, but I can see why decommissioning is not the be-all and end-all of the process. It is the process that matters. If every single piece of ordnance in the entire Province were destroyed tomorrow, would peace suddenly arrive on the wings of a dove with the dawn? Would there be no rearming? Would nobody bring in arms from Libya? I do not think so.

What makes the verifiable act of decommissioning so incredibly significant—to use General de Chastelain's word—is simply the fact that it happened. For years, I have begged republicans and nationalists to give up that one bullet or that one ounce of Semtex, and they told me that I could not even begin to understand what would happen in the republican community if they did so. They talked about the pikes in the thatch, about 1690 and about the fact that the IRA was called "I Ran Away" after 1968. They said that if they started to hand in their weapons, the cohesion among the republicans who are signed up to the peace process would be destroyed and we would see a hundred so-called Real IRAs and a hundred groups of murderous, inward and backward-looking people. Yet somehow republicans have gone beyond that stage and committed themselves to a verifiable act of decommissioning. I do not think that we in this House should underestimate for a moment the immense significance of that act. We have to pay tribute to it.

Hon. Members have said that this is all part of a charade, and the hon. Member for Belfast, East talked about the decommissioning of the two sites as a stunt. If this is a charade or a stunt, what is it for? The Irish Republican Army had an virtually limitless supply of finance and so-called volunteers. It has been described tonight as the most successful organisation of its type in western Europe. We are told that 11 September changed all that, and people are no longer able to occupy themselves in that way.

If that is the case, why has not ETA started decommissioning? Why is there not a peace process in the Basque country? Decommissioning is not about 11 September; it is not about the nonsense in Turkey or the farce in Colombia. It is part of a much longer process. Anyone who spends time studying the evolution of republican political thought in Ireland will see that decommissioning is part of a movement away from violence and towards engagement in a political process. That is the result not of a suspension of disbelief but of very careful analysis.

Why on earth would the IRA want to take part in the decommissioning process if it was not serious? Anyone in the Chamber who has had anything to do with the process knows that a member of Sinn Fein who stands up at a meeting anywhere in the United Kingdom now will be attacked by someone in the hall saying that Sinn Fein are the appeasers who have sold out, who have betrayed the glorious history and who are turning their backs on the terrible beauty of 1916 and all that sad, bitter, old music that we have known for so many years. Decommissioning has not been easy for republicans; it has been desperately, desperately hard.

I am not, for a moment, trying to make a case for the IRA. If there is one thing that has made me deeply respect those Northern Irish Members to whom I have spoken, it is the fact that they have never failed utterly to condemn ruthless gangster murders, even when they are committed by people in their community against people in that community. I take second place to no Member of the House in recording my respect and admiration for those Northern Irish Members who have had the courage to utter that condemnation.

I will not seek to defend the IRA or Sinn Fein, but to those Members who have tried to convince us that the process should be derailed, because Armalites have not been fed into angle grinders or smelters, I say that the de Chastelain commission, in which the House has expressed its confidence, has witnessed those acts and that has to be good enough. If we want to make a judgment on that, we should look at the impact within the republican communities. It is a sad fact that I have addressed myself to the speeches made by Northern Ireland Members in particular, but we are debating a Conservative amendment to the Bill. The fact that the Conservatives have come to the House tonight with no alternative, no plan B and no great vision for the future of the political process—nothing but bitter negativism—is a terrifying indictment of their political immaturity on the issue.

Politicians in Northern Ireland have the right to say what they think; they have earned it. We know that they represent their communities and that they must speak according to their own beliefs. The Conservative party appears to be playing the old trick of party politics on an issue that should be above it. The amendment says nothing; I am sorry, it says one thing. It says no. That is it. I feel sad. I also feel a certain amount of contempt for Her Majesty's official Opposition, who chose to try to derail a process that is not perfect but is the only game in town and the only possible avenue in which any hope exists or in which any chance is identifiable. Yet tonight they say simply no.

Other hon. Members wish to speak and I will conclude by saying that I hope that we will pass the Bill tonight and reject the amendment. If I have caused any offence to any Northern Ireland Members, I bitterly regret that. As someone who comes from an entirely different community, I have come to hold you in considerable respect. As long as there are people like yourselves—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must remember to use the proper parliamentary language.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I am extremely sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise unreservedly to the House. As long as there are politicians of the calibre that we have elected to the House, I see hope for the future of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:17 pm, 17th December 2001

I listened carefully to the speech of Mr. Pound, and I admire his sincerity and conviction. He referred to having left the Chamber momentarily to act as Father Christmas. That must mean that there are two Members tonight who have acted as Father Christmas; the hon. Gentleman outside the Chamber and the Secretary of State, in terms of what he has offered to IRA-Sinn Fein, inside it. Let us make no mistake about it: that is exactly how the Bill is seen in Northern Ireland and how it will be taken by the republican constituency. They are delighted at the fact that once again the deadline for decommissioning will be extended, if the House so votes tonight. Once again, it is going to be fudged and put back, as many hon. Members have predicted. My hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley said to the Secretary of State at Question Time that it would not cause a ripple of surprise in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, that is not to diminish the outrage that is felt among ordinary grass-roots Unionists in Northern Ireland at the way in which concession after concession has been given to the republican movement; and on the issue of the decommissioning of illegal terrorist arms, they have been pandered to and appeased.

Reference has been made to the 1997 Act and to the fact that this Bill is an extension of that Act. When the Act was introduced, it was not introduced in a vacuum, as some have said. It was introduced in the wake of the Mitchell report. The Mitchell commission was set up to look at how progress could be made through talks, and at the barrier that was said to exist for republicans because of their refusal to decommission. The Mitchell commission made a proposal for a twin-track approach, with political discussions and, at the same time, the decommissioning of illegal terrorist arms for those who took part in the talks. That is why the 1997 Act was introduced by the then Conservative Government. It was on foot with the Mitchell review.

What actually happened? Despite the clear outline given by Senator Mitchell, and the Government's acceptance of the need for political talks to run in parallel with decommissioning of illegal terrorist weapons by those engaged in the talks, what happened was that, once the talks started and IRA-Sinn Fein was admitted, just six weeks after the atrocious murder of two RUC officers on the streets of Lurgan, that issue was put to one side. It was forgotten, and no decommissioning took place.

Then we had the agreement. Nowhere in the agreement does it say explicitly that there was a deadline for decommissioning of illegal terrorist arms, but we were told by those who signed up to the agreement and by the proponents of the agreement that the deadline was 22 May 2000. Of course, we saw that deadline moved to June 2001. The then junior Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, Mr. Ingram, made it clear that the target date was June 2001. That has passed and now the deadline of February 2002 is also to be extended to a date that means that the Government hope that decommissioning will simply disappear as a political issue. That is the purpose of the Bill and it is why so many people in Northern Ireland are so angry about it in the context of all the other concessions that have been allowed to the republican movement. On the one issue on which something was demanded of it, the deadline will be put back to 2007. As has rightly been pointed out, the original IRA and other terrorist organisations will take whatever time is available to perform whatever responsibilities they have.

The Secretary of State came to the House not long ago and quoted the editorial in the Belfast News Letter against hon. Members, and he urged us to take account of what it said. That newspaper is not generally supportive of those of us who have taken a sceptical view of the agreement—far from it—so I hope that the Secretary of State will take account of that paper's editorial on 12 December, which said:

"The Secretary of State is again making the mistake of allowing paramilitary organisations to duck their responsibilities."

That is what the Bill will achieve.

We have had discussion of the wonderful progress that has been made, but many people in Northern Ireland would scratch their heads in amazement at some of the descriptions we have heard from hon. Members, especially Labour Members, about the progress that is supposed to have been made. The Belfast Telegraph publishes opinion polls—which it does not generally use to bolster up my side of the argument—and it published one in the aftermath of the gesture carried out by the IRA, which showed that only 51 per cent. of all respondents, Unionist and nationalists, Catholics and Protestants, believed that an act of decommissioning was in fact carried out. It said that 52 per cent. of Protestants who were asked whether they believed General John de Chastelain when he said that a significant act of decommissioning had been carried out by the IRA said no. I am reminded of what Mr. Trimble said on 28 June 1999:

"recognisable, quantifiable decommissioning before any Executive is established remains the only way in which democrats can safely see that the war is indeed over."

I wish that the right hon. Gentleman still took that position, and that he had stuck to it before allowing IRA-Sinn Fein into government.

The gesture that we have seen from the IRA is just that. It is not linked to a timetable or a process. We were told that it had to be part of a timetable leading to the complete and verifiable destruction or decommissioning of illegal terrorist weapons.

There have been gestures before. People have urged us to consider the historic significance of the IRA's acts, but another event, already referred to today, involved the Loyalist Volunteer Force. There was an act of decommissioning. The LVF ceasefire has been declared over since then because that gesture turned out to be meaningless. Why was it meaningless? Because it was not part of a process linked to a timetable for the complete and utter destruction of all weapons. It was a gesture, a stunt.

Ministers have been unable to tell us today that they know even what the IRA's gesture amounted to. The IRA, as General de Chastelain confirmed to us, made it clear that it wants no one apart from the commission—not the Government, not even the Prime Minister—to know what the event was, how many weapons were involved, where it took place or anything else. On that basis, we are supposed to keep Martin McGuinness, the IRA chief of staff, and Gerry Adams and other such people in the Government of Northern Ireland.

Let us consider the so-called historic and significant event in the light of what happened following the LVF gesture. The LVF ceasefire has been declared bogus. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should recognise how strongly people on the Unionist side in Northern Ireland feel. I accept what Mr. Pound said about recognising where Members from Northern Ireland come from on these issues, but I wish people would take more time to speak to Unionists in Northern Ireland and realise the depth of anxiety and anger that exists at the process of concessions that is under way.

We have seen the Royal Ulster Constabulary shabbily treated and discarded. The Minister can shake her head, but the RUC has been shabbily treated and discarded. That is the view of the vast majority of the Unionists of Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Minister herself said that the RUC had been laid to rest.

Mr. Donaldson referred to the fact that people in our Government refuse to support the new Police Service for Northern Ireland. Not only do they not support it; they are on record as saying that they want its recruits to be treated in the same way that recruits to the RUC were treated. We know exactly how they were treated—they were murdered and intimidated, and their families were murdered and intimidated.

There is a cold house for Unionists, as the Secretary of State said in his speech in Liverpool. Instead of offering measures to remedy that, he comes before us with a measure that will put back the deadline for decommissioning. Tomorrow, along with his colleague the Leader of the House, he will come here with a motion to allow IRA-Sinn Fein into the precincts of this House, a special privilege not granted to other Members who refuse to take the oath. The Secretary of State needs to start acting on his words. The vast majority of Unionists, whether or not they supported the agreement, have lost faith both in the agreement and in the Government's capacity even to acknowledge the fears of the Unionist community.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 9:29 pm, 17th December 2001

The debate has shown that the measure is anything but technical—the suggestion made by one or two Labour Members. It has shown the importance of timetables and process. The measure is central to the process that we all want to achieve.

Following the speech made by Mr. Dodds, it is appropriate to reflect that his constituents experience anything but normal life under the peace process. They have no experience of political normality—unlike the majority of our constituents. The hon. Gentleman was right to remind us of the twin-track process that Mitchell set up. He was also right to remind us that the Government are allowing paramilitaries to duck their responsibilities. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Government's treatment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

I shall deal with the Secretary of State's speech towards the end of my contribution, but I shall refer first to the speech of Mr. McCabe, who said that timetables have bedevilled the process. In that case, what was the Prime Minister doing when he insisted on a timetable for the Belfast agreement and said that it had to be finished by Good Friday—hence its name? The Prime Minister gave graphic descriptions of how he put his back to the door and said that no one was to leave until there was an agreement.

What about the first act of IRA decommissioning? The decision of Mr. Trimble to remove Ulster Unionist Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive led, four days later, to the first act of IRA decommissioning. For the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green to say that another five-year period, as proposed by the measure, is the minimum needed to achieve the objectives flies in the face of experience not only in Ireland but throughout the world.

My hon. Friend Mr. Robathan pointed out how long it took in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia to complete a decommissioning process in circumstances that were much more challenging and wholly different from those we face in Northern Ireland. In Afghanistan, the decommissioning of al-Qaeda and the Taliban—admittedly an involuntary process—was achieved in only three months.

Lembit Öpik complimented my hon. Friend Mr. Davies, who opened the debate for the Opposition, on his cogent arguments. I regret that I shall be unable to respond to the hon. Gentleman entirely in kind. His criticism was that our current position is inconsistent with that of the Conservative legislation in 1997. However, he must understand that in 1997 the Government were setting up a mechanism to test the genuineness of terrorists' intentions to give up violence.

The inevitable concessions to bring together all sides that are linked to the Belfast agreement had not been made. The Conservative Government brought in the 1997 Act to implement the Washington principles, as enunciated by Lord Mayhew, and then to give effect to the Mitchell principles that followed. The situation was wholly different. It began the process that led to the Belfast agreement in 1998. In 1997, the then Government and the then Parliament were opening up that process.

In a typically independent and refreshing contribution, based on years of commitment and experience, Mr. Barnes pointed out that the measure proposed merely a minor amendment to the 1997 Act. However, it goes much further than that. We are talking about the signals that the measure sends out. It is not merely a minor amendment, although I have no doubt that we shall return to that issue in Committee if our reasoned amendment is not carried this evening.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford on the appalling failure of the Government to deal with prisoner releases and the complete lack of connection between those releases and decommissioning. I know that some of my Republican friends will have enjoyed the links that he made between Presidents Castro and Clinton in their terms of welcome for Gerry Adams—I of course refer to my Republican friends in the United States.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right in his unrelenting message that Sinn Fein must be opposed. He was concerned over the constant concessions made to Sinn Fein as the party of violence, of the bullet in conjunction with the ballot box. It has pursued that strategy with success, and now with electoral success in Northern Ireland at the expense of the constitutional politicians of the SDLP. He is right to say that that is significantly to be regretted.

Mr. Trimble intrigued the House in reporting that IRA decommissioning had been substantial. I am sure that we all look forward to further substantiation of and evidence for that remark. The Secretary of State is not, it seems, in a position to deliver it.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann was, however, absolutely right—he added his name to the reasoned amendment that we tabled—that it is the Government's responsibility to achieve decommissioning. The Government should not be hiding behind him any more. It is the Government who must deliver and not expect the right hon. Gentleman as First Minister to do the difficult work for them.

The contribution to the debate of Mr. Joyce must be respected. He served in Northern Ireland, but his memory seems to have been overtaken by his latter experience in the Army following his earlier experience alongside colleagues in the Black Watch. I wonder how many of his former Black Watch colleagues, knowing what has happened to morale in the Northern Ireland Police Service, have his confidence that in the end the Real IRA and loyalist paramilitaries who remain at violence will be mopped up by sound policing process.

My hon. Friend Mr. Hunter, whose long experience and personal commitment to the issue is peerless in this place, has shown courage in consistently putting forward his views in the face of the threats that he has opposed. That makes it appropriate for him to comment on what he called the retreat and appeasement between 1993 and 1997. I do not share his conclusion, as it was right for the then Government to pave the way for the Belfast agreement in 1998. It was right for the Ulster Unionist party to sign the Belfast agreement and right for the Conservative party to support the agreement in the campaign that followed to achieve a yes vote in the referendum. All the work done by Lord Mayhew and his predecessors as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland led to that process, which remains the best available for achieving a lasting peace.

Mr. Robinson brought to the debate his usual uncomfortable clarity. He rightly disinterred the meaning of the word "significance" in his discussions with General de Chastelain, to confirm what most of us expected that de Chastelain was saying—that he considered not the amount but the event as significant. That is true; we must acknowledge that the event of decommissioning itself was of psychological rather than practical importance.

The point from which we cannot escape, however, is the record of the Provisional IRA since the Belfast agreement, to which the hon. Gentleman drew our attention. It is a damning indictment of that organisation.

The Secretary of State says that we cannot tolerate private armies indefinitely. Inescapable logic leads from that remark to the conclusion that at some point we must cease to tolerate them, but the signal that the Bill sends is that we will tolerate private armies indefinitely, because it mirrors precisely the legislation that laid down the timetable five years ago. The message is that in five years' time, we shall be back here again, debating a precisely similar piece of legislation, with nothing substantial having happened in terms of decommissioning.

We had an extraordinary diversion in the form of the Secretary of State's definition of Sinn Fein-IRA and his assertion that they are not the same organisation—that they enjoy the same relationship as the trade unions and the Labour party. Is John Monks the director of the Labour party in some sense, or is the Prime Minister the director of the trade unions? I must have missed something.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman is incapable of following a logical argument. I did not say that Sinn Fein and the IRA enjoyed the same relationship as the trade unions and the Labour party. I said that it is possible to be interlinked but not the same, and I gave as an example of that phenomenon the Labour party and the trade unions.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The right hon. Gentleman is dancing on the head of a pin. Who does he think Gerry Adams was talking to when in October this year he said:

"Martin McGuiness and I have also held discussions with the IRA and we have put to the IRA leadership the view that if it could make a ground-breaking move on the arms issue that this could save the peace process from collapse and transform the situation"?

As we all know, he was talking to The Mirror. If the Secretary of State believes that the distinction he makes is credible, we are playing Alice in Wonderland politics—politics through the looking-glass.

The Secretary of State referred to dissident republicans and rejectionist loyalists, saying that they were the true enemies of Northern Ireland, opposed by all the people of Northern Ireland, but his remarks did not persuade me that the Bill is aimed at them. Five years ago, when the timetable was discussed in Standing Committee, Ulster Unionist party Members tabled an amendment in support of their argument that five years was too long. The position of the then Government was that a shorter timetable would be far more appropriate for the Provisional IRA, because there was supposed to be a prospect that that organisation, through Sinn Fein—the other side of the coin—would become involved in the process. In resisting that amendment, Sir John Wheeler, then Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, made it clear that

"The maximum duration of five years depends on an annual renewal within that period. It rests on the premise that—as members of the Committee know—there are small groups whose much smaller stocks of weapons and explosives need to be taken out of circulation. That may take time."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 17 December 1996; c. 23.]

However, the Government have not suggested that the five-year timetable set down in the current Bill is designed to address those smaller groups. Instead, it is aimed at the Provisional IRA—the main holder of weapons in Northern Ireland. That is why we should resist the Bill as it stands being given a Second Reading.

My right hon. Friend Mr. MacKay challenged the Secretary of State to say that, if no decommissioning takes place within a year, he will not propose another extension in February 2003. The Secretary of State simply replied that he could not predict the future. The problem is that we are dealing in signals. General de Chastelain said that the decommissioning that took place was significant as a signal of IRA decommissioning, and it was accepted and welcomed by the Opposition as a signal. The signal that the Bill sends is the wrong one. It ignores the law-abiding majority in Northern Ireland. It is a signal of pressure being taken off the Provisional IRA.

The Bill is another concession in an endless series to Sinn Fein-IRA. The Government's concessions have not been to constitutional politicians. Instead, they have always been to those who are illegally holding arms. To introduce another five-year Bill in precisely the same terms as previous legislation, which was introduced in an entirely different situation before the ceasefire and before the Belfast agreement, is a message that the process will be endless. There will never be closure.

It is time for the Government to seek to achieve a return to normality. It is time for them to show some commitment to achieving normality and not to hide behind the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. That is what our reasoned amendment seeks to achieve, and that is what I hope the House will support.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 9:45 pm, 17th December 2001

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. It mellowed into an interesting discourse on the moral dilemmas facing us, as a Parliament and as a Government, as we grapple with progress in moving from armed conflict and terrorism to a fully democratic and peaceful Northern Ireland.

The Bill simply provides a legal framework to allow decommissioning to happen; no more and no less. It mirrors closely the Bill that was introduced by the Conservative Government in 1997, which was supported by the then Opposition. It extends legal immunity from prosecution for one year only. Any further extension requires the approval of the House.

Contrary to what may have been understood if someone had wandered into the debate, the framework that the Bill provides will assist in the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms, both loyalist and republican. Mr. Davies said that there is little between us, I think. He criticised the Bill's timing and the period in respect of which it is designed to provide legal immunity. Timing could always be better, especially with hindsight, and, as I said, the legal framework will last for one year only. I am sure that we will debate that issue further when we come to consider the Bill in Committee after we return from the Christmas recess.

I hope that we are all agreed that we want to achieve decommissioning. The original Bill was introduced in 1997, five years ago. The political context has been transformed since then. No one could have predicted then where we would be today, five years later. Would we have a process in place that still warranted the provision of a legal indemnity for the decommissioning of weapons? The five-year life span of the original Bill reflects that uncertainty.

If I may pay tribute to him, in a powerful and incisive speech, Lembit Öpik touched upon the courage and vision of the then Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. The hopes and aspirations of the Conservative Government in bringing forward a Bill five years ago have been vindicated by the progress that has been made subsequently.

The point made by the hon. Gentleman is the more powerful because when the Conservatives took their measure forward, the Provisional IRA was not even on ceasefire. Its ceasefire had ended in February 1996 and was not restored until the summer of 1997. The hope and aspirations fully justified the extension of the principle that the Conservative Government introduced and that we supported. We have made huge strides over the past five years. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined many of those at the beginning of his powerful speech, when he laid out the strong reasons why we are bringing the Bill forward now.

I say to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that Conservative Members do not have a monopoly on distaste. I understand and share the view that is held by many people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere that the early release of those convicted of terrorist offences was profoundly distasteful. However, without prisoner releases we would have had no agreement; we considered that that was a prize worth taking risks for.

I am grateful to many of my hon. Friends who participated in our debate. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, and welcomed his contribution, which was based on his extensive knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland and, as was acknowledged, the constructive role that he played there.

I shall deal with points made by other Members in our debate. I heard a lot about concessions to the IRA. We are not in the business of making concessions. Our concern at all times has been to create a society in Northern Ireland in which both sections of the community can feel a sense of belonging and in which all political aspirations are recognised. That is why we now have devolution, which gives real power to Northern Ireland politicians; the principle of consent, which establishes Northern Ireland's position as an integral part of the United Kingdom; and the removal of the Republic of Ireland's territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

Since no concessions have been made and none are planned, does the Minister expect the Government of the Irish Republic and Fianna Fail to be consistent with the British Government in keeping Sinn Fein out of a coalition Government if, after their election in May next year, Sinn Fein does not give up the private army within the state, which is unconstitutional under the Irish Republic's constitution?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

That is a matter for the Government in the Republic. I shall just finish the list of positive things that have happened that cannot possibly be described as concessions to Sinn Fein or the IRA. We have a new police service with cross-community support—[Interruption.] Absolutely not; that is not a concession to Sinn Fein or the Provisional IRA[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. It does the hon. Gentlemen no good to shout at the Minister. I will stop them doing that.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Equality for all and individual human rights are being promoted. How those fundamental aspects of the Belfast agreement can be conveniently overlooked or presented as somehow pro-republican is beyond me. They are good things in their own right that clearly demonstrate our commitment to promoting peace, stability and democracy for all.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Lady said that the Government are not in the business of making concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA. Does she think that prematurely releasing terrorist prisoners, murderers, convicted murderers and multiple murderers is not a concession, or does she think that that is a perfectly normal and sensible thing to do on its own merit? Does she think that the motion that the Government are introducing tomorrow is a concession or is it something perfectly normal that should be accepted on its own merits?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I have already said that the early release of prisoners was distasteful.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

No, it was not, because it applied equally to republican and loyalist prisoners, so the point made by the Opposition cannot possibly hold.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

No, I shall just finish my point about concessions.

The Bill is said to count as one of the so-called concessions to Sinn Fein. That is a misunderstanding of its significance, because it will provide a legal framework for decommissioning by all paramilitaries, both loyalist and republican. This is not about Sinn Fein but about continuing to fulfil our duty to support the Belfast agreement and, in particular, the decommissioning process. If the Bill is not enacted we will, in effect, let the paramilitary organisations off the hook. Surely, it is right to keep working towards our ultimate goal by giving those groups every opportunity to decommission and allowing them no excuse for failing to do so. I shall try to come to the points made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, but shall give way for the last time to Mr. Robathan.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

Those groups have had nearly four years since the Belfast agreement—or will have had by February—in which to decommission. How much longer does she intend to give them? Could she specify whether it will be one year, five years or 10 years?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The framework that we are establishing today will allow one year before we have to consider the matter again in the House.

My hon. Friend Mr. Barnes outlined the range of pressures that are brought to bear on paramilitary organisations. I agree with him that the most effective pressure that can be brought to bear is international opinion. We can be instrumental in bringing that about by ensuring that there is no impediment to decommissioning and no excuse for further prevarication.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I said that I would not give way again, and there are several points to which I should respond before the end of the debate.

Mr. Trimble suggested that if the Government set target dates and deadlines, there would be fewer crises than if his party had to do so. I do not find that line of argument persuasive. The difficulty is that deadlines and public threats are unlikely to achieve the objective that we all share: securing full decommissioning. Yes, we need pressure, public and private, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we shall not sustain the peace process merely through deadlines and public ultimatums. Perhaps life would be easier if we could do so, but the process is not like that.

On the significance of the act of decommissioning, many hon. Members dismissed what happened a couple of months ago. We should not dismiss that act of decommissioning so lightly. The IRA constitution expressly prohibits the destruction or surrender of any weapons, so the general is right to describe any decommissioning as significant. In recognition of the need to further the peace process, the IRA has set aside one of the cornerstones of its existence. No one should be in any doubt about the significance of that.

The commission told us in its report that it witnessed the event. Members of the commission are relying not on the words of others, but on their own eyes. The commission regards the act as significant—a judgment that I am confident that it would not reach lightly—and the judgment is shared by the Chief Constable.

The commission confirms that the material in question includes arms, ammunition and explosives. It says that those have been put completely beyond use and dealt with in accordance with the decommissioning scheme under the legislation previously approved by Parliament. That scheme is satisfied only if arms are destroyed or made permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable. Whatever the method, the arms can never be used again by anybody.

As we draw to the conclusion of the debate, it is worth pondering the fact that in the Belfast News Letter the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford stated that the debate would mark a turning point in his approach to supporting the Government. I had looked forward to hearing him outline his alternative vision for the future of Northern Ireland, but all we have heard from the Opposition tonight is negativism, shameful opportunism and posturing. It seems that one can always rely on the Conservatives to fall to the occasion, but even now I am surprised how low they can go.

I know that some things seem unpalatable, but we are not at the pick 'n' mix counter at Woolworths, where we choose only our favourites when it comes to making the peace process work in Northern Ireland. No objective observer expects decommissioning to be finished by February next year. The Opposition conceded as much tonight. After tonight's debate, it is clear that something has been verifiably and completely put beyond use: the critical faculties of those on the Opposition Front Bench.

How does the hon. Gentleman expect decommissioning to continue after February without the legal provisions that would allow it to take place? Does he think that those holding illegal arms would be more or less likely to decommission if they lay themselves open to prosecution in doing so? When the Conservatives went to the pick 'n' mix to get their policy, I fear that they passed over the Quality Street and went straight for the Curly Wurly. We propose to extend for an extra 12 months the period during which guns can be put beyond use within a legal framework—that is all. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 151, Noes 342.

Division number 115 Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill

Aye: 151 MPs

No: 342 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 62 (Amendment on second or third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.