I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 6, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
'(3) Subsections (2)(b) and (3) are omitted.'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 6, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
'(3A) Subsections (2)(b) and (3) shall continue to have effect in respect of offences listed in the Schedule to the 1997 Act relating to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, with the words "later than 27th February 2005" substituted for the words "more than five years after the day on which this Act is passed".
(3B) In respect of other offences listed in the Schedule to the 1997 Act, subsections (2)(b) and (3) are omitted.'.
I wish the Secretary of State and his colleagues a happy new year also, and we all hope that the people of Northern Ireland will have a happy new year. They certainly deserve a good new year after many years of difficulties and sacrifices, as well as continued disappointments in the implementation of the Belfast agreement, which is one of the matters with which we shall deal this afternoon.
I welcome the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, to the Front Bench today and I am glad that she will conduct the case for the Government. She is a competent and experienced parliamentarian, although she will find that her pitch has been somewhat queered by a most extraordinarily and no doubt inadvertently frank statement on the subject of deadlines by the Secretary of State on Second Reading. I shall have occasion to refer to that point later.
It is common ground between the Opposition and the Government that the Belfast agreement should be upheld and implemented urgently. Of course, it is not common ground that the Government should have chosen to go beyond the Belfast agreement and, before it is even implemented, to make a whole raft of new unilateral, gratuitous concessions. We are concerned that, by so doing, the Government have moved away from the basis of bipartisanship in Northern Ireland to which we are much attached. It is common ground that the Belfast agreement must be supported, and we wish to do everything possible to ensure that it is implemented.
I believe totally in the Government's sincerity in wanting to bring about the implementation of the Belfast agreement. However, it is very much a matter of judgment as to whether they have conducted themselves in a very intelligent way in seeking to ensure that their influence maximised the chance that the Belfast agreement was implemented earlier rather than later. Moreover, if decommissioning was going to come about within the two-year time scale laid down in the Belfast agreement, was it sensible to release all the terrorist prisoners before even a start had been made on decommissioning? That too is a matter of judgment.
We have been over that ground already, and will return to it. I think that history will be much less kind to the Government in that regard than they like to be to themselves. Nevertheless, it is very much common ground that decommissioning is essential, and it is one of the pillars of the Belfast agreement. All those who want peace and normalisation in that part of our country are obliged to do everything possible to ensure that decommissioning comes about, and that it does so earlier rather than later.
The amendment goes to the heart of the Bill. If we want the rapid implementation of the Belfast agreement and the completion of decommissioning, is it more sensible to bring forward a Bill now that extends by five years the special regime of amnesty for decommissioning, or should the extension be for a lesser amount of time? We suggest that the extension should be for one year.
The amendment turns on that question, as does the whole debate in this House about the Bill, as there is no argument about the fundamental necessity of achieving decommissioning. Although our approaches and methods may differ, I am sure that the willingness to complete the difficult but vital process of decommissioning is sincere among hon. Members of all parties.
However, is it more sensible to set a deadline of five years rather than of one, and will that five-year deadline make the best possible contribution to rapid progress? Those questions must be asked, as the matter is somewhat counter-intuitive. One can never be certain of achieving anything in this life, least of all in Northern Irish politics at the present time. I shall therefore go through the only possible justifications for the course adopted by the Government in bringing to the House a Bill that extends the amnesty regime for five years, even though some of those justifications are merely theoretical.
I should not be at all surprised to discover that the Minister of State, when she reads the briefing notes for her speech in response to this debate, will say that the Government are obliged to extend the deadline and that it is not realistic to suppose that decommissioning will be completed by
It seems to me extraordinarily naive to look at matters in that way, but the explanation may well be that the Government are merely taking out of the drawer the Bill that was introduced at the end of the previous Conservative Administration and carrying it forward for another five years and that they have given no thought as to whether five years is an appropriate length of time. I find it hard to believe that anyone could take that argument seriously, but it needs to be dealt with. As I doubt that I shall catch your eye later in the debate, Sir Alan, I shall deal with it now, pre-emptively.
The answer is very simple. Five years ago, we were right at the beginning of the decommissioning and peace process. Indeed, the Belfast agreement had not been secured at that time, nor anything like it. The Bill that became the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 was introduced, probably more in hope than in expectation, by the previous Conservative Administration, and was supported by the then Labour Opposition. The idea was to create a framework so that if it were possible to get an agreement, decommissioning could take place and the modalities, the international commission and the appropriate legal regime could be established.
If a Bill is introduced in that way—more in hope than in expectation—to provide a framework for a process that had not even begun or led to an initial agreement on decommissioning, quite a long time has to be provided. It was sensible and responsible to provide a framework for five years, renewable on an annual basis. I do not think that anyone would have quarrelled with that approach at the time, and I certainly have no quarrel with it in retrospect. However, the situation today is profoundly different.
The Belfast agreement, now in place, provided for the whole process of decommissioning to be completed within two years, by July 2000. Yet we are now a year and a half away from that deadline and more than three and a half years away from the Belfast agreement itself. There has been only one small act of decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA and one small act, right at the beginning, by one of the loyalist paramilitary organisations. There has been nothing else to show for it in three and a half years.
In those circumstances, to come back to the House with a Bill that provides a deadline of five years seems extraordinary. The Government seem to be saying, "We don't mind that no progress has been made over the past five years. Let's simply start again." That is an extraordinary approach, which would not be taken seriously by anybody who looked at the matter objectively to decide whether the Government were acting in a business-like and sensible fashion.
The second argument for the Bill has been put forward in the media. The Government have used it in their background briefings, as did the Secretary of State, at least by implication, in his introductory remarks on Second Reading. The argument is that this is not a five-year deadline but a one-year deadline, renewable up to five years. To make that statement would be to risk not being taken seriously in the House, when we know that the procedure for dealing with statutory instruments is an unedifying farce. When the Government, with their large majority, introduce a Bill that provides for a new regime for five years and say that it will be renewed at the end of every year and could theoretically be thrown out by Parliament under the statutory instrument procedure, that is a fundamentally bogus statement. When the Government give a five-year deadline, they mean it to be for five years.
Even more important than the credibility of such a measure in the House is its credibility outside the House. In Northern Ireland, specifically among the paramilitary organisations that need to take part in and complete the decommissioning process, only one conclusion can be drawn from the signals that the Government are sending by the way in which they have drafted the Bill: they are setting a final deadline of five years. We started with a five-year regime, which is now being renewed for a further five years. As I said on Second Reading, that sends the paramilitary organisations the simple message that there is no great urgency about decommissioning, that they can take their time about it and that the Government do not expect them to make rapid progress.
It seems thoroughly regrettable and reprehensible that the Government should be sending such signals. It is deeply disappointing to all those in Northern Ireland, in both communities, who have been told ever since the Belfast agreement that the sacrifices they made would at least mean that the gun, the bullet and the arsenals of Semtex and weapons would be taken out of the system within a specific time. That is not happening and the deadline for that to happen is being extended.
There is a third possible explanation for what the Government are doing and why they are insisting on a time scale of five years, although I hope that they will change their mind during the debate.
If that explanation is true, and I am increasingly fearful that it is, it is extremely depressing: the five-year deadline the perverse signal that is being sent to the paramilitaries—did not come about owing to a fit of absence of mind or to naivety, but is part and parcel of a process that the Government were, perhaps involuntarily, sucked into during their negotiations, especially with Sinn Fein-IRA.
Before Christmas, I did what I could to draw the attention of the House to part of that lamentable process whereby, even though the Belfast agreement has not been implemented and so little progress on decommissioning has been made, the Government decided that it is sensible to start offering a whole new set of unreciprocated, unilateral concessions to republicanism in Northern Ireland, and to Sinn Fein-IRA in particular. One of those concessions is the award of special status for Sinn Fein-IRA MPs to come to this place and enjoy some of the facilities of the Palace of Westminster as well as public money, without taking their seats. Other concessions were set out in the Weston Park agreement: for example, the promise of new inquiries and of amnesties for on-the-run terrorists.
Against that background, it was decided—because the general policy is to go soft on Sinn Fein-IRA—that it would not be nice to tell them to hurry up with decommissioning, and that that would be unfriendly and hostile. It would actually make a demand of them rather than giving them a concession. It is part and parcel of that policy of appeasement—a word I use advisedly, as I fear that is indeed what the policy is—that the Bill sets out a five-year deadline that is difficult to explain on any rational basis.
Just before Christmas, we were informed by the Secretary of State that, in the mind of General de Chastelain, decommissioning to date was significant—although we were never told what "significant" actually meant, for reasons that I can understand. If decommissioning to date really has been significant, why do we need to discuss extensions to the process of one, two or five years?
If "significant" means that progress has been so great that a substantial proportion of the ground has already been covered during the past five years—or rather the three and three quarter years since the Belfast agreement—why do we need a further five years? If it is logical to suppose that "significant" means that 50 per cent., 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. of the ground has been covered, we should hardly need five more years to complete the process.
My hon. Friend touches on an important matter that goes to the heart of the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland in the whole process: the transparency of the process and the extent to which people can follow what is going on. If I catch your eye when we discuss new clause 1, Sir Alan, I hope that we can go into that matter in more detail.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether he and his party object to the extension on principle, or is a limited extension acceptable? In that case, we are simply discussing how long the IRA should be given.
Strictly speaking, the argument is one of practicality and pragmatism rather than of principle. I tried to make it clear when I began my remarks that there is no difference between us and the Government on the principle that decommissioning is required. It is a good thing and it should be advanced as much as possible. However, there are important differences of judgment between us as to how we can maximise its progress. Those are important issues of practical judgment.
There is no difference between us as to the desirability of decommissioning or, as I have already made clear, as to support for the Belfast agreement and for the process itself. Decommissioning is an essential part of that. So if the hon. Gentleman has in mind the analogy of Bernard Shaw and the actress, we are just talking about amounts. We are talking about a year or five years, which is the purpose of debating the amendment, but that may make a material difference to the incentives applied to the paramilitary organisations that need to decommission, in relation to the amount of time that they take to carry out that process.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for leading me naturally to the heart of the argument—there is such a difference of judgment between us, and Conservative Members believe that deadlines are important and that they can influence people. That is true generally; it is true of the way in which the European Union, businesses and many human institutions work. It is certainly true of Northern Ireland's history. No one with even a passing familiarity with its history could deny that deadlines have played an enormously important part in the progress that has been made there—including, of course, in negotiating the Belfast agreement.
We believe that deadlines are in themselves very important factors, but of course they are not the whole story. Other influences, pressures, incentives and disincentives will apply to people, but all other things being equal, we have no doubt that whether deadlines exist and what those deadlines are make a difference. I notice that no Labour Member has sought to intervene to dispute that proposition.
Let me make a second proposition, to which the Conservative party also holds. It is very simple: shorter deadlines tend to concentrate people's minds. Shorter deadlines tend to make the implementation process shorter; longer deadlines do the opposite. They tend to dissolve any sense of urgency, and they tend to extend the time that people take to complete the tasks to which they are committed. Again, that sounds like a simple proposition, and no Labour Member has sought to catch my eye to contradict it.
The remarkable thing is that the Secretary of State agrees precisely with the logic of what I am saying. He acknowledged that, perhaps inadvertently, in the House on
"I recognise that some say that we need to have deadlines and that without pressure the Provisionals will not move. Some people will point to occasions in the past few years when we have achieved progress only by taking matters right to the wire."
This is the important part of the quotation. He continued:
"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."—[Hansard, 17 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 49.]
So the Secretary of State accepts that the Provisionals and other people in Northern Ireland take matters to the wire. I shall give way to him if he contests this interpretation of his words, but it is blatantly clear that the phrase "taking matters to the wire" simply means that people take advantage of whatever deadlines exist. It follows inexorably that if a deadline is extended, the time people take to complete the task for which the deadline has been set is extended; and if a deadline is reduced—all other things being equal—the time they take is reduced.
The hon. Gentleman keeps regretting the fact that no Labour Member has leapt up to intervene on the specific points that he makes, but does he accept that I am listening very carefully to him developing his argument, and I hope to address some of those points in responding to this debate? He said earlier that, in principle, there is nothing between us and that we are debating the practicalities of the proposals. Does he also accept that the practicality and usefulness of deadlines per se divide us?
I am grateful to the Minister for that point, and I shall listen with equal attention to her remarks. I have already said—I totally accept this—that we are talking about practicalities, but judgment about practicalities is absolutely at the heart of competence and effectiveness in government. It is at the heart of what we should be discussing in the Chamber. We cannot allow the Government unthinkingly to renew the Bill with a five-year deadline because, as I have suggested, there was a five-year deadline before. It is clear to us that a deadline of five years is utterly inappropriate to a process that is already overdue by more than a year and a half.
In response to the Minister's point, I repeat that we are talking about practicalities and about a judgment as to what is a sensible, businesslike and responsible approach to a vitally important problem. There is the practical issue, which is vital, of the rate of progress of decommissioning and the date on which decommissioning will be complete. I hope that we shall have an opportunity later to focus a little more on that subject. However, there is also the issue of the confidence that is created in the meantime on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland—confidence in the reality, integrity and transparency of the process and in the extent to which people can take seriously the prospect of moving to a democracy free from the threat of the gun and Semtex.
Although such issues are practical, they are enormously important to the peace process as a whole. All the policies that may be devised to achieve peace in Northern Ireland can be brought to naught if we are not extremely careful each time we deal with such a delicate matter as decommissioning and the regime to bring it about. We must be careful to structure the pattern of incentives and disincentives that will be applied to all who have to take part in the most rational and effective fashion.
I have made it clear that we believe that deadlines are important, and the Government have not contested that. I have made it plain that they have got it quite wrong in allowing another five years and, so far, we have not heard any justification for that. The Minister promises that there will be some justification, and let us hope that that is so. We will listen to what she says. However, at the moment, we are extremely concerned about the whole drift of Government policies and about what we think is an important misjudgment that has been expressed on the face of the Bill. However, it can be corrected and I hope that it will be corrected by the Committee accepting our amendments.
I have already carefully said that deadlines are important, but they are only one aspect of the process. They are only one—although an important one—of the pressures that can be applied to ensure that we have earlier and more certain decommissioning and that it is less probable that it will never be completed or will take longer.
As I said on Second Reading, I believe that it is likely that there will be further acts of decommissioning. I said on that occasion—I stand by my judgment—that there is a reasonable expectation that Sinn Fein, for reasons connected entirely with its prospects in the Irish elections in May, may feel it necessary to make at least a symbolic further act of decommissioning between now and then. There is no doubt that the Americans played an absolutely critical part in securing the act of decommissioning that took place at the end of October, and the timely application of pressure from that quarter may bring about another act of decommissioning at some time.
Of course, other instruments can be applied—and not necessarily by us. The two instruments that I have just mentioned are a function either of Irish domestic politics or of the policies of the United States Administration. However, it is our responsibility to make sure that the instruments that are in the hands of the British Government and the British Parliament are used most effectively. That is where our concern lies.
I wish to make a final point about a matter that has concerned me the more in that I think that the Government have not sufficiently recognised a certain danger. It is sensible in life to put oneself in the shoes or, as far as possible, in the mind of a particular opponent or counterpart in any negotiating process. I wonder whether the Government have done that effectively because, in the case of Sinn Fein-IRA, if they had they would realise that there might be reasons for them to decommission, some of which I have mentioned. However, one strong reason, which unfortunately has been greatly strengthened by the Government's recent conduct, for spinning out the process and not completing decommissioning until the Greek calends is that that tactic is an effective way of securing concessions.
Lamentable though the situation is, far from the British Government being able to put pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA, the fact is that Sinn Fein-IRA sit on their weapons and do not implement their obligations under the Belfast agreement. The Government then go to them and say, "Look. There is no progress on Belfast. We are very worried about that. What can we do to increase momentum and help you?" Naturally, Sinn Fein-IRA ask for concessions, which the Government give.
Sinn Fein-IRA still do not decommission, however, or, if they do, it is a minimal act. They wait the maximum amount of time before doing anything else because they expect the Government to offer more concessions. That is the history of the past few months—of Weston Park and of the lamentable concessions that we made to Sinn Fein-IRA MPs to come here on the basis of special status. I repeat that I would be only too glad if they took their seats on the same basis as everyone else, but that is not want they want to do and not what is happening.
The Government have sadly got themselves into a position in which they are negotiating in the wrong direction. Instead of using the instruments that are available to them to put pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA, they throw them away, in the same way as they release prisoners willy-nilly despite no progress in decommissioning. The Government then allow Sinn Fein-IRA to turn the tables on them and say, "Right. You want more decommissioning? You think that you've already paid for that in the Belfast agreement, but no: we both accept that you've got to make more concessions on top of Belfast. So we would like the next one please." That has been the history of the subterranean negotiations over the past few months between Sinn Fein-IRA and the Government.
All the public manifestations of those negotiations are regrettable and some of them are discreditable. We have debated them in the House, especially in the two debates before Christmas. I beg the Government, in the interests of Northern Ireland, the peace process and any value that they share with me, to think again and stop this nonsense. They need to start saying to Sinn Fein-IRA, "We are sorry. We have an agreement. You must implement it in full before any further concessions are made or before we are prepared to talk about making any further moves on our side."
I put it to the Government most forcefully, and believe that I am right to do so, that there is no purpose in having an agreement with anyone if the other side is not going to implement it and asks for more concessions before it carries out its share, as outlined in the initial agreement. That is a hopeless way to conduct a negotiation in any context of life. It is especially regrettable and irresponsible when so many important things are at stake, such as people's lives and peace and democracy in a part of our country.
The matter is not technical, but practical. It relates to a practical judgment about how to conduct a negotiation in such circumstances. It has enormous consequences that will concern everyone in the country and it is important that we get it right. The debate is crucial. We shall all listen with bated breath to the Minister and I hope that even at this eleventh hour she may have had a slight change of mind.
I am grateful for the opportunity to consider the issues raised by Mr. Davies. I listened with great interest. His crucial point, which he kindly confirmed in response to my intervention, is that we are considering something that is a matter not of principle, but of practicality. That is a tremendously important and helpful clarification. However, let us bear in mind the fact that the Conservatives pulled out of the cross-party agreement not on a matter of principle, as we now find out, but on a matter of practicality. I find that surprising. In my judgment, a matter of practicality alone does not warrant a response of such enormity.
I must intervene, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking my intervention. He has made two important errors. First, the Opposition did not pull out of bipartisanship: the Government walked away from the basis of bipartisanship. That basis was the Belfast agreement and its implementation. When the Government went beyond that and, even before Belfast had been implemented, said that they would start throwing out new unilateral concessions, we said, "Wait a moment. You have left the territory on which we stood together. You have withdrawn from Belfast."
Secondly, as I tried to make clear in my earlier remarks, the matter might be a practical one, but it has the profoundest consequences for the future of the entire process. It is not, therefore, a minor issue, and it would be extremely regrettable if it were considered in that light.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and invite him to intervene again if he feels that I have misrepresented his remarks. He says that, in the view of the Conservatives, the Government walked away from the Belfast agreement. Let us be grown up about the matter. It was the hon. Gentleman himself who made an absolutely clear statement that the Conservatives were taking the proactive decision to walk away from the cross-party consensus.
We had a substantial debate about the way in which that had been reported in the press at the time, but at that time I did not hear the hon. Gentleman questioning my interpretation that the Conservatives were indeed pulling out of the cross-party consensus. If I have misunderstood that, I should be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's clarification. I should be delighted to hear that I have misunderstood, and perhaps that the Minister has also misunderstood the position, and that the Conservatives remain committed to a cross-party consensus.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He has indeed misunderstood. I shall therefore try again. Our position has not changed. We support the Belfast agreement; we have always supported the Belfast agreement. We believe that it should be implemented. We believe that it is quite wrong, before it has been implemented and before all sides have fulfilled their undertakings under it, to consider further moves—further concessions—going beyond it in favour of any parties to the Belfast agreement.
When the Government decided to take that course, we said that we could no longer support them. The Government have an opportunity in the debate this afternoon to pull back from that position. I sincerely hope that they will do so and say in future that the Belfast agreement must be implemented, decommissioning must be completed, and only then can we consider any further concessions to any parties to the Belfast agreement which have yet to implement it.
I cannot make our position clearer than that. It has been clear since the Weston Park agreement, which has never been debated in the House, that the Government were launched on a new course. The first measures that the Government introduced in accordance with their new strategy were those that we debated before Christmas. I made it plain then that we could not support them in that new and irresponsible departure.
I continue to reiterate that position. I have said the same thing—in different ways, admittedly—three or four times in the debate this afternoon. When Lembit Öpik reads Hansard tomorrow morning, he will know unambiguously where the Opposition stand.
I certainly wish to focus on the amendments, Sir Alan, and I am grateful for your forbearance as we clarified that point. I believe that it is relevant to the debate, because understanding the Conservatives' motives in supporting the amendments will help me to provide a response to them. However, I shall not dwell on the matter. I shall do as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford says and study Hansard in great detail. I shall conclude from what he said that it was only a partial withdrawal from the cross-party consensus. I am encouraged by that. The hon. Gentleman also said that the amendments had been tabled on a matter of judgment, not on—
I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want to use words disingenuously, but when he talks about the Conservative party withdrawing or pulling out, he is implying that the movement or change was made by us—far from it. We have stayed in the same place; it is the Government who have moved.
I shall not incur your wrath, Sir Alan, by pursuing that point, but I simply say that it sounds to me that one can be rather more optimistic that the hon. Gentleman, who is by nature a very pleasant and consensual man, is perhaps pulling back from what I incorrectly interpreted last year as withdrawal from the cross-party consensus. That is tremendously encouraging.
Returning to the issue of principle versus practicality, it strikes me that, as I hope we can agree the hon. Gentleman said, at the core of the debate there is a matter of judgment: whether the proposal in the Act is more or less appropriate than that in the Bill. It all boils down to how long we should enable the amnesty to continue.
I should from the outset say that the Liberal Democrats feel on balance that it is likely that the Government's proposal will make sense. It is probably helpful to the peace process to extend the amnesty in the way described. Let us remember that even the provisions of the unamended legislation must be debated and approved every year; otherwise the amnesty will fall. Therefore, we are talking about a rather detailed point: whether the opportunity to renew the amnesty should be allowed to continue on an annual basis until 2007 or for a shorter period. For that reason, we need to look at some pragmatic considerations.
On several occasions when Conservatives have opposed relaxation of provisions and various steps forward, those steps have led to significant progress in the peace initiative. For example, there was great scepticism on the Conservative Benches and expressed by the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, Mr. MacKay, about the prospect of any decommissioning, yet it came about. Therefore, as one's judgment on Northern Ireland matters has evidently been flawed in the past, surely one needs to be cautious rather than vitriolic about the certainty with which one objects to the Government's proposals in the present.
The hon. Gentleman said that he felt short deadlines tended to concentrate the mind, but if they are too short they can become meaningless. For example, the Prime Minister made a mistake in saying that there was no plan B in the Northern Ireland peace process. In fact, when no result was achieved, there turned out to be a plan B and the Government's credibility was slightly harmed by the decision. I suspect that as long as the peace process is moving forward there will always be a plan B, a plan C or a plan D.
We are not dealing with idiots in northern Irish politics; we are dealing with some of the most sophisticated politicians anywhere in Europe. I am very aware of those sitting on the Benches behind me when I say that, and I hope that they are nodding. [Interruption.] I was of course referring to my hon. Friend Matthew Green, as well as to those on the Unionist Benches and Democratic Unionist party Members. Let us not pretend that a deadline that is very likely to be extended by any Government who are making progress should be regarded as naive or superficial by those with whom we are dealing.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to mention how close it was to the deadline before the IRA took what has been described as a significant move towards decommissioning? I recall that it did so well beyond the deadline.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. There were four deadlines. Each of them was challenged and some fell, while some were exceeded. However, the fact of the matter is that the process continued not because of the deadlines or because those involved were frightened to break them. As he said, we went way past the original deadline. That happened because of internal matters relating to Northern Ireland and external matters relating to
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the remarks that he made in a press release in August last year? He said:
"There does need to be further clarification of the timetable for the decommissioning of IRA weapons."
Is it the official Liberal Democrat position that the party is satisfied or not satisfied?
We are very satisfied that decommissioning has started. As I said, on judgment we conditionally feel satisfied that the Government are putting forward a reasonable agenda specifying a period during which we decide every year whether it is acceptable to proceed with the amnesty. I stress again that this is not a one-off debate between now and 2007. If I understand the Bill correctly, there will be another debate in 12 months, when we must return to the matter, assess what progress has been made and consider the reasonable concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and his colleagues. We are arguing about the best process and various details in that respect.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about hard-nosed politicians and the perception in Northern Ireland. Does he recognise that the slithering that has been going on has caused greater disillusionment among ordinary people in Northern Ireland? Is it not time that they were considered, as well as hard-nosed terrorists?
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this matter previously on the Floor of the House. He is right, and I was going to deal later with those very reasonable concerns. Unionist politicians in particular have expressed repeatedly in the Chamber and outside exactly the same concerns about disillusionment in the Unionist population. They have been described by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, and no doubt they are shared by all colleagues on the Unionist Benches. The issue needs to be addressed, but I suspect that the Bill in its current form will not help to reassure the Unionist population. Can the Minister of State provide some sort of reassurance that this very salient point will be taken on board? Although I have been criticising the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford in respect of other matters, I know that he has consistently and correctly raised the issue in the Chamber and outside. It is reasonable for the Committee to expect some reassurance from the Minister.
In the context of a gradual step forward, let us remember what Mr. Mandelson said on
"The review has not produced a single text like the Good Friday agreement. Instead, it has concentrated on building trust and confidence by means of a number of important steps forward rather than waiting for one giant leap that might never be made."—[Hansard, 22 November 1999; Vol. 339, c. 345.]
So, even two years ago we had a Secretary of State who made it clear that a gradual approach was the most likely solution to matters in hand, and I feel that we need to give ourselves the chance to enable that gradual process to move forward.
I hope that the tragic events of
Another point on which I take issue with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is whether we have already had a substantial time—whether five years is a substantial time for decommissioning. Let us remember that we are dealing with an issue that, depending on how we define it, has existed for decades, for almost a century, or for several centuries—one's historical perspective will determine which time scale one chooses. In that context, five years is not a long time. If we look at where we started and where we are now, we realise that those five years have generated more progress than the previous 30 years. That is a reasonable ground on which to give ourselves the space to allow the process to carry on.
When one thinks about such things, it is always appropriate to ask, "What would I do if I were in the position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?" [Interruption.] I hear cheers of approval from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. Clearly he is thinking of defecting, as others have recently done—the door is always open.
All of us, if we were in that position, would unquestionably start with the idea of outcomes. We would not focus on process, but would try to be clear what we were trying to do in the job—and surely that is to secure the peace and to stabilise and normalise the lives of the ordinary people in Northern Ireland. If one concentrates on outcomes, the process is simply a tool, not an end in itself, and I believe that one would end up making pragmatic decisions along the way, not always with everyone's support.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford talked about "subterranean goings on" at Weston Park. I share his suspicions, and I think, although I am not sure, that there probably have been some informal agreements—perhaps even some talk about extending the amnesty. However, even if those discussions did take place, if, ultimately, they stabilise Northern Ireland and make it a more peaceful place, surely it is the Government's responsibility to take those risks and make those decisions.
I remind Conservative Members that, to his great eternal credit, when John Major was Prime Minister he was negotiating with the IRA when it was not even on ceasefire. That was a much riskier and more dangerous thing to do in the political context, in terms of the potential for sending signals to terrorists that they could bomb and negotiate at the same time. We must not forget that that initiative, which I personally supported even at the time, was Conservative sponsored.
I am sure that the Committee is now clear about what the amendments are intended to do, and we all understand that this is simply a debate about timing—or rather, not even about timing as such, but about how many times we can come back and discuss whether to extend the 12-month amnesty period again. I would like to think that it will all be over by 2003 or 2005, but I am not confident enough about that to be sure that we do not need the leeway to come back again until 2007.
For those reasons, and although I respect others' right to differ—I also recognise the great pressures, to which I have already alluded, on Unionist and Democratic Unionist politicians in particular—I think that we have to bite the bullet and recognise that we have been here before, with two Governments of two different colours, and that every time we have made substantial breakthroughs, it has been because somebody on the Government Front Bench has taken a substantial risk.
The amendment fails to recognise that things move on in politics, and that new positions are reached. If this were an amendment about a hard and specific deadline, in the context of the past situation, I would often have been associated with such a position. However, because we have passed a previous deadline—which, although it changed, was eventually met—we are now in an entirely different situation. There has been an event of considerable significance in the putting beyond use of a number of arms by the IRA. Aspects of a deadline have, therefore, already been met—not, I think, because of the deadline but because of other factors. That helps to change the position. The Government have not moved away from the deadline position, but they have wavered a bit in connection with it. They now support something that could be called a rolling deadline. That allows for avenues of manoeuvre, depending on future developments.
As the Conservative spokesperson said, the change that led to the putting beyond use of those arms did not come from the pressures of a deadline, but was the result of other political considerations by Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. They were under tremendous pressure from America following the events in Colombia, and then the events of
I would suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the Government have indeed moved away from the concept of deadlines, because here we are today, debating a Bill that will allow the deadline to be extended for a further five years. That will lessen the potency of any future deadline, because there is always the risk that if we do not meet that deadline, there will be others to follow. The hon. Gentleman is, therefore, completely wrong: the Government have significantly moved away from the concept of deadlines.
I am not completely wrong, because I recognise part of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I said that the Government have moved to what I described as a rolling deadline. Instead of there being a hard, specific deadline, which might in any case have to be changed by subsequent measures, a measure is to be introduced to allow different stages at which the provisions could, perhaps by statutory instrument, be extended in line with the contents of the Bill.
That is a change, but it has been made because the situation has changed considerably and dramatically. At one time, those of us who were trying to press Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA into some response were desperate. There was nothing we could do except lay down a deadline and say to them, "You will see what will happen if you don't conform to that deadline." The Ulster Unionist party challenged them on a number of occasions in connection with that deadline.
Many of us who proposed that deadline were willing to chance the situation; we were that desperate. We were saying that the situation might break down entirely, and that the whole agreement might go, but we believed that the people who would fail in those circumstances would be Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. They would be condemned for having operated in that way and for not having met the deadline.
Sinn Fein-IRA have now taken a dramatic step in their history by putting a certain number of arms beyond use. The traditionalist argument of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein has been destroyed. Sinn Fein is involved in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the Parliament in the Irish Republic, and it has taken up accommodation in this House. That is a dramatic change from its previous position. We must consider that situation. We should not jettison the notion of a deadline, but be a bit more accommodating, because other possibilities exist.
We have learned that the greatest chance of achieving full decommissioning will come from various political pressures being brought to bear. Pressures from the Government, the Irish Republic and the United States are dominant in achieving change. That is why we need the flexibility provided in the Bill, not the amendment, which takes us back to yesterday's position as if nothing had altered.
Ulster Unionists Members have made important points. There is massive disillusionment in Unionist communities; something must be done in response to those concerns. We must show that action is being taken as forcefully as possible to bring about the decommissioning that people want. Other steps need to be taken to calm the fears in those communities.
Lembit Öpik and I have tabled early-day motion 616, which refers to exiles. Paramilitaries on the run will not now be chased, but will be allowed to return. If that is on the agenda in the general framework, pressure should be brought to bear to get a response regarding the people who have been placed in exile by organisations such as the IRA and are not allowed in any circumstances to set foot in Northern Ireland for fear of their lives. That should end.
It is not correct to say that Sinn Fein and the IRA are always being placated. We recently discussed legislation that seeks to tackle the problem of electoral fraud by Sinn Fein: it was directed against that organisation.
Things change, and pressures can be brought to bear in different directions. I urge Ministers to deal with problems such as the return of exiles, and there are some signs that that is happening, which is welcome. We should not go back to the situation before this significant move took place, which was forced on the Provisional IRA. We should force on that organisation more changes and require it to make more concessions. It should get out of its paramilitary activities entirely and into purely political action. I do not support its present political objectives. We need to tackle the abuses that it is engaged in, such as having a record of where its money has come from when it stands in elections. The money has often come from the most obnoxious sources in America and elsewhere. At least the American Administration have finally come to terms with this issue, and are seeking change.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman graciously giving way on that point. The Government brought legislation before the House that let the IRA off the hook as regards declaring financial contributions from elsewhere. Is it not time that the Government and the House started to put pressure on the IRA, rather than leaving it to the Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland or to the American Government?
That is a valid point. When we discussed entry into the House and the use of its facilities by Sinn Fein Members, the question of the Register of Members' Interests arose. Should Sinn Fein Members have to adhere to the requirement for MPs to record the source of any substantial contributions they have received for electoral purposes? Perhaps that requirement could be tightened, and used in connection with checking particulars relating to Sinn Fein.
I am not opposed to the putting of many pressures on the Government to be tougher in many respects, but it should be borne in mind that that sometimes prompts favourable responses. We should accept the gains that are made, and not complain all the time. The amendment returns us to a position that I occupied in the past, but have now departed from. My attitude has changed, because circumstances have changed. The Committee ought to recognise those changes, and I feel that such a recognition is reflected in the position of the Government rather than that of the Opposition.
I listened to Mr. Barnes with great interest, as all Members always do, but I quarrel profoundly with the thesis on which he based his opposition to the amendments. He argued—I think I quote him correctly—that the decommissioning event of last autumn was a significant move forced on the IRA. In a limited sense, the timing was significant because of the significant
The hon. Gentleman overlooks one of the consistent strains of the entire so-called peace process: the Provisionals' explanation that they will decommission one day, that decommissioning forms part of the final solution, and that decommissioning will come when the causes of the conflict have been removed. Far from decommissioning being the sort of significant event that the hon. Gentleman might have us consider it, the token event of last autumn was in fact an acknowledgement that so many concessions had been made that, to a significant extent, the causes of the conflict had indeed been removed.
That brings me to a point also made by Lembit Öpik. Of course the situation changes; of course there is movement, if we continually make concessions to the men of violence. But the movement that arises from a democracy's giving ground to terrorist intransigence is not, I suggest, a movement of which hon. Members should be particularly proud.
My speech will be short, as my hon. Friend Mr. Davies has fully explored the salient points of the argument. I merely want to emphasise one or two of his observations, and I do so with some happiness. I do not always agree with my hon. Friend about the Belfast agreement, but here we are discussing practicalities rather than the fundamental principle, and I think he has analysed those practicalities correctly.
I believe that the Belfast agreement should have involved a firm decommissioning timetable all along, with consequences for non-observance. I also believe that it should have involved firm links between decommissioning and places on the Executive, and between decommissioning and prisoner release. I agree with my hon. Friend about that.
There was a clear agreement on the total completion of decommissioning by May 2000, strengthened by and linked to the Prime Minister's promise to Mr. Trimble—the leader of the Ulster Unionist party—on the day of the Good Friday agreement. That was the only reason why some of us supported the agreement, which would have excluded Sinn Fein from government without decommissioning. It is the failure of Her Majesty's Government to live up to their commitment that has disillusioned the Unionist people.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. On previous occasions, we have found common ground on that point. It is a fact that the Prime Minister went to Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign and made pledges that plainly misled the people of Northern Ireland into believing that there was that linkage—the commitment that men of violence would not have a part to play in the future governance of the Province.
The most telling point that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford made was that the potential extension of the amnesty for five years amounts to a surrendering of initiative to the Provisional IRA. The pressure should relentlessly be on the IRA to decommission. Extension of the amnesty period will mean that the pressure is potentially lifted. Instead of the pressure being on the IRA meaningfully to decommission, the Bill presents it with leverage to make further demands in return for more token decommissioning gestures.
I am reminded of a general prediction. Many commentators anticipate that the next phase of token-gesture decommissioning by the Provisionals may come in the run-up to the Irish general election. I do not know whether that is the case. We will find out in time but the Bill unamended will enable decommissioning before the Irish general election, if it is to happen, to be token, just as it was token last autumn. Pressure is being lifted from the IRA, allowing it leverage to bargain for more concessions in advance of further decommissioning.
Another point was made by several hon. Members during the Second Reading debate; my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford alluded to it. The Bill unamended gives out entirely the wrong signals. A strong argument for the inclusion of the amendments is that those false signals will be corrected. False signal number one goes to the terrorists. It confirms that they can buy more time through procrastination, deviousness and orchestrated delays. It is telling them that they need do nothing until February 2007. I recall the words of my hon. Friend on Second Reading, who said that it is as though we are saying,
"Relax. Take your time. You are not up against a deadline".—[Hansard, 17 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 53.]
The concept of extending a deadline to speed up decommissioning is manifestly absurd.
The second wrong signal goes out to the law-abiding majority of Northern Ireland. The Bill without these amendments is effectively saying that to all intents and purposes decommissioning is open ended. In particular, it is saying that decommissioning is being moved further and further down the agenda. Indeed, implicitly it is acknowledging that it may never happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said that he thought that the Government were being sucked into a modified position, retreating from such demands as there are in the Belfast agreement. I am not sure that I share that interpretation. Moving the decommissioning issue down the agenda has all along been the Government's intention. It appears to have been one of the assurances that the Prime Minister gave to the Provisionals soon after the 1997 general election, because it was one of their demands for imposing a second qualified ceasefire. According to some republican sources, the assurance that decommissioning would be pushed further down the agenda was given to Mr. McGuinness and Mr. Adams shortly before last month's Second Reading debate.
I argue, along with my hon. Friends, that it is wholly wrong for the Bill to be allowed to proceed with such a diluted, lax timetable and without a more demanding deadline. As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said, it is a fact of life that deadlines focus attention and clarify positions. The Government are surrendering a strong, almost moral high ground on decommissioning by not accepting the amendments. I strongly support the amendments.
I wish to support the amendments. This issue goes far wider than pragmatism and extending the deadline for a while because the legal requirement is that the terrorists must be allowed to decommission. That was the basis of the Good Friday agreement—to move the terrorists to democracy and, one hopes, some time in the future, even to this place.
I am totally disillusioned with this process and give the Government no credibility whatever because the word "deadline" should be banned from Northern Ireland political vocabulary.
The Minister nods, but she nods for the wrong reason. The word should be banned because it is a joke in Northern Ireland political vocabulary. Politics should be about defeating the opposition. We must think about what is in the minds of Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Gerry Kelly and the rest of the Army Council of the Provisional IRA. What do they want? What message do they want from this House today? I shall tell hon. Members what they want: they want the same message that they have received ever since the Good Friday agreement was signed—appeasement, appeasement, appeasement, and list after list of further concessions to republicans. That is what they have got and what they will get. Some concessions we know about and some we do not; some were made in Weston Park and some, perhaps, were not. What else is there?
The deadline is an important matter of principle and pragmatism. The two are wrapped up together. The reason why people like me, who supported the agreement within the Ulster Unionist party, are so disillusioned with that agreement and its implementation is that the deadlines mean nothing. As I said in an earlier intervention, the May deadline meant nothing; the Provos could get away with it. The loyalist paramilitaries are all up at Stormont and the electoral system was bent in the Assembly to allow more people to get elected—there are so many at Stormont that I do not even know how many there are.
Her Majesty's Government are bending the system, appeasing the terrorists—the men of violence, the gunmen and bombers who hold on to their arms and ammunition—and not putting deadlines on them. What sort of signal is coming from this House?
I do not really want to support the Opposition's amendment of a one-year deadline, because the deadline should have been May 2000 and sanctions should have been brought against those who were not adhering to the agreement. The Prime Minister promised my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble that the terrorists would be excluded from government until they had totally decommissioned and we had reached the end of the process. Instead, we have had a token symbol to keep the United States on side or to get over the home goal of FARC in Colombia.
The Unionist people have been seriously let down. The Government had better think about symbols and the message that they are sending from this House. The Secretary of State should realise very soon that, because of the use of deadlines, the abuse of the English language and the fact that deadlines have not been adhered to, the Unionists—I was among the 50-plus per cent. who voted for the agreement—are disillusioned. It is one-side terrorism.
Will my hon. Friend concede that while we have no reason to have any confidence in the deadlines set by the Government, who have been seen to roll over at every hurdle and make further concessions, we have good reason to have confidence in any deadlines set by the leader of the Ulster Unionist party?
That is a double-edged question for me. My hon. Friend makes a good point and the disillusionment is felt because of the lack of commitment and adherence to the promises. We thought that with a new Prime Minister those commitments would be adhered to, but they were not, and that was why my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble was forced into setting deadlines when that should have been the responsibility of the Government. It should be the Government against the terrorists in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend will forgive me if I resort to my normal pettifogging and say that I am a little uncomfortable with the word "forced". I regrettably found it necessary to do something about setting deadlines and I may find it necessary again, but I am at pains to point out to my hon. Friend that I never felt forced to do it.
Within the Province, under the Mitchell principles, we still have a fully armed—we do not know what the first, token act of decommissioning consisted of—Provisional IRA, and the other republican organisations, and the loyalist paramilitary organisations, both front and back ones, under different names, remain fully armed. The Bill and the amendments are trying to achieve an admirable outcome—to take the illegal guns out of Ulster politics—but in the process and by having no deadlines, we are ending up with the opposite result.
All the concessions are being made, including those on the Royal Ulster Constabulary. We talk about law and order, but why are we running down the numbers in the RUC and reducing the effectiveness of the special branch? We will see in March what will happen to the RUC reserve, but Ulster needs to retain the men and women of the reserve, because of the increase in crime and the continuing threat of terrorism. We will see if pragmatism or principle holds sway, but I suspect that another concession will be made and the RUC reserve will be given away.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that even the discovery of the activities in Colombia stemmed from the work of the RUC special branch? It is time that those in the House and elsewhere recognised that the continued weakening of the special branch constitutes a danger to this nation and threatens the countering of international terrorism throughout the world.
The deadline is a principle that sends out a message, and the symbol of the message is important in achieving the objective of decommissioning. If the Government say five years rather than one year, they might as well say to the end of time, because a five-year deadline puts no pressure on Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein. In the May elections, we can be sure that if pragmatic Fianna Fail and Bertie Ahern need the numbers to make up a coalition Government, they will do a deal with Sinn Fein, and forget about the Irish constitution and one army within a state. Bertie Ahern will do a deal because he wants power.
My argument is about the symbolism involved in not accepting the tighter deadlines in the amendments. More concessions to the republicans in Northern Ireland are coming up. They were promised inquiries at Weston Park. They have the Bloody Sunday inquiry, and even the Bloody Sunday movies are being financed out of public funds by the British state. That is a bloody disgrace.
The republicans will expect—and will receive—more concessions from the Government. I am very sceptical about the process and the agreement. The confidence of the Unionist people is being destroyed. It is no good having a process if it does not have the consent of both the majority and the minority in Northern Ireland. Unless the amendment is accepted, the symbolic message emanating from this House through this Bill will be that decommissioning does not matter and that people should forget about what has become just another a wee symbol. The general will be able to go back to Canada for a while, but perhaps he will return in the summer.
We will not be told about it, but security will be run down. There will be a further weakening in police morale, and a reduction in the security that we need to cope with the increase in crime and with the sectarian violence practised by both the loyalist paramilitaries—disgracefully—and the republican paramilitaries, some of whom masquerade under front organisations. That is the way of politics and terrorism in Northern Ireland.
The House must not send out the wrong message. The Government should take a stand. A five-year deadline means nothing, except that the deadline is a joke. I support the amendment wholeheartedly.
I rise to speak to amendment No. 2. It offers an alternative to amendment No. 1, and its purpose is to give the Government yet another opportunity to send out a signal to those who bear arms that is much more robust than the signal contained in the Bill.
Our problem is that amendment No. 1 is unlikely to be accepted by the Government, given the tone of their approach on Second Reading. It would be a wonderful surprise if the Minister, when she responds to the debate, were to say that she was going to accept amendment No. 1 and the message that that proposal would send out to those who illegally bear arms in Northern Ireland. However, it is just possible that the Government will not be convinced by our arguments on amendment No. 1, so we have tabled amendment No. 2 as an alternative strategy.
Amendment No. 2 is a probing amendment, and it deals with the signals being sent out by the Bill. It represents an attempt to deal with the problems already described by my hon. Friend Mr. Davies and others. The context for the debate is that the signals sent out to the Unionist community and Sinn Fein-IRA are contradictory. The treatment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is also part of that context, as are the proposals in the already published Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill referring to the symbology of the Crown and the state in the future of Northern Ireland, and to the oaths that judges will take.
The Secretary of State has also spoken of there being a cold house for Unionists, so it is clear that one set of signals is being sent to the Unionist community, and quite another to Sinn Fein-IRA. Amendment No. 2 would offer the Government a mechanism for sending a more robust signal. The Government's signals about resistance to terrorism, as contained in the Bill, are distinctly uncertain, as are the signals from the Liberal Democrats. That is best summed up by the way in which Liberal Democrat Members voted on whether the House's facilities should be opened up to Sinn Fein Members. Fourteen Liberal Democrat Members voted for the measure, 14 voted against it, and 24 abstained.
I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. We had a free vote—it just happened that the Conservative party was united in its attitude towards people who are associated with a terrorist organisation having special treatment in the House and whether there should be one rule for one type of MP and one for another. However, a most uncertain sound, as usual, issued forth from the Liberal Democrat Benches.
What a contrast there is between the signals sent to Sinn Fein by the Liberal Democrats and the Government and those sent by the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Only this weekend, the Justice Minister of the Republic, Mr. John O'Donoghue, one of the most senior figures in Mr. Ahern's coalition Cabinet, reinforced the Taoiseach's remarks about Sinn Fein. He said that Sinn Fein had links with "an illegal army" and stressed:
"It is entirely inconceivable that one would have a party in government that has access to serious matters dealing with security and defence while they were associated with a private army.
There can be only one army and police in any sovereign democracy."
The Irish establishment, in the form of The Irish Times, commented in forceful terms in an editorial yesterday about the questions that Mr. Martin Ferris, a would-be Sinn Fein Dail deputy, posed about possible Sinn Fein participation in the next Irish Government. The Irish Times says that Mr. Ferris's questions
"are largely rhetorical. The arrangements in the Executive would not be acceptable in the Republic. What Sinn Féin will have to understand is that they are not acceptable in the long term either in Northern Ireland. If IRA decommissioning is not completed and if the new police service is not accepted across the community, the Belfast Agreement will fall, in time. Sinn Féin will hold no ministries because Northern Ireland will have reverted to direct rule. Sinn Féin ministers will not sit on North-South ministerial councils because they will not exist.
If it is Mr. Ferris's hope or anticipation that the Government of this State will operate to the compromises which have been applied in order to allow Sinn Féin to participate in the Executive, he is profoundly mistaken. There will be some ambiguity in certain Fianna Fáil quarters about this. Fianna Fáil will be keenly seeking Sinn Féin transfers in certain constituencies. Meanwhile, the possibility of a Fianna Fáil-led Government supported externally by Sinn Féin—but without Sinn Féin participation—is not a mathematical impossibility and is quietly spoken of by some strategists."
The Irish Times concludes
"But Sinn Féin's ambivalence between democracy and violence would render even this an appalling and unacceptable vista. If Sinn Féin wants a share of power in this State, it has work to do. It has to choose finally, irrevocably and completely between the armed struggle—in any guise—and politics."
That is the message being sent in the Irish Republic. One would hope that the Government were sending this clear message in the Bill, but the reverse is true. It is in the hope of sending a more robust signal than the one being sent by Her Majesty's Government in the Bill that amendment No. 2 offers the Government a different approach.
The objective of amendment No. 2 is to enable the Government to distinguish between different classes of weapons in the amnesty legislation—the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997—in respect of the timetable that applies to the items listed in its schedule. The amendment distinguishes between firearms and explosives. It proposes a three-year extension of the amnesty in respect of firearms but only a one-year extension in respect of explosives and the other provisions referred to in the 1997 Act. That proposal is being made in the light of the amount of weapons and explosives held in Northern Ireland by the IRA and the loyalist terror groups.
According to the best guess of informed commentators, the IRA holds about 1,000 assault rifles, mainly AK47s. It still has most of the 150 tonnes of weapons obtained from Libya between 1985 and 1986. That included six tonnes of Semtex explosive, of which about half appears to have been used or to have been seized by the security forces—leaving about three tonnes in the hands of the Provisional IRA or the Real IRA.
It is also possible that the IRA has surface-to-air missiles, as well as important electronic equipment and detonation devices to set off large explosives, such as main bombs, and incendiary devices. The IRA has the equipment for portable factories to make incendiary devices and the time-power units that enable those weapons to be effective. The IRA still has the capacity for, and probably still possesses, 17 types of mortar for use against different targets.
The inventory held by the IRA—Real and the Provisional—sits against the loyalist stock of weapons: 200 AK47s, 90 nine mm Browning pistols, 10 RPG7 rocket launchers and 150 warheads for them, and 450 grenades. Those details were put into the public domain by The Irish Times based on information about the hoard of weapons in loyalist hands in 1988. It is believed that loyalist terrorists subsequently came into the possession of Uzi submachine guns and more AK47s, handguns and grenades.
That is a pretty impressive arsenal by any standards. Can my hon. Friend confirm that those weapons can be directly traced to the IRA? Are there further weapons belonging to dissident republican groups?
I have been attempting to point out that that information was published in newspapers whose journalists have followed those events for a long time. However, they do not know precisely who holds what—any more than I, or indeed the Government, know. What we know is that all the various terrorist organisations—loyalist and republican—hold large amounts of substantial weaponry.
The IRA is known to have obtained 150 tonnes of weapons from Colonel Gaddafi in the 1980s. Some of those weapons go far beyond the IRA's requirements for the low-level terrorism that it has been carrying out, so what sort of low-level artillery pieces—such as surface- to-air missiles or light artillery—are available to the IRA? We do not know.
There is considerable evidence that in the late 1990s the dissident republican groups were actively touting for arms throughout the Balkans, especially in Croatia. Does my hon. Friend agree that the position—dire as it seems—could be even worse?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I acknowledge his expertise in that matter. Like several of my hon. Friends, he served in Northern Ireland and the House should listen carefully to his comments.
It is important that we remove from circulation weapons such as M60 machine guns, 0.5 in calibre machine guns used to fire on helicopters, and surface- to-air missiles that do enormous damage and can take out aircraft and helicopters carrying large numbers of people. We must also take out of circulation, as soon as possible, the explosives held by the terrorist organisations. That is what the amendment would serve to do.
The amendment would give the Government a vehicle whereby they could make a distinction between small arms and explosives.
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for giving way, especially as he seemed to be about to mention a hypothetical air force, navy and possibly even submarine fleet. So to try to bring him back to earth a little, may I ask him whether he agrees about two facts—first, that Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of legally held weapons of any part of the United Kingdom and, secondly, that when lunatic terrorists tried to blow the heart out of my home borough, Ealing, in August 2001, they did not do so with RPG7s or kalashnikovs, but with fertiliser, sugar, diesel and a crude detonation device?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but some of his remarks are unworthy. I was not about to suggest that the IRA has a navy or an air force. That is just absurd. We are trying to identify precisely what weapons the IRA has and what capability is available to it if it chooses to use it. Of course, the difficulty for the Government and all of us in approaching this issue is that the division between the Provisional IRA and the Real IRA, no doubt, alters, and people move, with their weapons and equipment, between the organisations, depending on the politics of the situation.
As the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, we must always remember that the Provisional IRA is a terrorist organisation that is on ceasefire. As soon as it ceases to be on ceasefire—a decision that it can take at any moment of its choosing—all those weapons will be available to it. If the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein, which are one and the same outfit, want to be taken seriously, they have to start taking all their weapons out of circulation as soon as conceivably possible. The purpose of amendment No. 2 is to give the Government a vehicle so that they can say that holding serious weapons is completely unacceptable and that there will not be an amnesty for ever and a day involving certain weapons.
I accept that amendment No. 2 can be improved. It represents an attempt to provide the Government with a set of ideas for a different way to approach this issue and to send out the signal, which we are anxious to do, that we must be robust with the people who illegally hold weapons. There may be difficulties with amendment No. 2, because it would extend the amnesty only in relation to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, and a one-year deadline would be applied to the offences listed in the schedule to the 1997 Act.
One of the offences listed in the schedule is that included in section 10(1)(b) of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989. I have a list of 322 possible offenders under that section, which is headed, "Contributions to resources of proscribed organisations" and states:
"A person is guilty of an offence if he . . . gives, lends or otherwise makes available . . . whether for consideration or not, any money or other property for the benefit of such an organisation".
Of course, the IRA is a proscribed organisation, and there is a pretty clear relationship between the IRA and Sinn Fein. I wonder what 322 Members were doing on
Section 10(2) of the 1989 Act states:
"In proceedings against a person for an offence under subsection (1)(b) above it is a defence to prove that he did not know and had no reasonable cause to suspect that the money or property was for the benefit of a proscribed organisation".
We had an interesting debate on Second Reading about the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA. At the conclusion of that debate, one can have been in no doubt at all that even the Government accepted that there was an inextricable link between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Hon. Members appear not to have made any declarations of interest today in proposing the amnesty in relation to this provision, given their record on
To summarise, the purpose of amendment No. 2 is to provide the Government with another method to send the message that democrats' toleration of terrorists is limited and that the existence of armed groups cannot be permanently tolerated. The more substantial the weaponry, the less should be our toleration and patience.
The amendment can no doubt be improved upon, and that is why it was tabled as a probing amendment. However, its approach would give the Government another chance to say to terrorist organisations that, as far as decommissioning is concerned, it must not be business as usual for ever and a day.
I regret that I have to begin by dealing with some of the attempted revisionism of recent events by pro-agreement Unionists. I noticed particularly in interventions on the speech of David Burnside the suggestion that all the ills that now face our society and the necessity for a Bill such as the one before us have come about because, in some way, the Prime Minister deceived the people of Northern Ireland and because the IRA have not delivered on the deals into which it entered. However, politicians cannot use those reasons to explain sufficiently to the people of Northern Ireland the bad judgment that they exercised previously when they considered this issue.
We face the dilemma that we do with the Bill because Mr. Trimble entered into a poor agreement with bad people. He should have known, as all the rest of us in Northern Ireland who opposed the agreement knew, that we could not trust the Provisional IRA. He should have known, as the rest of us in Northern Ireland who opposed the Belfast agreement knew, that we should not take the word of the Prime Minister on issues that could not clearly be substantiated in the text of the Belfast agreement. Let us therefore be clear that we face this dilemma because an agreement was reached that was never going to be delivered by the Provisional IRA and that it does not intend to deliver even now.
Let us stand back slightly from the technicalities that some on the Government Benches would have us address, and consider the wider issue involved. We could merely consider the legislation—and who could be against a Bill coming to the House to enable decommissioning to take place? The Government could rightly ask the House whether it wanted decommissioning in Northern Ireland to take place, and everyone would say, "Yes, of course we do." The Government would then be entitled to say, "If you want it, we must have provision in legislation to allow it to happen." The Government therefore introduced this Bill. However, when one stands back, one recognises that it is only part of the jigsaw and that decommissioning is an essential part of an overall process. Only then does one begin to address the key issue.
The facts are these. Irrespective of whether the Government accept the Conservative amendment or whether the Committee supports it, the reality is that the Provisional IRA will not decommission its weapons.
I have been right all along on this issue, and the right hon. Gentleman, who says that we were wrong before, is still incapable of telling the House what the IRA have decommissioned, where its programme for decommissioning is and when it will next decommission anything. He cannot do that because neither he nor anyone else knows if and when that will happen. If justice is to be done and is seen to be done, decommissioning needs to happen and needs to be seen to have happened. If the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to take the word of the Provisional IRA, I am not; nor, indeed, are the people of Northern Ireland whom I represent.
What is required is not simply a timetable but a sanction. However, there is no sanction in the Bill or in the amendment. The only sanction that is meaningful is the exclusion from government of the Provisional IRA's representatives. That sanction is in the hands not of the Committee nor of the Government, but in those of members of the Ulster Unionist party in the Government in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They have the sanction, but were prepared to act on it only temporarily when they had to face the people in an election.
The Government are, of course, entitled to put whatever length of time they like in their legislation, but the Opposition are right: the deadline is a farce. The very fact that it is being extended shows that it is not a deadline. We have the strange concept, delivered with a straight face by Mr. Barnes, of a rolling deadline. Has he really not considered his words? How on earth can we have a rolling deadline? It is a contradiction in terms. If it is rolling, it is not a deadline, but a rolling deadline is precisely what the Government have, and year by year it will go on. They will introduce another piece of legislation in five years' time and, with clean hands, say, "Well, we need to give the Provisional IRA the opportunity to decommission should it wish to do so."
The matter is not technical. It is important, and not simply for practical purposes, because it is a matter of principle. We are discussing whether it is proper for people who are to be part of the democratic process to have at their beck and call an army with a stockpile of weapons that they can use. That is the issue that we are to address. I guarantee that if I were to ask every individual in the Committee whether it is proper that the IRA should have such weaponry, they would say, "No. There should be decommissioning", and if there should be decommissioning, the obvious question is whether there should be consequences if it is not forthcoming.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not simply a question for the IRA? It is also a question for loyalist organisations and other republican organisations that retain illegal weapons. It is a question for all who are engaged in violence and the threat of violence. It is for all those organisations to consider their position and for all those engaged in the peace process to use their influence to bring about disarmament and decommissioning.
Of course the issue of handing over illegal weaponry is relevant to any organisation that holds them. It is especially important in relation to the Provisional IRA because it, and it alone, can exercise authority in government. A member of the IRA's army council exercises authority as a Minister of Education in the Government of Northern Ireland. That does not happen in relation to the loyalist paramilitary organisations. However, the principle of handing over illegal weaponry applies to all organisations that hold them. They should do that and there should be consequences if they do not, whether republican or loyalist organisations.
Mr. Davies made one of his best speeches. I do not agree with his support for the Belfast agreement, but his reference to the Provisional IRA's likely attitude to deadlines is spot on. He understands that much better than the Government do. Were we to put legislation through the House and tell the IRA, "You've got five years to decommission", it would not do that next week or next year. It would wait until the deadline when it could extract concessions from the Government before making another contribution that was as meaningless and token, and as much of a stunt and a sham, as its previous gesture; and the Government would herald it as a great advance of the peace process. The Provisional IRA will do that, with the Government making a further open concession the day after, just as they have done before.
I have no stomach for the play acting on the number of days, weeks or years of any deadline, because the Provisional IRA will use and abuse any deadline it is offered. The Committee needs to exercise its mind on what sanction it has against those who do not decommission. The Secretary of State has the power under existing legislation to advance to the Northern Ireland Assembly a requirement for the Speaker of that Assembly to put a motion before it for the exclusion of Sinn Fein-IRA, on the basis that decommissioning has not taken place in accordance with the legislation. He should do that immediately. Only that kind of sanction is likely to work and bring about decommissioning by the Provisional IRA.
Just about everything that needs to be said about this group of amendments has been said by my hon. Friend Mr. Davies and others of my hon. Friends, so I shall not detain the Committee unnecessarily long.
All of us have been faced, although we may not have known it, with a deadline of
That is the point about deadlines: they put on pressure. If one does not accept the deadline, there is a sanction. It is straightforward. If one does not submit a tax return by the end of February, I understand that 5 per cent. interest is charged on the sum owing. All hon. Members should note that, and more importantly, should note the lesson. It is vital that the point of a deadline be understood. [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman is indeed rushing off to do his tax return, late.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford observed, the Bill completely changes the Belfast agreement. The Minister will be familiar with the paragraph in the agreement that allows two years for decommissioning, which ran out in May 2000, as I recall. The Bill reneges on the Belfast agreement. The Minister shakes her head. Perhaps she wishes to intervene to explain why that is not the case.
The Belfast agreement allowed two years, yet the Bill extends that period, possibly by another five years. What is that if not changing—reneging on—the Belfast agreement? Those of us who, with a certain amount of unhappiness, supported the Belfast agreement as the best way forward for peace are greatly saddened that the history of the agreement, particularly since May 2000 but before then as well, has been one of appeasement and concession after concession to one side.
The Minister should show a little embarrassment or even shame. It is a great tragedy. As we heard, people who did not want to support the Belfast agreement were encouraged to vote for it in Belfast. I know many Northern Ireland people who voted for it and who are now embarrassed that they encouraged others to do so. They are disenchanted and feel lost. Only this week, I received a letter from a great friend there who says that the position is appalling. The crime that is taking place in Northern Ireland is that we are conceding and appeasing. I tell the Minister, in sorrow rather than in anger, that the Bill is an embarrassment. The Government should be ashamed, as should the media, which do not report the matter sufficiently well.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are consistently undermining the Belfast agreement by conceding time after time? In May 2000 the IRA said that it was ready to decommission its arms. Now that it has had concession after concession over the ensuing period, surely it is for the IRA to explain why it is not happy to do what it originally undertook to do. It is not for the Government to respond in advance and always on the back foot.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government repeatedly give way, having received nothing in return, except a few arms which are described as significant and which were handed in or destroyed in some manner. We can discuss till the cows come home how important X number of Armalites is, but the truth is that there has been concession after concession. That is appeasement, in anyone's book.
Loyalist terrorists are also covered by the extension of the deadline. Loyalist terrorism is a serious problem. It is exactly as bad to be shot, knee-capped or beaten up by a loyalist terrorist as by a republican terrorist. The truth is, however, that they are less significant, and the Government know that.
First, loyalist terrorists do not form part of the Administration in Northern Ireland. Secondly, from when I was involved in such matters I know that they are pretty much infiltrated by intelligence and security forces in a way that, very understandably, the republicans are not. Thirdly, loyalist terrorism is essentially reactive. Loyalist terrorists exist because the IRA exists. They are just a bunch of unpleasant thugs who are probably more interested in criminality than politics. They are not significant players, and to keep harping on about loyalist terrorism is a diversion.
Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that loyalist paramilitaries direct a huge amount of activity at the nationalist community, and that for that reason it is very much in our interests to give them the space to decommission as well—if only we can get them to do so?
I disagree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, who made a speech with one foot on each side of the fence, as usual sitting neatly on it before jumping off and leaping to the Government's defence and then into bed with them. Loyalist terrorists, like everybody else, should have decommissioned their weapons already. That was the point of the Belfast agreement. The hon. Gentleman might care to read it. Indeed, half of them are not now even on ceasefire; the Government have said that it is not recognised. I want an equal crackdown on the thugs who are so-called loyalist terrorists and the thugs who are republican terrorists.
I turn to the subject of dissident republicans, who are also covered by the extension of the deadline, which raises a certain disingenuity. The IRA terrorist movement is fairly fluid. It would be interesting to know what information and intelligence the Government have about how many people in the so-called Real IRA or Continuity IRA drift in and out of Provisional IRA discussions. That is not as clear cut as anybody would try to pretend. It certainly seems to me that the groups are moving among each other.
I am certain that members of the IRA, including Martin McGuinness and others, will know the players in the Real/Continuity IRA and what they are doing. It would be extraordinary if they did not, having grown up and worked with them for 20 years. I am sure that Government intelligence would confirm that—even though we continue the fiction that dissident republicans are entirely separate and form organisations totally different from the Provisional IRA. Such groups may disagree with the Provisional IRA, but they are pretty close to them in many other ways.
The lack of a deadline has also led to a rise in support for more extreme parties. I do not want to upset Mr. Robinson, but he illustrates the fact that his view is much more "no surrender" than that we must reach some pragmatic agreement, which we must if we are to achieve peace—and God willing we will. Much more important than the rise of the Democratic Unionist party vote at the election at the expense of some of the official Ulster Unionists was the rise in the Sinn Fein vote at the expense of the sensible, moderate, nationalist Catholic—whatever one likes to call it—vote.
People turned from the Social Democratic and Labour party to Sinn Fein, which is inextricably linked to the IRA. Part of that is the Government's responsibility because Sinn Fein have shown that it can deliver, stand up to the British Government and get what it wants. It can stick with the fiction of being removed from violence but get what it wants, carrying an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other.
I would have thought that everybody in the Committee, including the Minister, would be greatly distressed at the fact that an enormous number of perfectly decent people in Northern Ireland are now prepared to put a cross against Sinn Fein on the ballot paper. I am sure that most of them are perfectly decent and could explain why they did so were they here, but it is largely because the Government have given Sinn Fein such credibility.
I should like to ask one more thing about the extension of the amnesty, and perhaps the Minister might address it too. What further plans do the Government have to extend the amnesty to Irish terrorists who have committed crimes on the mainland but may not yet have been charged, identified, accused or convicted? Will the amnesty be extended to become all embracing in relation to all such people, including those who were responsible for the Canary Wharf and Bishopsgate bombs? I care about that and I think that most people in London care. Perhaps when the matter comes a bit closer to home, people in London and England as a whole might care a little more about what happens in Northern Ireland.
I have spoken for quite long enough, but I should like to say that a deadline must be a deadline. One of my colleagues suggested that Mr. Barnes was talking about a roll-over deadline. That is what it has been. Nothing has happened and it has meant nothing.
Two comments have been made about the term "rolling deadline", which was obviously produced as a paradox and was part of the general analysis in which I was engaged. With regard to people who have only simple-minded, yah-boo views on the matter, what I was saying goes well beyond such views, as it does in respect of the two hon. Members who have referred to the issue.
If one has a deadline, one has a deadline. One can roll it around as much as one likes. The hon. Gentleman is not a fool, but neither am I, and I reckoned that a deadline of two years up to May 2000 was exactly that: a deadline. We have now reached January 2002 and we are looking at five more years.
The lesson that the Government have not learned is that the end does not justify the means. We want to see peace in Northern Ireland, but extending the amnesty deadline will not ensure it and will only be further appeasement for the thugs and terrorists who do not want to see peace in Northern Ireland unless they are in charge of the place.
As one of those who has served in Northern Ireland—I did so as a platoon commander—and having seen at first hand the atrocities caused by terrorists, I firmly believe that the Bill in its unamended form is a big mistake. Nobody is keener than me for the peace process to succeed, but the Bill, which allows paramilitaries up to a further five years to meet their decommissioning obligations under the Belfast agreement, is completely wrong as it sends out the wrong signals to the various terrorist and paramilitary organisations.
Decommissioning is the one element of the Belfast agreement that is lagging behind very badly. To suggest through the Bill that terrorist organisations can take their time—indeed, it says that they can have another five years—will not help the agreement's chances of succeeding. I hold that view for two reasons. First, the Bill will reinforce the feeling among Unionists that this is a one-way process—a point to which Mr. Barnes alluded—and will generate problems for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party and the Assembly in general. Secondly, the Bill also does not help the Belfast agreement because it delays one of the key ingredients that is essential to its success—decommissioning. Rather than speeding up decommissioning, the Bill has the opposite effect and will slow it down.
The Secretary of State and the Minister will know that there is a habit in Northern Ireland of taking everything to the wire. In other words, as anyone who has been to Northern Ireland knows, giving terrorists another five years means that they will take another five years without thinking about it. Sinn Fein-IRA are dragging their feet because that increases pressure on the British Government. The Government are allowing that to happen, which is plain for the world to see—except, of course, the Government themselves.
Meanwhile, the people of the Province continue to suffer. Violent riots continue while the paramilitary beatings, maimings and murders carry on. We are even building new walls in Belfast, while there has been no further progress on decommissioning. All that puts a tremendous strain on the Army, which is caught in no man's land, where a peace process is allegedly making progress while the violence continues unabated. It is not as though the other parties to the agreement have not kept their side of the bargain. The UUP was prepared to share government with Sinn Fein-IRA; the Irish Government have changed their constitution; and the British Government have legislated for devolved government. Meanwhile, the terrorist prisoners were released within a two-year time frame, which was not part of the agreement, in the hope that decommissioning would also follow within two years.
The Conservatives tried to link prisoner releases with decommissioning, through amendments to the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill in 1998, but we were defeated by the Government.
Sinn Fein-IRA are now holding up the Belfast agreement by refusing to decommission totally, and all that the Government can do by way of response is to give them another five years. That is a shameful policy, and betrays both the good intentions of those who have served in Northern Ireland and, above all, the people themselves.
As a country, we send troops to Macedonia to disarm warring factions, yet we cannot disarm terrorists in our own country. We have, rightly, played a leading role in putting together a globally co-ordinated fight against terrorism following the atrocities of
The time has now come for Sinn Fein-IRA to deliver on their promises about decommissioning, and for the Government to ensure that they do so. That is why I support the amendments.
I would like to take the opportunity to offer my personal good wishes for the new year to you, Mrs. Heal, and to all hon. Members. Sadly, for hon. Members who are engaged in this debate, with their particular interest in Northern Ireland, the new year has not started as we would have wished, because I should report to the Committee that there has been further trouble, which I understand is still continuing, at the Holy Cross school in Ardoyne. Obviously, we in the Chamber do not have the full details, but I understand that so far two police officers have been injured.
May I test your patience, Mrs. Heal, and invite hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen to join me in appealing for calm, and saying that, as we have witnessed in the past, confrontation and violence do not help to resolve such problems? Dialogue is the only way of resolving the grievances felt on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to the work that the officials of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have put into resolving some of the grievances, and to my own officials, too. Let us not allow the children to be made victims again, and have to endure unnecessary trauma because of the failure of adults to live peacefully together. Those comments are entirely outwith the context of the debate, but they serve to remind us of the seriousness of the issues that we are dealing with.
This has been a good and interesting debate, which has centred on the principle of deadlines. Mr. Robinson rightly reminded us of the importance of the language that we use and how we use it, and at the beginning of the debate Mr. Davies quoted what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I take us back to that debate, and quote from a different column of Hansard.
My right hon. Friend set out our view of the deadlines and what they mean. He acknowledged that, as many hon. Members who have taken part in the debate would accept,
"Several factors led to the act of decommissioning", and then added:
"but I do not believe that the pressure of a
"was one of them."
My right hon. Friend said that pressure had come from several sources and he listed several of them, some of which have been referred to today. He continued:
"In my view, the most important factor, and the most important sanction on those engaged in the process"— that is, the peace process—
"is the possibility of its failure."—-[Hansard, 17 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 40.]
I would like to use that as my starting point in replying to this thoughtful and probing debate. I know that the amendments are not probing amendments in our usual sense of that term, but are a genuine representation of the views and feelings of the Opposition parties, and I hope to be able to deal with some of the concerns that hon. Members have raised.
Mr. Robathan is not listening at the moment, but he and I have shared many debates and debated many issues for what, for me, is becoming far too many years in this House. I am disappointed to hear that he believes that we seek to be diversionist. In my view, he downplayed the importance of loyalist terrorism, and I was sorry to hear him suggest that I was being disingenuous in supporting the Government in introducing the Bill. That is not my intention, nor the Government's intention.
I did not downplay the importance of loyalist terrorism, but its significance. It is just as important if someone has their leg blown off by a loyalist bomb as by a republican bomb, but the fact is that loyalist terrorism is not of the same significance and importance in the political debate. I think that the hon. Lady is aware of that.
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman and I have often disagreed in the past, and I am sure that we shall not agree tonight.
Of course the Government accept the necessity of keeping the pressure on all paramilitaries to disarm, but we believe that that is best done through the political process. In order to be permanent, decommissioning must be voluntary, and our strong view is that imposing deadlines implies that it will be forced. Hon. Gentlemen have talked about sanctions, but I do not believe that a forced initiative will secure lasting peace, which is, I know, what we all seek to achieve.
I find it a bit difficult to reconcile what the hon. Lady has just said with the Secretary of State's comments that she quoted earlier, in which he referred—and she endorsed the reference—to a series of pressures that had produced decommissioning. The decommissioning was not voluntary; it was a result of a series of pressures, and the Minister will know that underlying this debate is the concern about whether it will continue, as originally envisaged. It would do a lot of good if she would say exactly what the Government propose to do now, and in the forthcoming weeks and months, about that issue.
For example, the Government have a programme of normalisation measures. Will they continue that programme even if it is not matched by a programme of decommissioning? Will the normalisation programme proceed, so that pressure is not put on the terrorists? Will the Government not take the lesson that, as the Secretary of State himself said, a series of pressures is needed? One of those is, of course, the deadline, but others are actions that the Government can take—or will the Government do as they have done before, sit back and do nothing, and let other people do the work?
The right hon. Gentleman has made a fair point—at least in the first part of what he said. Obviously, I do not accept his suggestion that we sit back and do nothing, and let other people put the pressure on. Working with him and with others, including the international community, we seek to maintain that pressure. Perhaps he made a fair point about my earlier comments, but the pressure that led to the act of decommissioning was precisely the combined pressure mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Barnes and others. It was a combination of, for example, international pressure to decommission, plus the right hon. Gentleman's own action in resigning. Working with all the others engaged in the process, we must maintain that pressure to take the process further.
May I take the hon. Lady back to the specific point that I mentioned? The Government have a programme of normalisation measures; some of them have already been taken and some have not. Will she turn her mind to any future normalisation measures that are in the Government's mind? Could not the Government consider linking those with a decommissioning programme? That in itself would be an immediate pressure, although not a big pressure. The Minister might not find it politic to be too explicit about doing that, but may I urge the Government seriously to consider linking that programme to a decommissioning programme? That is immediate pressure that could be brought to bear.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. He probably will not like my reply, but this is not about deadlines, or about concessions. It is not even about bargaining our way through this process. It is about changing hearts and minds, and we can do that only by continuing with our objective of implementing the Belfast agreement.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford led on the issue of deadlines in moving the amendment, but at no point—apart from oblique references by other hon. Members to sanctions—have we been told what he would do if, regrettably, there were no progress over the next year, and the deadline that his amendment suggests were in place. We have not had a coherent argument from the hon. Gentleman about what he would do in those circumstances. That is a genuine question that he needs to consider when dealing with these issues, and when probing the Government on the question.
It is my approach to opposition politics that one should always be prepared to answer such a question, and I believe that I have set a good example in doing so. I have stated clearly what I would do, and I shall return to that matter if I have the opportunity to do so on Third Reading. I have said that we should attempt to negotiate a programmed process, and that we should give no further concessions whatever to republicanism, except when the Belfast agreement has been fulfilled or in exchange for incremental specific acts of decommissioning. I would not have given away the prisoners. I endorse entirely the view of Mr. Trimble that the normalisation and further measures now under consideration should be closely linked to progress on the vital question of decommissioning.
That was useful, and I will look again at the hon. Gentleman's comments when they are published in Hansard and read them carefully. I shall look forward to debating them with him in the House. This debate will run on throughout this evening, and a number of points will be raised in relation to the amendments and the new clause, and again on Third Reading. I do not wish to go over the same ground too often.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that extending the deadline—that is the phrase that we are using today—for one year only would put more pressure on the paramilitaries, but I do not believe that that would be the case. He must remember that the Bill extends the legal amnesty for only one year, after which, if we need more time, we must come back to the House for the issue to be debated and voted on again. That is the actuality of the case. I know that hon. Members are not being disingenuous in tabling the amendment, but to suggest that we are putting in place a five-year deadline is profoundly wrong.
The hon. Gentleman said that the last Conservative Government introduced the existing decommissioning legislation in 1997 in hope rather than expectation, and that the context is now different. I wholeheartedly agree. The situation has changed. We have achieved a blueprint for permanent change in Northern Ireland—the Belfast agreement—and I acknowledge his continuing support for that. We have begun to implement every aspect of that agreement and, crucially, we have achieved a real and tangible start to decommissioning. We are, therefore, introducing this Bill in expectation rather than in hope—the opposite of what happened before—because we expect the Bill to play an essential part in the decommissioning process and feel that we have more reason than ever to provide a proper legal framework in which decommissioning can take place.
I hope that the hon. Lady will deal with the essential issue before she sits down. The Secretary of State has acknowledged that deadlines are taken full advantage of in Northern Ireland by all participants. In other words, if we extend a deadline, all other things being equal we extend the time available for the completion of the obligations that the deadline governs. The Secretary of State has already said that. Perhaps it was an involuntary slip, but it was an extremely significant one. Of course, there are many other factors involved, but our responsibility is to get the deadline right. The idea that having a longer deadline will produce a shorter period of implementation beggars belief. The Secretary of State does not believe that, and I do not believe that the Minister does either. How can she therefore defend resisting our amendment proposing a shorter deadline?
I hope that the Minister will not return to the idea that the Bill extends the regime for one year. She knows that that is entirely artificial and that the signal in the Bill comes from the headline date. The signal being sent is that the Government are extending the regime for five years. The wording is exactly the same as in the 1997 Act, which introduced the five-year regime that we are now rolling forward, so there can be no doubt in anyone's mind that the Government are trying to extend the regime for five years. That is their fatal mistake.
I shall answer the hon. Gentleman in my own time and in my own way, and I have a number of other points to make that might answer some of his questions.
The expiry date of this legislation to provide the legal framework for decommissioning has never been a factor in any discussions with Sinn Fein or any of the other parties. We have started to call it a deadline in this debate, but the question has never arisen before or been the subject of any discussions with Sinn Fein. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point.
On the speech made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, I must be careful not to fall into the habit of constantly saying what a good, thoughtful, challenging and thought-provoking contribution he made, but that is what he did. My years of practising the dark arts as a Whip have led me to be more careful in responding to the provocation that Ministers get from time to time from hon. Members seeking to goad them into making what they hope will be unwise responses. I shall not, therefore, go down some of the avenues that the hon. Gentleman pursued, but he made an important point about the concerns of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. David Burnside also made a strong statement on that issue. I accept that we must reach out and listen to those concerns. The way in which they are articulated is also important.
We must bear it in mind that the process so far has been successful only because of the engagement of the Unionists. They have been instrumental in the establishment of the institutions and in putting pressure on all parties to participate in democracy. The peace process cannot succeed without their continued engagement. There is much for Unionism to draw comfort from in the progress that has been made in recent times. I could list some of the details, but I did so on Second Reading and I invite hon. Members to look at those comments.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire talked about exiles. That is a matter for another day and a different debate, and I shall not refer to it today. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution, which was well informed and provocative—again! I listened carefully to his comments and I shall think about them.
If the Government are to hold out a hand to the Unionists on this issue, surely the best way is to ensure that deadlines are exactly that—deadlines. They should not be a rolling series of lines in the sand that continually get eroded. Every time the Government draw a fresh line, the potency of that line diminishes because it has no real effect. The best way of bringing all parties to the table on decommissioning is to ensure that a deadline means exactly that—a deadline.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is right to say that had we done what Conservative Members are urging us to do and held to those deadlines, we would not have had the act of decommissioning that we have witnessed. [Interruption.] Conservative Members laugh, but we have had a credible start to decommissioning from the IRA. Whatever hon. Members may think of that act—they may have their own views on it—the decommissioning process has begun.
No, I shall not give way at the moment.
The decommissioning process has begun, thus removing the final obstacle to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. However, we must recognise that implementation is a long-term process, and full implementation may not be completed for some years. The Bill extends the immunity provisions for one year only. It provides for the possibility—nothing more—of further extensions beyond that, subject to the approval of the House. We consider that that is appropriate. Parliament will have the opportunity to examine this issue again after one year.
We consider that an extension of the order-making power of five years is appropriate. As was the case when the 1997 Act was brought into force by the Conservative Government, the five-year period does not represent a time frame for decommissioning; it is simply the usual period for time-limited Acts. It allows each Parliament the opportunity to consider the basic principles of the legislation, as this Parliament is doing now.
If I can spare the hon. Gentleman's blushes, may I say that I thought he made perhaps the best speech of this debate? He articulated passionately and coherently the concerns of his community. I acknowledge the profound disappointment of members of his party and other parties, including the Conservative party, who feel that progress has been painfully slow, and that these acts of decommissioning have had to be dragged out of the apparently unwilling organisations that hold the weapons.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the message that should go from the House. The message to those organisations is clear: decommissioning is a process and a start has been made. The most important thing about the Bill is that it shows that the Government are serious in their pursuit of decommissioning of all illegally held weapons, and that they intend the legal framework for that to happen to remain in place.
Amendment No. 2 deals with the offences in the schedule to the 1997 Act. We see no merit in enacting legislation that in our view would be calculated to make those in illegal possession of weapons less likely to decommission. That would surely be the effect of the amendment.
Various aspects of the schedule mostly relate to possession of weapons or explosives, but others concern offences that may stem from a person's participation in decommissioning—not necessarily centred on the weapons involved, but on the behaviour that may accompany participation, such as the withholding of information or making arrangements with terrorists. The amendment would leave someone in possession of explosives open to prosecution, and I cannot see how that would encourage decommissioning.