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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 17th December 2001.

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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

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.