New Clause 1 — Commencement

Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 9th January 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

'.—This Act shall not come into force until after the Commission established under section 7 of the 1997 Act shall have laid a report before both Houses of Parliament on progress made in decommissioning since the coming into effect of the 1997 Act.'.—[Mr. Quentin Davies.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

The new clause stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend Mr. Blunt, Mr. Trimble, and his colleagues the hon. Members for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) and for North Down (Lady Hermon).

As everyone can see, the object of the new clause is to ensure that, before the Bill comes into force, a report is made to Parliament by the international commission and General de Chastelain. I assume that, if a report is made to Parliament in those circumstances, one will also be made, if it so wishes, to the Dail. Decommissioning is clearly a joint matter. Indeed, we know that a lot of the arms concerned are south of the border.

When I drafted the new clause, I in no way wished to be discourteous to the Republic or the Dail—far from it. It would be discourteous to put before the Committee a new clause that assumed that anything particular should happen in Dublin. That is not our business, but for the avoidance of doubt I make it plain that if our Irish colleagues followed the same line of argument that I shall set out, the report would be made there. I do not wish to alter the essential balance of the decommissioning process as one involving both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Both sides are equally committed to its success.

I tabled the new clause because there is a general feeling across the parties and throughout Northern Ireland that one of the weaknesses of the structure set up in 1997 was the lack of provision, or the lack of clarity of such provision as there was, for reporting. I do not blame our predecessors in 1997 for any such shortcoming and certainly not General de Chastelain or his colleagues. If there are any shortcomings, they are in the arrangements that were made in 1997 and the provisions that were passed at that time.

No blame is directed towards our predecessors in 1997. We learn from experience. Indeed, it would be unnatural if, after five years—we are compelled to roll over the regime; the Government have defeated our amendment, so the regime will be rolled over for five years rather than one in the first instance—we could make no improvements or draw no lessons from the provisions that were put through the House five years ago.

The Bill introduced five years ago was the background for the agreement between the two Governments in August 1997. Article 4(d) of that agreement laid a duty on the commission

"to report periodically to both Governments and, through whatever mechanism they may establish for that purpose, the other participants in political negotiations in Northern Ireland."

What has been unsatisfactory is that it has not been absolutely clear whether the reports that have gone to the two Governments have been limited to those that have been published by the two Governments.

The agreement stated:

"through whatever mechanism they may establish for that purpose, the other participants in political negotiations in Northern Ireland."

Did that mean that the two Governments had direct responsibility for reporting to the participants in the agreement and not to the public as a whole? There is still a certain amount of ambiguity. We do not know whether General de Chastelain has told the Governments more than he has told the public in the series of very brief, bare press announcements that he has seen fit to make over the past five years. I would like to hear from the Minister. It would reassure many hon. Members if we felt that we knew a little more about what was going on, and whether the Government have had other reports from General de Chastelain, or have received only the documents that we have received.

Would the Minister be kind enough, if she has a moment, to note that question down either mentally or on a piece of paper? It would be very nice, if she catches your eye later, Mrs. Heal, to have an answer. Have the Government received any reports in addition to those that General de Chastelain has made public?

If the Government do have any information that has not been put in the public domain directly by General de Chastelain, has information been passed on selectively to any of the participants in the process? Such selective passing on would be consistent with the terms of the agreement that I read out, but it would be an undesirable way of proceeding. It would cause considerable concern if some participants had information that other participants did not. It is what we would have called in my City days a false market. It would have been the basis for all kinds of rumours and speculation and be very damaging to the process.

It would be nice to know that the Government know nothing other than what we all know as a result of the public statements, but that has not been said explicitly; perhaps it could be said by the Minister.

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

It may help to clarify matters if I say at the outset that all of the reports that we have received from the international commission have been published in full. Therefore, we have no information that is not in the public domain.

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

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for responding so promptly to my request and giving us that clear assurance. It is extremely helpful.

Let us focus on the kind of reporting that we have had from the international commission and General de Chastelain, and decide whether to take the opportunity to indicate to the commission or the general that, in future, we would like reporting to be conducted on a slightly different basis. Reporting is currently, formally at least, to the two Governments. The Minister has just said that the two Governments do not keep the information to themselves; they have passed on everything that they have available. She implies that the Government will continue with that procedure. If so, I very much welcome that.

In a debate such as this, it would be unnatural not to be frank about the fact that, in some quarters in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in this country, the feeling has been expressed that the reports have been so restrictive and discreet that it has been difficult to form a clear view of what is going on. I do not want to criticise General de Chastelain for that, because he must take the decisions himself. He bears responsibility for ensuring that the process is conducted as effectively as possible and that anything that he does contributes to the progress of decommissioning and does not interrupt it. I therefore understand his nervousness, when he comes to put pen to paper, in deciding what kind of report to provide.

General de Chastelain would accept, however, that it would be unfortunate if his reports gave rise to widely differing interpretations of the situation that they sought to depict. To read some of his reports has been like divining the Delphic oracle: it has been difficult to be clear about the interpretation that one should place on the words used. One word that constantly comes up is "significant", which General de Chastelain used to describe the welcome but belated act of decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA at the end of October.

The uncertainty has been made worse because of the interventions of Mr. Robinson on Second Reading.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Conservative, East Devon

Earlier in our debate, the Minister of State said that the decommissioning that had occurred was "important", whereas the word that we have heard used to date is "significant". Does my hon. Friend agree that, given that words are so crucial—indeed, they are all that we have to go on because we do not know the details of General de Chastelain's findings—we must know whether the amount that has been decommissioned is important or whether there has been an important step in the decommissioning process?

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

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, because he bears out the danger of too restricted a use of words. If the only description given to an act of decommissioning is a simple adjective such as "significant" or "important", nobody knows whether significant differs from important, or whether important is more or less than significant. Nobody knows quite how to interpret those statements, and the statements themselves become the subject of an enormous amount of speculation. Rather than contributing to credibility and public confidence, they contribute to a sense of uncertainty and dispute. That is extremely regrettable.

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

I do not want to be mischievous, but what I actually said was "credible".

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

Those words are all subjective. What is credible? What is significant? What is important?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will assess how the Minister could deem it to have been "credible" without knowing the amount of weapons that have been decommissioned. One could say that the very fact that decommissioning occurred made the event significant, but to say that there has been a credible act of decommissioning surely requires the Government to know the amount of decommissioning.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes an irrefutable point. If all that the Government know is what General de Chastelain said in public—they have just told us that that is the case—which is that the event was significant, nobody in the Government can take responsibility for using any other adjective than "significant". To use any other adjective adds to the meaning in a way that is not based on knowledge of the facts. It is therefore a completely irresponsible use of language. I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments. If the Minister would like to intervene again, I shall give her the opportunity to do so.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke 6:45 pm, 9th January 2002

On the word "significant", does my hon. Friend recall that General de Chastelain acknowledged that even one round of ammunition was significant? That suggests that the word "significant" is subject to a variety of interpretations.

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

Indeed.

When I took the first of that series of interventions I was interrupted from reaching for my copy of Hansard. I was about to read to the Committee some remarks that are enormously pertinent to the point that we have reached in our debate. The hon. Member for Belfast, East said:

"In the desire to know and to test what the general considers significant"— he refers, of course, to General de Chastelain—

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

I asked whether the general regarded his meeting with us that day as significant. He said that yes, it was. That might give the House some idea of how easily he is persuaded that any event is of significance."

The key point in the quotation is this:

"I then asked him whether, if the IRA had decommissioned one gun—just one—he would have considered that to be significant. He said, 'Yes, I would.'"—[Hansard, 17 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 84.]

That quotation from Hansard is, I fear, extremely—dare I use the word?—significant. It is also—advisedly, let me add a word of my own—extremely worrying, because that statement has cast a great deal of doubt on whether the act by Sinn Fein-IRA was meaningful, if "significant" carries the sense of meaningful.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

What specific proportion of guns and weapons would the hon. Gentleman regard as significant? He must have a benchmark in mind if we are to make sense of the points that he is making.

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

No, I do not. The drift of my argument is, and will be, that this is not a sensible way of conducting a reporting process. That is why the Opposition tabled the new clause, which seeks to improve the reporting process. I do not wish to be too prescriptive. It would not be right, having given the international commission the task of overseeing decommissioning, to be too prescriptive about what it does. I do not intend that Parliament should send the commission some kind of form to fill out every time there is an act of decommissioning. That would be absurd.

However, I take this opportunity to say that I believe that a major contribution could be made to the credibility of the whole exercise and to the confidence that people have in its completion if General de Chastelain could be given an opportunity to set out in writing, objectively and in his own hand, an account of the progress that he believes he has achieved over the past five years. I understand that he would be in an invidious position if he simply made a public statement in response to the comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. General de Chastelain probably feels that he could not possibly be in the business of responding to statements made by Westminster or Stormont politicians, or politicians who happen to be in both those Parliaments.

The new clause seeks to give the General the opportunity to give an account of the whole of the past five years and to set the record straight where necessary. I leave it to General de Chastelain to decide whether, in the light of the reported conversation that he had with the hon. Member for Belfast, East, he thinks that there is a need to set the record straight. I also leave it to him to use such language as he thinks is appropriate in such a report. However, I express the personal hope that if he does so—and if the Committee agrees the new clause, he will no doubt do so—his comments will be, as far as possible, factually based, if not to the extent of itemising every item of ammunition, ordnance or armaments that is handed over because I can see that there may be arguments for not doing that. In that way, people will be able to measure progress towards the shared aim of decommissioning.

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

I wish to check the purpose of the new clause. The hon. Gentleman has just said that it is an attempt to obtain full reports from de Chastelain, but it says that the Act will not come into force until a report is produced. Therefore, one consequence of the new clause might be to delay the implementation of the legislation. How much is that a consideration? That would mean that if de Chastelain made a nil report, it could still be a mechanism under which the Act would be implemented.

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

The hon. Gentleman asks whether it is sensible to make our proposal in the form in which it is expressed in the new clause. I believe that it is. We have plenty of time before 26 February, if we act on an agreed basis here and in the other place, to make progress on the Bill and pass it into law so that we can continue the regime seamlessly beyond that date. If the Government accept the new clause, I see no problem. The Bill will go forward in its amended form, so that is not a practical problem.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what would happen if the general produced a nil report. That would be a depressing event, but the sooner we knew about it the better. There can be no merit in continuing with a false process, with everybody under the impression that progress has been made when it has not. Progress has been made apparently, in terms of the first Sinn Fein-IRA decommissioning in October. I greatly welcomed that at the time and regarded it as significant progress. If the hon. Gentleman tells me that I was wrong and that only one rusty old musket was handed over, or a single bullet—something insultingly small—that would be very worrying, but the sooner we knew that that was what had happened, the better. There can be no merit in brushing reality under the carpet, and it is certainly wrong to do so in a democracy. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the process is a facade is horrific, but if the effect of the new clause were to be to bring forward the publication of such bad news, it would be better than to continue to conceal it. I have explained the rationale behind the proposal and I assume that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied, as he is about to leave. [Interruption.] My comment may mean that he will delay his dinner by a few minutes.

I express the hope that if the new clause is accepted, General de Chastelain will say something about the criteria or circumstances that would enable him to determine that the process has been completed—as we all hope he will one day—because it would be helpful for the credibility of the exercise and have a positive effect on public confidence. There will never be a time when not a single illegal weapon exists in Northern Ireland, because that will never happen in any human community. There are illegal weapons in Lincolnshire, for example, but they are not a major problem and I trust that they never will be. However, it is not possible to state categorically that no illegal weapons exist in any one region of the earth. That is not a reasonable expectation.

What would constitute the end of the process? What would enable the general to make that determination? I hope that his answer will not be that he will never be able to say that. If so, by definition, the Belfast agreement will never be implemented and the peace process will never be concluded. Anyone who has made concessions—and the Government have made many more than were necessary—will have made them in vain. Public confidence would collapse if the exercise were to lead nowhere. The general is a man of great distinction in his profession, as are his colleagues, and I cannot believe that they would preside over such a process if they thought that they could not honestly and effectively make a determination that the process had been concluded.

What would be the criteria for determining that the process had concluded? Those who have studied natural sciences are used to the discipline that before launching an experiment one must state the thresholds that it must meet before it can be said that it has proved something. We similarly need to know what hurdles must be overcome before the final determination can be made, in the right circumstances and when all parties have made the requisite contribution to the decommissioning process. The general has not been asked to comment on that point and it would be wrong for him to have a casual conversation and throw out some informal suggestions on such a matter. It would be better to make a considered and objective statement, such as in a report to this Parliament. I assume that the report would be made in parallel to the Dail.

I have explained the intention behind the new clause, and I hope that the Minister will agree that nothing that I have said runs counter to the Government's objectives and hopes. I hope that the Government will not contract that dreadful old Whitehall disease of "not invented here" and use that excuse for not accepting the new clause. If they do accept it, it would be helpful in continuing the process and enhancing public confidence in it.

Photo of Patsy Calton Patsy Calton Liberal Democrat, Cheadle

I commend the comments made by Mr. Barnes. He demonstrated conclusively that the new clause has all the potential of a wrecking amendment that would halt the peace process. That should not be allowed to happen. We wish to make progress with the peace process as my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik said earlier when he quoted the words of Mr. Mandelson about the need for a series of small steps and an increase in the use of the democratic process.

I welcome the Minister's confirmation that the IICD reports are all in the public domain and will presumably remain so. We need to move forwards and it is useful to know what is happening, but the future of the Bill—or of the peace process—should not depend on that.

If we were given a report that gave the impression that not much progress on decommissioning had been made, that could be used by the Opposition to reject the Bill, and by IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups to say that they need not do anything to further the process. We cannot allow that position to arise.

Most of the debate on decommissioning focuses on the IRA, as Sinn Fein members have positions in the Northern Ireland Executive. However, we cannot forget that loyalist paramilitary violence has been the most prevalent in recent months. At every stage, we must remind ourselves of loyalist violence. Those groups must also feel pressurised into decommissioning their weapons.

On behalf of my party, I oppose the new clause.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke 7:00 pm, 9th January 2002

I am amazed by the contribution from Mrs. Calton. She began by saying that she objected to the new clause because it was a wrecking amendment. In fact, it is the very opposite. It is a strengthening measure, and an effort to breathe life into the decommissioning process. To present the new clause as an attempt to wreck the process of decommissioning beggars belief.

The hon. Member for Cheadle said that the decommissioning process should be a series of small steps. I think that my hon. Friend Mr. Davies, who moved new clause 1, would argue that the new clause is indeed one of those small steps. It is a way to inject confidence into the decommissioning process

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for the overwhelming majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland, confidence will be found not in the presentation of reports but in the visual demonstration of the destruction of weapons and explosives? Does he also agree that the hope and confidence engendered initially when the Loyalist Volunteer Force first visibly destroyed illegal weapons is what is required? Unionists need to see something being decommissioned to believe that the process is going ahead. After all, nationalists see observation towers being demolished.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke

I strongly agree. My hon. Friend is surely right to say that the real test of confidence ultimately will be the visible and practical process of on-going decommissioning. I do not quarrel with that argument at all. Indeed, I endorse it, but I ask my hon. Friend to bear with me while I develop my own argument, which is that, on the way to that ultimate objective, there is a place for reports that are more detailed and substantial than those submitted by the general.

The hon. Member for Cheadle opposed the new clause, and appeared to argue that it would be dreadful if a report were negative and indicated that not much progress had been made. However, do we want the process to continue on the basis of a lie, or of ignorance? If no substantial progress has been made with decommissioning, it is imperative that we know about it. I am appalled that a serious argument can be built on the basis that it is better to be ignorant than to know that something is going wrong.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the symbolism associated with the first step towards decommissioning is the core point here? I have heard Conservative Members say that they are satisfied that the IRA took a landmark decision to begin the decommissioning process. Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that that, more than the numbers of bullets or ounces of explosives involved, is the core point that we are discussing?

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke

I do not accept that argument, although I wish that I could. I might be able to accept it if I knew precisely what happened that day in the autumn when the decommissioning event took place. However, as I do not know that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's proposition. That is the heart of the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford was right to argue that a defect in the 1997 Act is that it imposed insufficient specific requirements on the person whose role in due course was taken over by General de Chastelain.

I remember the deliberations, when the 1997 Act was going through the House, about what should be included in it. At the time, it was believed that the provisions of the Act would prove sufficient. The advantage of hindsight and the experience of the intervening four years show that the provisions were inadequate.

Lembit Öpik makes my argument for me. If we knew in detail what the IRA had done in the autumn, we could join the Government in saying that it had been a credible event. I think that "credible" was the word that we finally homed in on, but other words that might apply would be "significant" and "important". Yet we do not know what happened, so I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford that it is essential that fuller and more detailed reports should be given to the Government, and then to Parliament and the Dail. That would allow us to make a considered and rational judgment about whether the actions of the Provisionals—and, one hopes, of the loyalist organisations in due course—can command confidence.

For those reasons, I feel strongly that the new clause should be supported.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I shall come to the Minister's rescue. I wrote down what she said when she said it, as I wanted to comment. I can therefore confirm that she said that the IRA had performed a "credible" act of decommissioning. I wanted to ask what that meant. I hoped that she was going to tell the Committee but, when goaded, she added that the Government knew nothing else.

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

Perhaps it will help the debate if I were to say that an act of decommissioning would be deemed to be credible if it satisfied those specifically charged with ensuring that arms were dealt with in accordance with the scheme that had been laid down.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

That is fascinating, and a perfectly reasonable point. I would go along with it, if the Minister could say what had been decommissioned. That would allow us to judge whether the act had been credible. If we knew what had been decommissioned I would go along with the Minister, but she cannot tell us, as she also said that the Government know nothing else. I therefore do not know how we can decide whether the action in the autumn was credible.

I should like to be able to decide that the act was credible. I have been one of those who have maintained that the agreement will not work. I have always said, when I have intervened on this matter in the House, that I would be happy to stand up one day and say that I got it wrong. I really would like to do that, but I will not be in a position to say that I got it wrong until the Minister or someone else can tell me what has been decommissioned.

A credible act of decommissioning is the key to this matter. My hon. Friend Mr. Robinson made a point that I very much wanted to make when he said that in some people's opinion one bullet, 1 g of Semtex or one gun would be important. Historically, the weaponry and explosives that were held in sacred trust for the cause were not for Sinn Fein-IRA to give away, but one gun would be. However, that does not lead us to the Minister's view that one gun will be significant; rather that has led to a group of people who still subscribe to the belief of no surrender and no decommissioning breaking away from the IRA. Therefore, it is not enough to say that such a move on decommissioning is credible because some IRA members are prepared to go along with something.

The Minister also said that this measure was reasonable because decommissioning was a long-term process. For it to be a long-term process, a lot of material must be decommissioned. There is not much else to do, and what there is will not take five minutes. If the Minister can justify the Bill by saying that decommissioning is a long-term process, I assume that she knows that there is a large amount of material to be decommissioned; otherwise, how can it be a long process? Yet she has told us that she does not know more than we do. The argument that decommissioning is a long-term process and that all our concerns are unreasonable falls on the Minister's admission that she does not know any more than we do.

I hope that, even at this stage, the Minister will consider accepting the new clause.

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

I think that I said that implementing the Belfast agreement is a long process. We have seen the start of decommissioning, which is when the debate about what is credible, significant and important started. The start of decommissioning is important and should be acknowledged.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Yes, if that is what the Minister said or intended to say, I readily accept that. It is not what I understood her to say, but I will not make an issue of it. I accept entirely what she says and tomorrow's Official Report will provide clarification one way or the other.

I ask the Minister to consider accepting the new clause, which I judge to be very modest. I do not believe it to impose a strenuous requirement. Indeed, it is with some trepidation that I say to my hon. Friend Mr. Davies that he could have made the new clause even stronger had he wanted. In her very brief contribution, Mrs. Calton referred to a negative report. The new clause merely requires the general to say something; I think that it would be helpful for him to tell us something rather than just say something. To say that nothing had happened would prompt us to ask whether to go down this route; to say that only one gun had been decommissioned would be pretty negative.

If the report is submitted to Parliament, as the new clause proposes—and I say this as much to those on my Front Bench as to the Minister—it should include an assessment of the overall quantity of arms and explosives that are to be decommissioned. There is no way of judging significance until we know how much the commission thinks is to be decommissioned. In addition, it would be enormously helpful to know how much of that the commission has actually seen. I suggest that that information should be required to be laid before Parliament. Then we can begin to assess what has been going on.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke 7:15 pm, 9th January 2002

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would also be helpful in such a report if the inspector could confirm that he stayed until the end of the process and did not leave IRA men with the weapons that had allegedly just been put out of action?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I have a long list of items that I think should be included in a report, but that is not one of them, so I am eternally grateful to my hon. Friend for adding to the list. I shall come to some of the others shortly. However, my hon. Friend makes a very relevant point: unless we see what is going on for the whole of the process, how do we know whether it is credible or significant?

The report, after assessing how much material there is and saying how much the commission has seen, must state how much material has been put beyond use. Credibility can be determined only when we know how much material is beyond use. I understood the general to say not that a significant amount of arms had been decommissioned but that the event was significant. Given that, historically, parts of Sinn Fein-IRA have always said that they will decommission nothing, we come back to the general's point that even one bullet, as Mr. Robinson said, is a significant event. So that tells us nothing. We have to know how much has been put beyond use.

We also need to know how such material was put beyond use. The arms and explosives could be put beyond use in such a way that they were still usable. I imagine that some in the terrorist organisations would honour their commitment to give nothing away by sealing something up while knowing that as long as it was still usable, they had not destroyed it. If material had been put beyond use in such a way that, if it could be reached, it could be used, the report should say what arrangements were in place for the repeat visiting of the sites to ensure that, once sealed, material could not be used without breaking those seals. We would need to be assured, in more than one report, that inspections were continuing so that weapons were permanently beyond use.

If the report is to include an assessment of what the commission considers to be the total quantity of material, we would need to know how it came by that information. To what extent has the commission had any dealings with the security services or the police in Northern Ireland or in the Republic? If it has not had any such liaison, where has it got its information about how much material is to be decommissioned? Presumably the only other way of finding out is to listen to the terrorists, and I would not take anything they said at face value.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I must try to resist this urge to intervene; it is a very bad habit, and as a Whip I would have discouraged it. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the new clause would impose no such requirements on the commission to include that kind of detail? It would require the commission to say nothing new. That is why I think that Mrs. Calton was right to query the motives behind the new clause, which would not achieve the objectives set out by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

The hon. Lady, as a former Whip, will know the lack of wisdom of intervening. She will also know that for an existing Whip, such as myself, speaking is not held to be a particularly useful activity either, so she may have some sympathy. Her point highlights why I said, as gently as possible, that some of my comments were aimed at both Front-Bench teams.

I accept what the Minister says; if she does not like this new clause but agrees with the principle, it is open to her to say that she will table another one that will go even further. I would be delighted if she was willing to offer us that, and would come into the Lobby with her. However, she does not appear to want to intervene again, so she clearly has the habit under control.

The Minister rightly said earlier that there is a tendency always to talk about Sinn Fein-IRA. I believe that we should all put it on record as often as possible that the purpose of this debate—indeed, of any debate about decommissioning—is the decommissioning of all weapons and explosives, irrespective of who holds them. Perhaps we can do business with Sinn Fein-IRA; I do not think so, but other people do. However, the weapons and explosives are moving to another group of people who will not hand them over, so dealing with only one organisation, from whichever side of the divide, will never be adequate.

What worries me most about resistance to the new clause is the spin that is being put on these proceedings: why should the Opposition be concerned? Why should we be trying to change the legislation when what is going on is positive? The word "significant" is being used positively. The word "credibility" has come up. All sorts of comments have been made about the fact that we are making real progress with decommissioning, yet the truth—rather than the spin—is that we simply do not know.

Thus far, the loyalist paramilitaries are the only people to have done anything—a point that is overlooked. The general Unionist community in Northern Ireland has seen almost nothing. Mr. Beggs made the point that watch towers had been taken down, so the nationalist community had seen some result. The Unionist community has seen nothing that reassures it, yet it is from that community that the major concessions have come throughout the process.

It is not too late to introduce a confidence-building measure—the whole debate on the Northern Ireland peace process has consisted of such measures. The Unionist community needs a confidence-building measure to show that there is transparency in the decommissioning debate. The people of Northern Ireland as a whole need reassurance that, in return for the concessions that they are making, there really is credible decommissioning.

The Minister could be proved right by accepting the new clause and then saying, "Look, this is what has happened. That is why you should feel reassured". Until that happens, however, I shall take the secrecy and the refusal to explain anything as meaning that nothing has been going on and there is nothing but smoke and mirrors. Until that is put right, the people of Northern Ireland will not be content.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

When I read the new clause yesterday I was not terribly enthusiastic about it. During the debate, I realised that it could not do much harm, but when I heard the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mrs. Calton, I was convinced that such a provision was essential. The hon. Lady made the case well.

Mr. Hunter, however, put his finger on the matter: for an hon. Member to suggest that a nil report or a negative report from the commission might be used as a reason to oppose the Bill, or an extension to it, shows clearly that the party in question wants to hide behind a lack of information and would much prefer vagueness and ambiguity; and that to have the facts out in the open might lead the Committee to do something that it would not do if those facts remained hidden. As ever, the Liberal Democrats are the aides and accomplices of the Government; they have acted in accord with the Government on all these matters. It is thus clear that when Liberal Democrat Members make such comments, the Government are speaking through them.

The hon. Lady put the point forcefully. Like Mr. Wilshire I, too, have been jotting down the remarks of various Members. The hon. Lady said that we could not allow that position to arise. What position can we not allow to arise? Is it the one in which the House of Commons would have the facts made available to it? That is the position of the Liberal Democrats.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for decommissioning, but he will note that the proposal, about which he wisely expressed scepticism, does not specify the nature of the report. Surely he must agree that even if the proposal were included we would have no more information than we do at present. Will he explain what he considers significant? His case would be strengthened if he could describe, for comparison, the measures of success that he would use for a more specific report.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

During my remarks I shall deal with those issues. If I forget to do so, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remind me.

It is essential that facts be made available to the Committee on which we can base our conclusions. As regards the precision of the amendment—to address the first of the hon. Gentleman's points—it might have been better to specify that the general should give precise details of each type of weapon and explosive, as well as the weight of the explosives and the number of weapons that have been decommissioned, so that we could draw conclusions. If the general reads the report of our debate—I suspect that he has plenty of time on his hands—he will know what information we seek.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman's question about significance, no one in the House could judge whether the amount of weaponry was credible or significant unless there was a clear appraisal of the amount of weaponry currently available to the Provisional IRA and each of the loyalist paramilitary groups. The judgment as to whether an amount is significant should also include information as to whether it forms a significant proportion of the weaponry.

An attempt was made by Mr. Blunt to detail the weaponry believed to be available to the Provisional IRA and to the loyalist paramilitaries. That seemed to provoke the Government. Some of their Back Benchers thought that to list the scale of weaponry available to paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland was uncalled for. However, only when there is a common understanding of the amount of available weapons can we judge whether the event described as "significant" by the general really was significant or credible.

We know that at least one gun, one ounce of explosive and one bullet were decommissioned because the commission refers to all three categories.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

More than one gun, one bullet and one ounce of explosive—that is referred to directly in the general's statement.

I think that the scale of weaponry available to the Provisional IRA as outlined by the hon. Member for Reigate is correct, so if the amount was only two or three guns, a couple of pounds of explosive and half a dozen rounds of ammunition, can the Government actually come to the Dispatch Box and say that it was credible? I do not believe that they could do so. Could they say that it was significant? They certainly could not say that it was a significant amount of weaponry compared to the total available to the Provisional IRA.

I must take the Minister to task when she uses the word "credible". Although one might say that the occurrence of the event had significance—the House might at least allow the Government to say that it was significant that an event took place—to use the word "credible" speaks of quality and quantity. It talks about the proportions, not merely the significance of the event. It relates to the scale and the impact of decommissioning. The Government are attempting to spin what the general and the commission said beyond what is justified.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are talking not about the amount but about who describes the act as significant? That is about the integrity of the IICD. That is what I was saying was credible. If the general describes the amount as significant—as he did—the Government are satisfied that there was a credible act of decommissioning.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The Minister is in a hole and she should stop digging. In reality, the only word that anyone is entitled to use is "significant", because that is the word used by the commission. To use that word, we need to recognise what the commission means by it. What the Minister might consider significant might not be considered significant by other hon. Members. So we are not simply talking about the difference between—[Interruption.] If Shona McIsaac wants me to give way, I shall do so—instead of which she consistently chirps away from a sedentary position and never contributes to the debate.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Yes, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who does make a contribution.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

In an attempt to curry favour with the Government, may I ask a related question? I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman's view that the proportion of guns handed in would be the only meaningful measure, but is it not within the realms of possibility that the people who would have to inform us how much weaponry they have might be tempted to lie about it? That has always been the underlying difficulty with an objective statistical measure of what proportion has been decommissioned.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman thinks in those terms about the security forces in Northern Ireland. They are, of course, on record as having briefed Members of Parliament and the press very considerably on the extent of the weaponry held by the various groups during the past few years, and several reports on the extent of that weaponry have been made available publicly.

Everyone has a reasonable grasp of the amount of weaponry available at least to the Provisional IRA. A lot less is known about the amount of weaponry in the hands of the loyalist paramilitaries, but I suspect that they have a lot less than many people in Northern Ireland, and perhaps some of their own members, think they have. All weapons must be decommissioned, irrespective of whether an organisation has half a dozen or 600 weapons, and the Bill must apply to all of them.

Whether one uses the words "significant" or "important" makes no difference to the community's ability to comprehend what the general is actually saying, unless one has some idea of what is significant to the general. Mr. Davies, the Conservative party spokesman, quoted some of the comments that I made during my last speech, which followed the meeting that my colleagues and I had with General de Chastelain and his team.

We dealt with several issues at that meeting, the first of which was that the general was unable to tell us, because he did not know, where he had been. He did not know where the event had taken place. Secondly, he did not tell us what type of weaponry had been put beyond use. He would not tell us what amount of weaponry had been put beyond use, nor would he tell us how it had been put beyond use, but he did tell us, under questioning, that he had left whatever product was at the scene in the hands of those whom he had met on the site—the Provisional IRA.

The general was therefore asked whether the process could be reversed. It was his judgment that it could not, but unless hon. Members know what method was used to put the weaponry beyond use, we cannot determine whether it would be possible to undo what had been done. Clearly, from all that the general and his colleagues told us, there was no evidence, which we could have taken on board, to suggest that a significant amount of weaponry had been decommissioned in a way that would have been satisfactory to us or, indeed, to other hon. Members. There was no evidence to suggest whether a significant proportion of the weaponry available to the Provisional IRA was involved.

The general told us very precisely that there was no programme for further decommissioning, however. No such programme had been agreed. If there is no programme for decommissioning, we are entitled to deduce that this was a gesture, a token and a stunt—some people have called it cynical; others have grasped it as a great event. As it stands, it is a one-off event, until the general has a programme that will lead to total decommissioning. That is the only kind of programme that will convince the people of Northern Ireland, provided that it is fulfilled at each stage.

During the debate, reference has been made to the value of agreeing to the new clause, given that there may be some delay before the general could provide such a report. There is no substance to the argument that this is a delaying tactic. No one could reasonably argue that, if the Committee were to agree to the new clause, the general would drag his feet in providing the House with the necessary report. I am pretty sure that the report would be forthcoming as quickly as the general and his team could put it together.

I believe that such a report is necessary because it would provide us with a starting point, showing where we stand at present, but what is essential is that in a year's time, when the House decides whether to extend the provision for a further year in a ritual that it would undertake for at least another five years, it would know from the report available to it under the new clause what progress had been made in the intervening year. The House would therefore know whether extending the period had any value, or whether we were simply going through a process by which the Government were attempting, by spin and hiding behind an ambiguity, to pretend that the process was on-going when, in reality, the Provisional IRA was not delivering, but was gaining all the benefits of being part of a process.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

May I begin my remarks by briefly apologising to you, Mrs. Heal, and the Committee for the fact that I had to miss the first part of these proceedings because of a Select Committee meeting?

Having listened to most of the debate on Second Reading, I felt strongly that I wanted to speak in favour of new clause 1. I commend my hon. Friend Mr. Davies for the new clause, because it goes to the heart of a key issue in the process: if we are to ensure that progress towards peace in Northern Ireland and progress towards decommissioning take place, checks and balances will be needed along the way.

I come to this issue very much as a fresh player; I am a new Member of Parliament, without deep or long-term experience of Northern Ireland affairs. In many ways my perceptions have been shaped in the same way as those of the British public, not only in mainland Great Britain, but to an extent in Northern Ireland. The impression conveyed today is of a largely one-way process. That impression is clearly left as we see the events unfold.

If that impression continues, the implications for the future of Northern Ireland are very serious indeed. That is why it is particularly important to include checks and balances in the process, so that we ensure that we do not continue, step by step, down the road, with concessions coming from one side, but not the other. If one side keeps giving way and making the concessions in any process of negotiation, the result is bad and unworkable. As we go forward, it is tremendously important that concessions come from all sides involved in the process, not just from one.

When I look back at what has happened since 1997, I see the release of prisoners, and Sinn Fein-IRA members joining an Administration in Northern Ireland and becoming Ministers in the United Kingdom. Steps have been taken such as that involving the amnesty for prisoners on the run, and Sinn Fein Members of Parliament have been given access to the facilities of the House.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is wandering wide of the new clause.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

Thank you for that clarification, Mrs. Heal. I am trying to make the point that the process requires the kind of checks and balances that the new clause represents. If we do not have such checks and balances or ask whether we are involved in a one-way or two-way process, the Government will continue step by step to offer concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA and we will not have a balanced process that will create confidence.

The new clause would significantly improve the Bill because it would require the House to take stock of the exact situation in the decommissioning process before the Bill became law. As we have heard, there has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of violence and an act of decommissioning has taken place. That is a major step—some would say an historic step. There is no doubt that the decommissioning that has taken place has not happened before in the recent history of Northern Ireland. We should pay tribute to the efforts of all involved and to General de Chastelain and his team for securing it. However, it is also important to remember that it was only a gesture that was, in many ways, forced by the determination of Mr. Trimble.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford referred to the fact that we have limited knowledge of the gesture that has taken place. There is still a vast arsenal of weaponry out there and the IRA is still active in some respects. I very much hope that violence will tail off, but can we be sure that it will if there is not a further step in the decommissioning process? So before the Committee takes the next step and renews the Bill, we should say that, at the very least, we want to hear from General de Chastelain about the current situation and whether there has been or is expected to be further progress towards decommissioning.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Conservative, East Devon

Does my hon. Friend not agree that, since the implementation of this process, there has been the very reverse of a tailing off of violence? For example, since 1999, the number of casualties resulting from paramilitary-style attacks has risen from 207 to 302 now. That is the reverse of what was suggested earlier.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is still trouble in Northern Ireland and weapons are still being used. There is no clear sign that we have taken the first step in a steady process of decommissioning. There is every possibility that what has happened is a one-off. Before we make further concessions and send further signs to Sinn Fein-IRA and to all involved in acts of violence in Northern Ireland that the House and the Government will play their part in a continuing process, we must, at the very least, ensure that a check and a balance are in place to make sure that others are with us. The new clause is important, because we must not move on to the next phase unless and until we know more about the decommissioning process.

If the Committee rejects the new clause and the Bill is enacted, we shall send a message to Sinn Fein-IRA that the next step will take place regardless of their participation and regardless of gestures from them and further progress on the decommissioning of weapons. The new clause would provide a mechanism to review progress and to give the House greater certainty before it takes decisions that are fundamentally important to the future of Northern Ireland and this country. It would provide the House with a safety net against a lack of progress in decommissioning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford and Mr. Barnes were involved in an exchange about the concept of a nil report. Surely if there is a risk of a nil report and a risk that General de Chastelain will come to the House to say that there has been no further progress on decommissioning and that there is no sign of any, that factor should be considered before we take further steps to implement legislation that will extend the relaxation of the laws of this country to allow decommissioning to take place at an indeterminate point in the future. Full information must be on the table in front of us before the Bill becomes law.

The new clause drives to the heart of the issue. We must go down the path of decommissioning in the full knowledge that concessions will be made by both sides. Members of the House and the Government must be confident that that will happen, because the people of this country and the Unionist community in Northern Ireland demand it. That is why the new clause is so important. It is a signal, a statement, a check and balance and a safety net for the House. I commend it to the Committee, and I very much hope that the Minister, even at this stage, will change her view and support what would be a constructive addition to the Bill.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire 7:45 pm, 9th January 2002

First, I wish to clarify what is meant by a nil report. Such a report could only be about recent developments that had taken place since arms had begun to be put beyond use. Opposition Members are keen to have a detailed report that would tell us what was behind the de Chastelain report that talked about the significant putting of arms beyond use.

Although there could not be an entirely nil report, there could be a nil report on recent developments. The point is that whatever the report's importance or size, it would trigger the measures in the legislation that allow it to operate. The proposal for a nil report is a mild one to obtain something from the commission, but that does not mean that it is not worth while to attempt to obtain one.

The new clause is a sort of halfway house, but that does not necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with halfway houses. However, it does not meet the aspirations of a number of Conservative and Unionist Members, especially those of the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). They want the commission to produce a report for the House that would tell us the lot and that would be fully open. We would therefore know exactly what arms had been put beyond use, where they were and what proportion they formed of the total arms held. That would be difficult to establish as no one would know whether all the detail had been provided. That approach is consistent with the approach that those Members have taken for a considerable time as they are opposed to the Belfast agreement.

However, those Members who went along with the Belfast agreement see some difficulties with insisting that more and more details are provided. Some of the terms on which the agreement was accepted were based on the understanding that the issue of decommissioning would go to a commission and that we would take the commission's word. It is legitimate for those who opposed the agreement to continue their no campaign and to seek to uncouple the measures that happen to be before us. That is what they are doing.

Although the agreement was a compromise, was associated with all sorts of difficulties and was obscure on some issues, those of us who support it must at least try to clarify matters slightly. However, it is difficult to pursue some issues further, and that is why the new clause says what it does. It does not state what the nature of the report should be because it is trying to attract the support of those who would like very detailed information to be made available. However, it tries to jog things along.

Although putting the issue in someone else's hands and depending on their report is not the best solution, most of us accept the logic of doing that. In the circumstances, that was the only way to square the circle so that further action could be taken.

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

I follow the hon. Gentleman's line of argument, but his case presupposes that decommissioning as an act is an end in itself. If he reflects on the agreement, he will recognise that that is not so. The end is, in fact, confidence building. Decommissioning was one of a number of measures that were designed to build confidence in the process. My problem, which has also been articulated by other hon. Members, is that if the act lacks credibility because it is not transparent, it does not have the effect of building confidence. That is the point, and it is why detailed reports from the independent commission are important. They need to convey something of what has happened to achieve the end of confidence building.

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

I take the point that the measures were associated with confidence building. There has been an attempt to build almost an artificial centre in Northern Ireland and to draw people to it out of the agreement. As people co-operate, they gain understanding and become less worried and their confidence in the process grows. I agree that the information that the commission feels able to make available and that it is encouraged to produce is worth while, especially as Provisional IRA decommissioning is important when it comes to the worries and fears of the Unionist community.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I do not want to pull the carpet from under the hon. Gentleman, but his argument is built on the premise that the supporters of the Belfast agreement, and especially its architects, signed up to hand over all responsibility for decommissioning to the decommissioning body and that they have no independent judgment on the matter. Where in the Belfast agreement does it say that they cast that role into the lap of the decommissioning body and do not want to hear anything more about it?

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

It is not that that role was given over entirely, but there was agreement that it would be part of the mechanism of the procedures. People had many ideas about what they were signing up to, and that is what is important. We are trying to hold people together. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is, and always has been, implacably opposed to the agreement, and that it is legitimate for him to use anything that affects Northern Ireland which is brought before the House to advance his case. However, some of us stand on different, and not easy, ground. We try to draw different people together in difficult circumstances. The logic of the argument of the hon. Gentleman and people who think like him is not given great consideration by us.

Let me say something in favour of the words "credible" and "significant" as used by de Chastelain. One set of people that they upset considerably, and who it is worth while upsetting, are members of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. The more they think that there has been a reasonable and important handing over or destruction of weaponry, the more that affects their traditional feelings and attitudes, and the more they are disenchanted by the process and by those who are involved in the political process. If it were spelled out that massive decommissioning was taking place, they would be even more disenchanted. The act of decommissioning might not be as significant as some of us would wish, but it is a reasonable avenue to pursue. The perceptions of people within the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein are important in how we advance the process.

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

The hon. Gentleman has moved away from the pertinent question asked by Mr. Robinson. May I bring him back to it? There is nothing in the Belfast agreement to preclude the report that we propose. The Act that the House passed five years ago laid the basis for the intergovernmental agreement that provides for reports. All we are doing as we renew that Act is to improve the reporting procedure in the existing structure. It is absurd to suggest that anyone who is in favour of the Belfast agreement cannot support the new clause.

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

I was not arguing that. I was saying that the hon. Members for Spelthorne and for Belfast, East and some other hon. Members want to go beyond what is contained in the new clause. That reflects their initial disagreement and current disenchantment with the Belfast agreement and the developments since it was reached, although it is not the position of those on the Conservative Front Bench. That is why I described the new clause as a halfway house. It tries to get better information and greater clarity into the process and to put a bit of pressure on the commission, but it does not deliver what some Opposition Members hoped it would.

I am not saying that what the new clause attempts to achieve is inconsistent. However, it is legitimate for those of us who support the Belfast agreement now to debate the reasonable way forward in the circumstances. How decommissioning is interpreted by certain republican forces and people within Northern Ireland is an important consideration.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East made an interesting point about the distinction between the words "significant" and "credible". He engaged in a good piece of language analysis. He showed that "significant" could be used to describe a significant move to which the commission might respond. However, there is another use of "significant". Was the decommissioning itself significant and credible? De Chastelain tells us in the report that the amount of decommissioning was significant; he does not say that it was merely a significant act.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

That is precisely what the general does not say in the report. He says that the event was significant, not the amount of weaponry, and he confirmed that both to the Ulster Unionist party and to the Democratic Unionist party delegations that went to see him.

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

Perhaps the general felt that the move was significant, which it was, and that even if a small amount was involved, it was also significant.

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

This is the first chance that I have had to listen to Chris Grayling in a debate. He advanced an eloquent argument in support of the new clause. He almost persuaded me until I re-read it and was struck by the thought that we were not reading the same thing. He described the new clause as important and as something that offered a check and balance on the process. Mrs. Calton described it as a wrecking measure. Mr. Hunter said that that was not so and that it was a strengthening measure. A number of other Conservative Members made that same case.

Before I say what I think about the new clause, I shall deal with the points made by Mr. Robinson and some others.

I understand the thirst for information felt by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. Several contributors to the debate have described their dissatisfaction with the lack of information about the act of decommissioning described by General de Chastelain. I accept that that position is not merely born out of the hon. Gentleman's party's opposition to the Belfast agreement. It has been genuinely expressed by hon. Members from other parties too.

I say again to the hon. Member for Belfast, East, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and others who have spoken in the debate what I said earlier in interventions: by describing the act of decommissioning as credible, I meant that if it satisfies those whom we have charged with ensuring that arms are dealt with in accordance with the scheme, we accept that it is credible. Hon. Members have the right to disagree with that assessment, but that is our firmly held view.

It must be remembered that General de Chastelain has said publicly that if he thought that progress was not possible, he would say so. We must therefore have confidence in his assessment when he says that an act is significant, or when he says that he believes that further progress is possible.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford speaks of the rationale for the report, but there is currently nothing to prevent the general from issuing a report making an assessment of the decommissioning process over the past five years. However, we should leave to him and his colleagues the decision about whether to do so. I do not see how requiring him to do so before the Bill can be commenced serves any useful purpose in ensuring further decommissioning.

As drafted, the new clause would confer on the commission a power to lay before Parliament a report, while imposing on it no obligation to do so, thereby leaving the commencement of the Bill entirely at the commission's discretion. The new clause is clearly intended to secure for parliamentary scrutiny information not currently in the public domain. However, the commission would be at liberty to submit a report saying nothing new. Even if it were accepted, the clause would not achieve the desired effect. The hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Basingstoke and others accepted that in the debate.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 8:00 pm, 9th January 2002

The hon. Lady's arguments do not carry conviction. Clearly, if the commission decided that there was no purpose in continuing with the process, and no merit in enabling the Bill to come into effect, on the hon. Lady's own criteria there would be no point in continuing with decommissioning. I do not see that her argument works at all.

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

The hon. Gentleman misses the point, but I shall not go over it repeatedly.

The reporting responsibilities of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning are well established. They were agreed between the Conservative Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and are set out in the treaty between our two countries. The IICD reports periodically, as we heard, to the two Governments, as is required.

The House entrusted to General de Chastelain and his colleagues the business of ensuring that arms are put permanently beyond use in accordance with the decommissioning schemes. Having given them that task, we must respect their considered view on how best to achieve it. It is absolutely right that we should want to have periodic reports from the decommissioning commission. We all want to see an end to the use of illegally held weapons and explosives on the streets of Northern Ireland, and we look to the commission to provide us with news of progress.

The new clause would unfairly restrict the commission; it is constitutionally questionable; and it would harm the prospects for further decommissioning by imposing an unhelpful deadline. Since July 1999, the decommissioning commission has issued 12 reports. That averages out at about one every two to three months. The last report was published in October. I have every confidence that we can look forward to another report some time in the near future, but at the right time. That must be for the commission to decide on the basis of its work.

Making the commencement of the Act dependent on the publication of a report takes the power to legislate out of the hands of elected Members in this place and gives it to an unelected body. I find that highly questionable, and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford got the new clause past Mr. Forth. I do not doubt the commission's integrity and I do not suggest that it would not act wisely, but I find the principle suspect.

In addition, making the commencement date conditional in that way would impose further artificial deadlines on the process. It would impose a deadline on the commission to produce a report by a set time, whereas the House agreed that the commission should be allowed to decide such matters for itself. It would impose a deadline on decommissioning, because, as hon Members know, if the Act does not come into force on the day specified there is no indemnity in place for those who do want to engage in the decommissioning process.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, we do not believe that the pressure of the 26 February deadline was a factor that influenced the IRA's decision to decommission. That decision was more likely to have been influenced, as we have said, by the persistent application of pressure by Governments in the UK, in Ireland and in the United States, and also by the events of 11 September and the resignation of Mr. Trimble.

As I said, we have made it clear on numerous occasions that we do not believe that the imposition of deadlines is helpful. Indeed, our view is quite the contrary. They damage the process, instil distrust and undermine confidence. I explained during the earlier stages of the Bill why deadlines do not put pressure on others to act, but in fact remove it. They give to those who want one an excuse to walk away and an opportunity to blame others for a failure to act. We want to keep the pressure on. We do not want to give any group an excuse to disengage. For all these reasons, I ask the Committee to reject the new clause.

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

With permission, Sir Alan, I shall speak briefly. The hon. Lady's comments confirm me in the view that we were right to table the new clause. I am extremely sorry that she cannot accept it. She has shown herself to be wrong on the facts. It is not true that the House decided that the commission should report on dates of its own choosing—it decided no such thing. The provision for reports and the rules for reports are those that I quoted earlier in the debate, and they are in an intergovernmental agreement—the one dated August 1997. The House has never had an opportunity to decide the basis on which reports should be made, the timing, the content or anything of that kind.

We have taken the opportunity to try to ensure that the House should retrieve the position and should in future have some influence over the timing of the reports. In introducing the new clause, I said that we should not seek pre-emptively or prescriptively to determine the content of the report or the matters covered. That should be left to General de Chastelain.

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

I want to clarify my remarks. I said that the terms under which General de Chastelain would report were agreed between the then Conservative Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, as set out in the treaty between the two Governments.

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

Now the hon. Lady has made two mistakes. First, she referred to the House having decided, but as I explained, the House did not decide. Then she referred to the Conservative Government; in fact, it was the Labour Government. The intergovernmental report dates from August 1997. That is some months after the election, which I expect the hon. Lady remembers.

The hon. Lady is wrong on fact and in her logic. She suggests that our proposal is inconsistent in principle with the agreement. Of course it is not, because the principle that there should be reports was accepted in the intergovernmental agreement. All we are proposing is that we learn the lessons of the past five years and try to improve the reporting process. I have set out at some length the way in which we believe it is necessary to improve the process.

This debate has been extraordinarily revealing and resonant. I was just saying privately to my hon. Friend Mr. Blunt that when I tabled the new clause I did not anticipate that there would be such a general feeling that we needed to take in hand the issue of reporting and introduce greater discipline into that very important part of the process. Labour Members and the Secretary of State still seem to be unaware—if they perceive the problem, they are trying to hide the reality from their eyes—that, sadly, the absence of any understandable or unambiguous commission reports is in real danger of undermining public confidence in the way in which the commission is monitoring the decommissioning process. That can only be very damaging to confidence in the peace process as a whole.

What I described earlier as the Delphic nature of General de Chastelain's reports is clear. Far from generating a sense that all must be well because we can simply trust the general, the reports have led to the kind of serious doubts that have been expressed by representatives of several Opposition parties. It must be in the interests of the commission and of the peace process that those doubts and uncertainties are removed. If the Minister cannot do any better, all we can do is place the matter in the hands of the Committee of the whole House.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 142, Noes 357.

Division number 125 Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill — New Clause 1 — Commencement

Aye: 142 MPs

No: 356 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 8:26 pm, 9th January 2002

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

Obviously, as we are dealing with questions of violence and guns, the House would expect me to say something about the terrible events of this afternoon and this evening in that context in north Belfast. A number of police have been injured in north Belfast and I think that I speak for everyone in the House when I once again commend the courage and dedication of those in the Police Service of Northern Ireland who so often have to stand between two communities. I obviously condemn utterly the renewed violence around the Holy Cross school in Ardoyne. It would be a tragedy if the progress made last year in resolving this dispute were thrown away, and if the children of north Belfast and the decent people of Northern Ireland were to have their lives and reputations betrayed by people acting like thugs and hooligans, from whatever quarter of the community they come.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and I believe that they fully support those in the devolved Administration and the local community who are trying to promote peace and reconciliation. They and everyone in the United Kingdom utterly reject those who seek to spread conflict and violence. In a debate in which we have had our differences, I am sure that those sentiments are reflected largely throughout the House and in all parts of it. So to anyone engaging in rioting in Belfast tonight, I say this: the people of Northern Ireland reject your violence, which belongs to the past, and the people of this House also reject that violence.

In asking that the Bill be read the Third time, we search, as always in such a debate, for common ground. Unexpectedly, I suppose, there is a degree of unanimity throughout the House on at least one thing: as one would expect, and as became clear on Second Reading in December and in Committee today, the House is unanimous in wanting to secure the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons in Northern Ireland. Where there are differences between us, they relate only to how best to achieve that objective.

It was clear in the exchanges between the contributors to the debate tonight that for the most part we are discussing, in essence, the practicalities. Most of the discussion centred on the question of deadlines, on the danger of sending the wrong signals, and on the need to maintain the pressure to decommission.

As I made plain on Second Reading, the achievement of progress in any of those areas, including decommissioning, benefits both from a degree of contextual progress on other issues and from a degree of pressure. The question of deadlines—or as others may call them, time frames—is to some extent a matter of judgment. It seems to me that there is a view among some Opposition Members that it is essential to impose deadlines if we are to succeed, and that deadlines will ensure success. On that, I am afraid that we will have to agree to differ.

Of course we need a time frame in which to operate, but neither my hon. Friend the Minister of State nor I, nor any other member of the Government, believe that deadlines and public ultimatums will necessarily achieve the objective that we all share—nor, indeed, that they are always helpful. In any case, as has repeatedly been made clear during all the stages of the discussion on this issue, there will have to be not only a time frame that breaks down into 12-month periods, but a debate every 12 months. Not only—

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

I shall certainly give way to my right hon. Friend, if he will let me finish my sentence first.

Not only is there a time frame broken down into 12-month intervals, but it is open to anyone, depending upon their judgment in such matters, to declare that that time frame is a deadline. Indeed, before I give way I shall make a prediction: before we discuss this subject in the House next time round, many hon. Members, some on the Opposition side of the House, will declare the date of our next debate on the issue to be a deadline.

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

The Secretary of State is making somewhat heavy weather of the deadline aspect, but before he started to do so he said that decommissioning had occurred partly as a result of pressure. That was also the position adopted by the Minister of State earlier—that decommissioning was produced by pressure from a series of events. Of course a deadline itself can provide pressure, so the Secretary of State is probably going too far in trying to rule deadlines out completely—although he is probably doing that simply for the purposes of the debate on the Bill before us.

May I put to the right hon. Gentleman the point I put to the Minister of State earlier? So far there has only been one act of decommissioning. The Government have announced a programme of normalisation and a series of events aimed at normalisation. Will the Secretary of State continue with that programme even if it is not matched by continuing events and progress on the decommissioning track? Would it not be in his interests, and in the interests of all of us, for him to be prepared to delay those measures until there is equivalent progress on the decommissioning track?

That might not be a huge pressure, but it would be some pressure. If there were any indication from the Government at this stage that they were prepared to put on pressure in the event of a failure to progress on decommissioning, there would be no need for others to put on pressure. I assure the Secretary of State that if he fails to apply pressure, I will put pressure on—at a time and in a manner of my choosing.

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

The right hon. Gentleman raises an eminently reasonable point and an eminently valid question, which deserves an answer a little longer than a curt yes or no.

Normalisation in Northern Ireland and its society is an objective that we all wish to see. It should be the objective of any civilised Government to achieve a normal society—but there is another responsibility for any civilised Government, which is to protect the lives of their citizens. In the promotion of human rights, the most fundamental right is the right to life, and the right to live free from threats to that life.

The extent to which we can normalise or reduce the military presence—which is not a cause of the troubles, but a consequence of the threat—depends, therefore, on the assessment of whether lives can be protected at any given level of military presence. Any decision that we take on the presence of military or security forces in Northern Ireland is dependent on an assessment of the threat, not on any deal being done. There is no automatic increase or decrease, no rolling programme upwards or downwards, irrespective of the circumstances. We can attend to the normalisation process only if there is a continuing reduction in the threat.

The right hon. Gentleman was correct in his implication—he did not say it explicitly—that one of the elements that allowed us to reduce the military presence and, for example, to take down the two towers, was the reduction in the threat as a result of decommissioning. There are other elements involved in the assessment of the threat, not least the dissident republican threat, in connection with which there have been some successes over the past few months. We continually analyse the threat and if, as a result of the advice that I receive from those who analyse these matters for me, I feel that there is leeway for reductions, I will take that action. If there were another act of decommissioning, for instance, that would allow some further reduction, but I always have to say that against the background of a threshold from the dissident republicans. That is as full an answer as I can give to the right hon. Gentleman.

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

I am focusing on the Secretary of State's comment that the act of decommissioning was a circumstance that enabled an assessment to be made that the threat level was lower, and therefore facilitated certain normalisation measures. Equally, a failure to follow through on that initial act of decommissioning or to make further progress could be regarded as a significant event relating to further acts of normalisation. Although the Secretary of State did not make it explicit, it seems to be implicit in what he is saying that it is open to him to regard a failure to continue to decommission as a basis on which to make a judgment regarding further normalisation. I would ask him not to leave that simply as a possibility, but to consider using it in a way that would effectively put pressure on republicans. The significant effect of that would be that, if the Government were taking action, it would reduce the pressure on others to act, but if the Government were not acting, it would become inevitable that others would have to do so.

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

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I take no great issue with his logic. There are two aspects involved in the assessment of any threat; one is intention, and the other is capability. While I fully understand the great stress on quantity—the capability issue—in General de Chastelain's report, people should never forget that an essential element in assessing a threat, or the lack of one, is people's intentions. That was also significant as regards the decommissioning event. The prolonged period during which it was obvious that what had started as a process was never intended to be a process is, therefore, an issue that one would have to take into account in assessing the threat.

The only other point that I would make in counterbalancing that is that the threat from the Provisional IRA that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about is by no means the only threat in Northern Ireland. We see threats from loyalists and, particularly in the border areas and south of the border, from republican dissidents. I would like to take this opportunity to say that those who so avidly seek the demilitarisation of areas such as south Armagh should place the responsibility for the necessary consequential presence of the military and security forces in south Armagh where that responsibility lies. At present, that lies largely, though not exclusively, with those dissident republicans who insist on maintaining the intention of murder and mayhem in Northern Ireland in order to impose their will.

I have given as full an answer as I can to the right hon. Gentleman on this issue.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

I seek further clarification of threat and intention. We discuss the threat of international terrorism as much as we discuss domestic terrorism. Does the Secretary of State include in threat and intention the further and greater evidence coming out of Colombia of the involvement of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein in international terrorism linked to FARC? Does he include that in his assessment of threat and intention? It seems to many Members of the House that the threat is no longer domestic, but international.

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

Any relevant factor would be taken into account by any reasonable person, and that includes the point that the hon. Gentleman made. On Second Reading, I said that the events that led to an act of decommissioning were probably much more complex than people allowed for, and they included the actions of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the events of 11 September, the long-term commitment that was made by the Sinn Fein leadership, which perhaps did not affect the timing but was one of the elements and we should not dismiss it, the attitudes of the British Government, the Irish Government and the United States Administration, and the world context. These are complex matters.

I understand the passions that dates and deadlines arouse, but we should not assume that, by declaring a deadline, we are putting in our hands a weapon that forces others to take actions, or that if used irrespective of circumstances will always help us to achieve the end objective. That is the point that I was making before I gave way to Mr. Trimble.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, and then I must make a little progress.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Could the Secretary of State tell the people in the "cold house" in Northern Ireland how it is that the assessment of risk lowers when the Provisional IRA carries out a non-specified act of decommissioning, but its failure to take that any further does not have a contrary effect on the threat to decommissioning?

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

The hon. Gentleman is an intelligent man, and he will understand that the Provisional IRA has carried out an act that is unprecedented in Irish history—not just in the history of Northern Ireland, but in Irish history, with the exception of a number of pikes that were handed over in 1798. Any reasonable, intelligent person must take that into account when assessing the intention of the people with whom one is dealing.

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, if there is no continuation of the process that has begun, people may make an adverse judgment. Of course people may make such a judgment, but we should not assume that, by setting a deadline, especially within a time frame that allows us to debate it every year, we can predict with precision the multifaceted complexity of the political decisions that we may have to take six months, nine months or, for heaven's sake, two and a half years down the road.

Conservative Members have a particular view on deadlines, whereas the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists have a deeper, practical understanding of the difficulties, which is also exhibited by Lembit Öpik. If the deadlines had worked as effectively as we were led to believe by speeches today, and if they had had to be imposed as rigorously as was implied, we would never have taken the peace process beyond May 2000. That was the deadline, and no Opposition Member suggested what we might have done in May 2000.

When we passed that deadline there was another deadline, in June 2001—and when we passed that there was another deadline, as it happened, imposed by the resignation of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. After six weeks, the whole Assembly would have fallen. There was then another deadline, because I suspended the Assembly. I do not think that creating the illusion that deadlines of themselves, especially if publicly declared, are always helpful, and constitute tablets of stone that will be observed by everyone—including the IRA and the loyalists—is being entirely honest with those who support the current process.

Some Members have suggested that, in continuing to provide the legislative framework within which decommissioning can take place, we are somehow sending a signal to paramilitary organisations that they need not decommission—that we are making decommissioning less rather than more likely. On the contrary, we are sending the signal that we will place no obstacles in the way of decommissioning, that there is no excuse for prevarication, and that in striving to ensure full implementation of the Belfast agreement—including the putting beyond use of all paramilitary weapons—we will not be found wanting.

I think many Members have missed the point that I just made. If deadlines had been strictly maintained, the act of decommissioning in October last year, historic though it was—whatever questions have been asked about it, I think everyone accepts that it was historic—could not have taken place. At the June, or May, deadline, action would have been taken that would have made it impossible, subsequently, for the IRA to decommission.

We all agree that pressure must be maintained if full decommissioning is to be achieved. I think that pressure, and dedication, must also be maintained if we are to bring stability to the Northern Ireland Assembly—if we are to go beyond just the legislation of human rights, and encourage people to adopt the culture. There is much debate about the level of military presence at any given stage. Of course pressure is involved in all those contexts. We in Government can play our part in maintaining it by, among other things, demonstrating our good faith to the international community.

I do not believe that the process that has been caricatured today as a one-way process of concessions has been anything of the kind. I do not believe that only one side of the community has benefited from the acceptance of the principle of consent regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. I do not see that as a concession to the Unionists; it is a basic principle of democracy for all the people of Northern Ireland.

I do not accept that the abrogation of the territorial claim to the north by the Irish Government was a concession to Unionists. It was a recognition of the democratic decision and will of the people of Northern Ireland. Nor do I accept that the introduction of human rights, or equality of opportunity, is a concession to the republicans. It is the basis for a modern, decent, democratic society, as is inclusive government.

When we do these things, we do things that are good in themselves; but—this is the main point in the context of tonight's debate—we also do things that enable us, through recognition of the rectitude and legitimacy of our efforts to secure a decent, civilised, normal, peaceful Northern Ireland, to extend our own legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. When I say "us", I mean the Government and those who support the Good Friday agreement. As a result, we bring pressure to bear on those who claim the deficiencies of democracy as a basis on which to use violence. Therefore, there is a much more sophisticated and complex debate, discussion and programme of action going on than is sometimes allowed for by some Opposition spokesmen.

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

I will. It was remiss of me not to wish the hon. Gentleman and everyone else in the House a happy new year before I started.

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

I thank the Secretary of State for his good wishes, and I am sure that he could find ways of making 2002 a very happy year for me and for the people whom I represent, in Lisburn in particular. If he believes the point that he is making, will he elaborate on why in a recent speech he said that there was a danger that Northern Ireland would become a "cold house" for Unionists?

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

If the Deputy Speaker does not rule me out of order, I did not say that it was a "cold house", which was implied by Mr. Robinson. I said that we must not allow it to become one. There is a danger of that. Sometimes, there is a natural assumption outside Northern Ireland in the international community that, in a period of change from conflict to peace, with all its difficulties, the people who by definition must have the greatest difficulty are the minority population. I was trying to make the point that that is not necessarily the case. There are equal difficulties for those among the majority population in Northern Ireland, who have to come to terms with issues concerning their own identity, and with not only agreeing and discussing but sitting in government with those who have been their enemies for so long and engaged in terrorism. Those are huge difficulties that no one in the international community should fail to recognise.

I hope, although the hon. Member for Belfast, East may not agree, that I, fellow Ministers and others try to recognise that. From the response, it appears that we do not always get it right but I was trying to raise the issue. I read all the responses, some of which were by him and his colleagues. I hope that the fact that we raised the issue was a measure of our recognition of a problem that had to be addressed. In deference to Mr. Deputy Speaker, who is giving me the gimlet eye, I will go no further down that road tonight.

Many hon. Members seemed to miss the points that I made earlier. I admit that I was not here for the whole debate because of difficulties in north Belfast. I would like to have been here and I apologise to the House for that, but while I was here and listening, I hardly heard any Opposition Member mention loyalist decommissioning. I do not notice people saying, "Yes, we did."

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

The hon. Gentleman did mention it after an intervention by the Minister of State—I happened to be in the Chamber at that point. She reminded him about loyalist decommissioning, but the reality is that loyalist decommissioning has not even started.

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

In deference, there has been no loyalist decommissioning with the exception of a small number of guns that were handed in at the beginning by the Loyalist Volunteer Force. I accept that, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to imply that there is not a huge way to go. I do not mean to separate one side and weigh it in the balance; I am merely saying that, given the problems that we have to address with decommissioning, we have a huge road to go. We have achieved a historic step, even though deadline after deadline has been passed, and we have done so in particular international circumstances. However, this concerns not just the Provisional IRA; a large number of groups, even those on ceasefire, have a huge way to go in Northern Ireland.

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

I understand why the Secretary of State could not be present throughout the whole debate. However, Opposition Members have concentrated on the holding of weapons by loyalist terrorists and a number of hon. Members in the debate spoke of the need for decommissioning on all sides. I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that hon. Members have properly concentrated on all the parties that illegally hold weapons.

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

As I said, I may have missed that. In any case, I was seeking not to score partisan points but merely to say that the problem that we still face in continuing the process is pretty huge.

I understand the concerns expressed by right hon. and hon. Members. When the original decommissioning legislation was passed in 1997, we all shared the hope that full decommissioning would be achieved within the five years for which it provided. Perhaps that was the euphoria of the agreement; perhaps it was the wish that our dreams and hopes would be fulfilled. Obviously, I am disappointed that that has not proved possible.

When the Belfast agreement was signed in 1998, we all took heart from the aspiration of all the signatories that decommissioning would be completed within two years of the referendums endorsing the agreement. Now that five years are drawing to a close, I share the regret that our expectation has not been fulfilled. However, I ask the House to consider the enormous progress that has been made towards securing a permanent resolution to the problems that have blighted Northern Ireland for decades. I have already said that I do not believe that the process has been all one way; nor do I believe that it has been a process of concessions.

We should ask ourselves whether we should countenance measures that would in any way lead, on balance, to the possibility of squandering the gains that we have made. I do not believe that anyone in the House thinks that we should do so. Mr. Davies said that we operated more in hope than in expectation. We certainly have more cause for positivity now than we had in 1997 because at that stage the IRA was not even on ceasefire. Truly historic progress has been made.

In the midst of all the passions that these issues raise, Members of this House who have been involved in the great measures of the past few years—I do not refer to myself, because, like most Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, I am a fairly transient figure; there is a rapid velocity of turnover in Northern Ireland—whatever their misgivings, should not diminish the capacity that they have displayed and the results that they have achieved in terms of changing Northern Ireland. Let us remember what it was like 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

I understand when people say to me, "Yes John, but not peace at any price". We do not have a perfect democracy or a perfect peace, but let us never diminish the historic steps that we have managed to take. If we are to make progress, whatever our frustrations, we must provide the legal framework for further decommissioning by republicans and loyalists. We must work to bring within the process even those dissidents and rejectionists who are currently outside the process. The police on both sides of the border continue to be successful in frustrating their attacks. I am sure that hon. Members will wish to join me in congratulating the Garda Siochana on the recent arrest and charging of the six individuals associated with dissident republican activity. There has been some success, but I say that without any complacency, because I fully understand that one terrible successful attempt by those dissident republicans would have appalling consequences. However, I congratulate the police services on both sides of the border on the sterling work that they have done to protect the people of Northern Ireland from that dissident republican activity.

I hugely regret that decent, ordinary citizens in Northern Ireland are still open to the threat of such attacks and to the sort of violence that we have seen this afternoon. I regret to tell the House that it has flared again this evening, with burning barricades, the use of petrol bombs, a crowd of some 300 attacking the police line and the firing of plastic baton rounds. Sooner or later, those people will come to realise the futility of their position and the destructiveness of their actions. When they do, we will provide the means by which their weapons can be put beyond use once and for all.

I am the last to think that the process is easy for anybody in the House. Peace is not won easily and democracy is not built quickly. It is a long, messy and slow process that, precisely because of its imperfections, gives rise to a natural desire to have those imperfections removed. The Bill provides part of a framework that can address the building of peace and democracy. If it can do so, both are great undertakings to continue, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 9:02 pm, 9th January 2002

It was a characteristically generous and warmhearted gesture by the Secretary of State to start by wishing a happy new year to all of us and to the people of Northern Ireland. We of course reciprocate those wishes. I have never suspected that anything was amiss with the right hon. Gentleman's intentions and I have no doubt that he wants to do the right thing and is energetic and conscientious in trying to do it. However, I am concerned by some of his methods and I begin to wonder whether the problem stems from some fundamentally muddled thinking. There were three glaring examples in his speech, and although I do not wish to be controversial, I must draw his attention to them.

The Secretary of State mentioned concessions. He said that the peace process was not a process of concessions and that many of the things that had been done—he mentioned human rights—had been properly done on their own merits and should have been done anyway. I agree, but that is to misuse—not deliberately, I accept—the concept of concession. A concession is something that is done, not on its intrinsic merits, but as a price for something else. I hope that the Secretary of State does not think that the premature release of criminals with blood on their hands—multiple murderers—should be done on its intrinsic merits. He would not suggest that other serial murderers held in our jails should be let out much earlier than those who have committed more minor crimes. The right hon. Gentleman cannot seriously suggest that early release was not a concession. It was a concession. It is muddled thinking—though I do not consider it anything worse than that—to assume otherwise.

Equally, I do not believe that the Secretary of State, in his heart of hearts, thinks that changing the rules of the House to accommodate Sinn Fein-IRA MPs was justified on its own merits. Had that been the case, the Government should have introduced the change as part of their parliamentary reform measures after 1997. They could have said that people who do not want to take their seats and be here all the time should have some other status, because that would be a good way to run our democracy. However, the Government did not say that. We all know that they had no intention of introducing the change on its own merits, but that they did so as a concession.

The failure to see that distinction is a fundamental failure of straight and clear thinking. If the Secretary of State believes in new year resolutions, I hope that he will try to introduce greater rigour to his thinking. That would benefit us all.

A second and striking example of the Secretary of State's thought processes was revealed when he criticised me for being absurd in supposing that deadlines would always and necessarily lead to success. However, I did not say that, and I never suggested it. I noted that the right hon. Gentleman used the words "always" and "necessarily", as I wrote them down when he was speaking.

When moving the first group of amendments this afternoon, I explained at considerable length that we did not believe that deadlines were some sort of panacea. Deadlines do not necessarily achieve a purpose, and I said specifically that many factors, pressures and influences determined decommissioning. I said that that was true of the very welcome act of decommissioning carried out by Sinn Fein-IRA in late October.

The Minister of State is no longer present, but she mentioned the American and Irish influences that have a bearing on the matter. The Secretary of State has also referred to those other influences. The deadline is therefore just one of many influences.

Our debates would be clearer if the Secretary of State examined the questions put to him, and I should be happy to give way to him on this matter. I said that deadlines have an influence which is exerted in one direction. In other words, a longer deadline will not shorten the time taken to perform the obligation in question. By the same token, a shorter deadline may cause the necessary action to be performed sooner.

In many cases, of course, deadlines will be missed, but they have an influence, and it works in only one direction. In so far as it has an influence at all, a shorter deadline will have the effect of making more rapid the conclusion of the necessary task. Lengthening the deadline may make no difference, but if an influence is exerted it will be in the direction of ensuring that the task or action takes longer.

I do not want to embarrass the Secretary of State by quoting again his remarks on Second Reading, in which he acknowledged that people go "down to the wire", to use his phrase. However, I think that the right hon. Gentleman wants to intervene.

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

I shall intervene, but only to take advantage of the hon. Gentleman's invitation to benefit from his intellectual rigour. The hon. Gentleman said that deadlines work only in one direction. Does that mean that he thinks that there are no circumstances in which the public declaration of a deadline might make the action that he wants to be taken—in this case, decommissioning—less likely to be taken?

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

Yes. I do not believe that shorter deadlines in the Bill would mean that—

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for applying his intellectual rigour to a question that I did not ask. I did not ask about the length of the deadline. The hon. Gentleman has said three times, categorically, that deadlines can work in one direction only. Let us assume, for example, that the hon. Gentleman wants a person to act in a given manner. Will he say whether he thinks that there are any circumstances under which the public declaration of a deadline to be imposed on that person could have the effect of inhibiting that person from acting in that manner?

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

It is possible that the deadline will have no effect. I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that shortening a deadline—[Interruption.] That is a different question about deadlines. Let me be specific. There are certain situations—and this may be what the right hon. Gentleman is driving at—in which a deadline is not an appropriate instrument to use and will not help to achieve the objective. In those circumstances, it is better to have no deadline. However, when a deadline is used, longer deadlines will lengthen the completion time, whereas shorter deadlines, if they have any influence at all, will shorten the performance of the action required. Is that an answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question?

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

It is not. As the hon. Gentleman has an amazing capacity for intellectual rigour, the problem must be my phrasing of the question. I will attempt to phrase it again. I am not asking about situations in which there are no deadlines or about shortening deadlines. I thought that it was quite plain that I was asking the hon. Gentleman to apply his renowned mind to the following question: are there any circumstances in which the public declaration of a deadline to be imposed on people whom we want to act in a given direction will cause them to be less likely to act in that way?

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

The answer to that is yes, and I have acknowledged that already. I have said that there are circumstances—

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

I have given the right hon. Gentleman the short answer, which is yes. I am about to give him the explanation for that answer, which is not much longer, and then I will give way to him again.

I repeat that there are circumstances in which a deadline is not an appropriate or sensible method and imposing one will have a counterproductive effect. That is the first category. The second category is when deadlines are appropriate and will have an effect. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman unambiguously that if a deadline is an appropriate mechanism and if the object of the exercise is to advance or accelerate performance, it is sensible to have a shorter deadline. If the object of the operation is to lengthen performance, it is sensible to lengthen the deadline. Is that a clear answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question?

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

The first answer was extremely clear. The hon. Gentleman finally answered my question about whether there are circumstances under which the public declaration of a deadline can actually inhibit or be counterproductive, and he said yes. Will he therefore reflect on his earlier statement that deadlines work only in one direction? As a deadline can, by his own admission, encourage action towards the desired end or be counterproductive and move action away from the desired end, it patently can work in both directions. I would like the benefit of the hon. Gentleman's intellectual rigour here.

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

This is a very interesting discussion. Indeed, it is more like an exercise in formal logic, but I am happy to pursue it. This is a two-stage process; there is nothing complicated about that. The first stage is to decide whether a deadline is an appropriate instrument to use. The answer to that may be yes or no. It is a binary system, and very simple really.

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

As I am involved in a logical argument, I suppose that I had better pursue it, after which I will give way.

There are only two stages here. The first is to decide whether a deadline is appropriate. If not, it will have a perverse effect and may damage the objective. When one has decided whether a deadline is appropriate, one has to decide whether it is intended to lengthen or shorten the process that one is trying to influence. This seems so intuitively sensible that I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman is making such heavy weather of it. I think that everyone outside the House listening to the debate—if anyone is at this time of night—would agree that if a deadline is appropriate and the intention is to accelerate the required action, it is sensible for the deadline to be shorter. If the deadline is made longer, and in so far as it will influence the time within which the process is completed, the time taken to complete the process is likely to be extended. That is the simple argument that we put when we debated amendment No. 1.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

During the past, confused, 10 minutes, the English Front Bench might have been confused with the Scottish Front Bench.

Is the reason there is so much confusion in the debate on deadlines that neither the Government nor the Opposition have defined what sanction they would use to impose pressure to meet the deadline? What sanction do the Opposition recommend against Sinn Fein in government, if there is no progress on decommissioning during the next six months?

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

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why I shall come on to deal with sanctions or counterweights.

I want to take up with the Secretary of State a third matter in which there is an element of muddled thinking. The right hon. Gentleman twice told the House rhetorically—he may not have expected an answer but he is about to get one—that if the deadline of summer 2000 for the completion of decommissioning under the Belfast agreement had been taken seriously, there would have been no decommissioning in November and the peace process would have come to an end. That is known as the all-things-being equal fallacy. It has a Latin name but we will not go into that.

That is a simple but important practical fallacy to fall prey to, because of course other things would not have been equal. We made it absolutely clear that, after the signing of the Belfast agreement—as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Conservative party has been consistent in its support of that—we wanted to make sure that prisoners were not released until and unless there was progress on decommissioning. We would have linked the two and used that element of leverage—to refer to the question put by David Burnside. We would certainly have used those sanctions.

The right hon. Gentleman was not the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at that time, so it was not his fault that his predecessors threw away that card—that instrument of leverage. We were appalled by that. My predecessor proposed an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill which, like all amendments proposed to the Government, was discarded without its merits having been properly considered. Had it not been for the events in Colombia in August and in New York in September, there would probably have been no act of decommissioning.

The Government have persuaded themselves that although—on their own admission—the act of decommissioning was a result of those other unpredictable events, it none the less retrospectively validates the tactics that they adopted during the first two years of the Belfast agreement. However, they should actually draw the reverse conclusion: were it not for those fortuitous events—albeit utterly regrettable and tragic in the case of 11 September—they would not have achieved decommissioning yet. As sanctions or counterweights were absent from the Government's approach to decommissioning, they had no chance of using those tactics to ensure that the Belfast agreement was implemented.

That classic example of muddled thinking does not apply only to the right hon. Gentleman. As I pointed out, it was shared by his colleagues and predecessors. In practice, muddled thinking has led to a disastrous and regrettable result. It was tragic for the right hon. Gentleman to admit that the Sinn Fein-IRA decommissioning in November was largely brought about by factors beyond the Government's control; tragic, too, that he should regard that act of decommissioning as validating the Government's policies in the first two years of the Belfast agreement. That really is muddled thinking. We cannot afford muddled thinking. The stakes are far too high.

I wholly agree that, even at this 11th hour, we need to introduce a greater element of sanction, discipline and counterweight. This is not the time to go into the detail of that. However, the Minister of State challenged me to offer an alternative policy. She seemed rather surprised when I answered her question. Perhaps she was surprised because she was not expecting an answer. Perhaps she was surprised because the substance of my answer was new to her, but that shows that she does not listen to what the Opposition say.

Two or three times in the brief time I have played this role, I have said that it is necessary now, even at the eleventh hour, to try to negotiate a global package. I have called it a programmed process, leading to full decommissioning. Of course, it would involve the loyalist paramilitaries, Sinn Fein-IRA and the two Governments. It might also involve making some concessions that might need to be made, however unattractive, but no such concession should be made in advance of such a global agreement. I have said that several times in the House.

The hon. Lady has another bad habit common among those on the Labour Front Bench—she does not listen any more to what is said in the House. She has been sitting on the Treasury Bench when I have said such things several times, but she simply thinks, "Those guys have only got 165 MPs. We need not worry about them; they have no pressure in the Division Lobbies, so we can ignore them." It is a little like Stalin saying, "How many divisions does the Pope have?"

Neither the hon. Lady nor the Secretary of State thinks that way as a result of some personal temperamental predilection; they are not that sort of people. It is part of new Labour's culture—its arrogance of power and its knowledge that it can always override us in the Lobbies. Although Ministers may not treat us with contempt, they think that we can safely be ignored with impunity. So the hon. Lady did not know that I had already answered the question. She asked me a question rhetorically, and was rather surprised to get an answer.

I have limited myself—I do not wish to be more controversial than I have to be—to remarks that were directly called for by the Secretary of State's speech at the beginning of this debate on Third Reading, but I do not want to end on an antagonistic note. I am conscious, as he is, that we have had some extremely bad news from Belfast this evening. I did not know until he told us that policemen and women had been injured in north Belfast, but clearly there has been a serious riot.

The only conclusion that we should draw is that we are sitting on a powder keg. We cannot afford any kind of complacency or any mistakes. We certainly cannot afford to lull ourselves into supposing that because an act of decommissioning, however extensive or otherwise it might be, took place in November, everything is fine and dandy and on the right rails. I know that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have never said or implied that, but I am concerned by people outside the House who seem to think that the worst is over and that everything will now be plain sailing. Clearly, that is not the case.

When such a crisis occurs, it is a good moment to reappraise the strategy. I know perfectly well that the Government will not explicitly accept any advice from us. Anything that I say will be dismissed because it is said by someone who sits on the Opposition Front Bench. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government may reappraise some of their strategy. I hope that they will accept that the general perception, even if it is not their perception, on both sides in Northern Ireland is that they are on the run. They are giving away endless concessions, and there is no rigour in the process whatever. Clearly, Sinn Fein-IRA have reached that conclusion; they simply ask for the next concession and expect that, if they ask for three things, they will get at least one and probably two of them. That has been the basis of that dialogue.

Equally, on the other side of the divide, as has been said by representatives of both Unionist parties here tonight, there is an enormous sense of demoralisation and cynicism in the Unionist camp, which feels that the whole process is a one-way street and that the Government simply have no natural stopping place, so the process of endless concessions will go on and on. Of course, those two things are directly linked to decommissioning, as I have said already during today's proceedings.

The Minister of State said today—it was the most despairing thing to come out of the debate—that the process may now take years. If that is true—and it may well be—it is clear that Sinn Fein-IRA expect to be able to buy an endless raft of concessions from the Government, by promising at least not to withdraw the prospect of an act of decommissioning and by saying that perhaps something will happen next month or in a few months' time. In fact, Sinn Fein-IRA have so effectively turned the tables on the Government that, as I have already argued, far from the Government putting pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA, Sinn-Fein-IRA now have no incentive to speed up the process of decommissioning. They have every incentive to hold on to their currency and to let it go as slowly as possible. That is most unfortunate.

The Secretary of State began his speech by referring to the Holy Cross school. It is a tragic situation and it is particularly tragic that, after the hopeful news that we had before Christmas, we are once again facing violence. It is obviously too early to apportion blame, to decide who started the trouble and to determine the circumstances in which it began.

I believe, however, that the whole House will agree when I say that anyone who starts violence or makes the decision to resort to violence puts him or herself fundamentally in the wrong. Whatever the grievances, problems or disputes, anyone who resorts to violence takes a terrible responsibility on his or her shoulders. I hope that no one will suggest that the siege of the school should now resume, because anyone who targets children in a political dispute puts themselves beyond the pale.

The tragic deterioration of the situation in north Belfast underlines, once again, the need to get the decommissioning process back on the rails. Of course, the Secretary of State is absolutely right to say—in the context of north Belfast, it is a particularly pertinent point—that progress in decommissioning must be made by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries. Let me quote the figures to the House to remind everyone of what happened last year. I understand—the Government will tell me if the figures are wrong—that Protestant paramilitaries are believed to have been responsible for 14 murders and that republican paramilitaries are believed to have been responsible for two murders in the Province.

One murder is far too many, but it is clear that, in terms of murders—I leave out the important issue of permanent maimings and the appalling beatings and shootings that take place—Protestant paramilitaries have been most bloodthirsty recently. I certainly do not underestimate the threat from them or the absolute need to treat them with the same kind of discipline and rigour as I want us to use on all paramilitaries and anyone who breaks the law in our country.

This has been an interesting debate. We have covered a lot of ground, and rightly so. Because decommissioning is at the centre of the whole peace process, we have brought in almost every other major aspect of the issue. Even if the Government do not want ever to say this in public, I hope that they will listen to what is said by Opposition Members and, if it is possible to even a minor degree, that they will consider some of the things that have been said in the debate. They might even think again about the reporting requirements of the international commission when we renew its mandate as I fear, if the Minister of State is right, we shall have to do next year.

I hope that the Government will accept the need to adopt a slightly more determined line as regards the way in which they deal with Sinn Fein-IRA. If the statements that I and others have made tonight make it easier for the Secretary of State to tell Sinn Fein-IRA that he is under considerable pressure in the House not to give them any further unreciprocated concessions, our debates will not have been in vain.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 9:29 pm, 9th January 2002

We now have only half an hour left of the debate. I know that the Minister of State wants a couple of minutes to reply and that at least two Members on the Benches behind me want to speak. I shall therefore try to keep my comments brief, not least because the key points have been made, and made a number of times by some individuals.

If the debate is about anything, it is about trying to stop the violence that is going on outside Holy Cross school. We have to focus on the outcome. This is not an esoteric debate about principle; it is about life in Northern Ireland and what is best to normalise its community. If the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen were in the IRA, would they be more or less likely to decommission if the British Government played hardball, despite the fact that decommissioning started in the context of an amnesty? It is obvious that in the world of human nature and practical judgment the hardball playing that the Conservatives propose would be wholly counterproductive.

Furthermore, we have established that the proposal is not a matter of principle for the Conservatives, but a matter of practicality. Let us consider that in detail. They are not concerned about the principle of the amnesty because they introduced that idea five years ago when they were in government. They are not even concerned about the principle of extending the time because their amendments would have extended it to 2003 or 2005, which in the latter case means that we are arguing about two years' difference. That is a matter of judgment.

I am confused about what logical argument convinces Mr. Davies that what was right in much more dangerous circumstances in 1997 is no longer right, even though the Conservatives accept that the policy was successful in moving things forward. When I asked the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading whether he accepted that it was a greater act of faith to have acted in that way back then, he said:

"Yes, that is true. That took place right at the beginning of the peace process launched by the Conservative Government and it required a considerable act of faith."

What has changed? What logical justification is there for the Conservatives to shy away from a lesser act of faith than the one that they took back then? Despite the hon. Gentleman's intellectual formidableness, I am sorry to say that I was not convinced that his point was consistent.

The hon. Gentleman also said that longer deadlines do not create shorter implementation periods. I would go further and suggest that plenty of evidence shows that shorter deadlines create a longer implementation period. When this Government have called the bluff of terrorists and others, the terrorists have simply said, "Forget it. We are not going to do it that way."

In addition, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that in an earlier and happier time the former Prime Minister John Major was willing to be much more sensitive to the genuine need to bring such people to the negotiating table without threatening them with a stick. Why else would he have phoned terrorists, who were not even on a ceasefire, to begin to move things forward? Why else did the former Conservative Government take the risk of an amnesty when there was not even such a thing as the Good Friday agreement? There is a strong inconsistency in what we heard from Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen.

In the same debate, Mr. Blunt said that I

"must understand that in 1997 the Government were setting up a mechanism to test the genuineness of terrorists' intentions to give up violence."—[Hansard, 17 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 107.]

That test was so successful that it actually delivered some decommissioning four years later. What was the logic for having a five-year amnesty instead of a two or a 10-year amnesty? It was an arbitrary call. I challenge the Conservatives to think seriously about that if they expect us to take seriously the argument that they have some insight into the future and into the mind of a terrorist and that changing the amnesty period from five years to one, which is the most extreme change that they propose, would be acceptable.

Mr. Trimble summed up the matter for me. He said that he could create a deadline of his own, and I think he is right. Of all the people in the Chamber, he is in the strongest position to cause movement on that, but how can he if decommissioning is a criminal offence and someone who walks in with guns and bombs is prosecuted? How will he do that without an amnesty? It does not add up.

The deadlines threaten a period after which there will be a greater barrier to decommissioning. The deadlines are based on the assumption that after a certain date something will happen that will make decommissioning more likely, or people will be so frightened of that date that they will decommission beforehand. However, all the evidence suggests otherwise.

How do we know whether decommissioning is even worth while? How important is the quantity of weapons that have been handed in so far? Mr. Robinson was right to say that any meaningful statistic must be expressed in terms of proportion. In reality, we have no way of being sure how much decommissioning has taken place. That extends beyond the IRA to the other organisations. Why do we not trust John de Chastelain, a man who has generally been praised by all sides in the House, when he provides what he believes to be a strategic and useful contribution on the question of significance?

I have said before and I say again that I would take the Conservatives' argument much more seriously if they specified the proportion that they would find acceptable. I fear that whatever proportion was offered, it would not be enough. The only reference that I have heard from them in the past was to total decommissioning, yet that is not a realistic expectation, even in their eyes. They wanted to extend the period so that there would be an on-going process of decommissioning.

In conclusion, it seems clear to the Liberal Democrats that the deadlines are not about increasing the pressure; all the experience of the Northern Ireland peace process tells us that—they are about removing the barrier that I mentioned. If I became the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I would leave the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford with this question: if we look past 27 February 2002, and if he had his way, which is presumably to vote down the Bill tonight, what would he do the following day? How would he push the process forward? If the hon. Gentleman has no plan B, I strongly recommend that he think about supporting plan A, which is before us tonight, as the Liberal Democrats intend to do.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

With respect, the hon. Gentleman had an awfully long time earlier, and I must leave time for others to catch the Speaker's eye.

I conclude with a request to Her Majesty's official Opposition. The Liberal Democrats believe that the Bill is about leaving the door open and keeping one barrier out of the way while other forms of pressure are applied for decommissioning to take place. The Conservatives seem to think that the harder line approach is appropriate. History will say who is right and who is wrong, but I sincerely hope that before Conservatives vote against the Bill tonight, they will remember that they asked for much greater acts of faith when they were in government. In fairness, they were rewarded for taking the risk. It would be a shame if they lost their resolve and their faith in the very strategies that they adopted.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 9:38 pm, 9th January 2002

I thank Lembit Öpik for his brevity. It is appreciated.

The issue of decommissioning cannot be considered in isolation. One of the reasons why my party will vote against the Bill tonight is that we consider it inappropriate to extend the deadline as proposed. Like the official spokesman for Her Majesty's Opposition, we believe that lengthening a deadline means lengthening the process of decommissioning and making the prospects of achieving further substantive decommissioning highly unlikely.

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

I interrupt the hon. Gentleman's speech only so that there can be no possible misunderstanding. I understand how, as a matter of principle, he and his party may vote against the Bill for all the reasons that we set out today. However, I should make it clear that I have no intention of asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Bill on Third Reading, as it would be perverse to have no framework for decommissioning. Much as we would have preferred one with a one-year deadline, we would rather have some framework in place than none whatever.

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

The decommissioning issue was part of the agreement and part of a package. I took part in the talks at Weston Park last summer. We are now seeing the product of what the Government decided to proceed with after Weston Park. I want to make it clear, as a participant in those talks, that there was no agreement at Weston Park between the parties and the Government. However, the Government have decided to proceed with a number of measures. Extending the deadline for decommissioning is undoubtedly one of them, but there is another very important measure.

We have talked a lot about amnesty in these debates tonight. Another amnesty is being proposed as a result of the Government's initiative after Weston Park that it is important that the House appreciate, as it is the price that is being paid by the Government in return for some progress on decommissioning. It is the amnesty to be granted to those terrorists who are on the run and wanted for questioning by the security forces in Northern Ireland about serious terrorist offences, or who are fugitives from justice, having escaped from prison. Who are those people? Perhaps the House ought to know who some of them are.

A person such as Dermot McNally, who escaped with 38 other IRA prisoners from the Maze prison in 1983, is to be granted amnesty. A person such as Robert "Fats" Campbell, a member of the M60 gang that escaped from the Crumlin Road jail in 1981 having been sentenced to life, in his absence, for the murder of SAS Captain Westmacot, is to be granted amnesty. Liam Avril, who escaped from the Maze prison dressed as a woman during a Christmas party for prisoners and had been sentenced to life in prison for the IRA murders of two innocent Protestants in Garvagh in 1996, is to be granted amnesty.

Owen Carron, the former Sinn Fein-IRA Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, who gained his seat following the death of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was caught in possession of an AK47 rifle in the late 1980s, was granted bail, skipped bail and went on the run in the Irish Republic is now to be granted amnesty. Rita O'Hare, part of the Sinn Fein talks team that went to America in the mid 1990s, is wanted for questioning about IRA attacks in west Belfast and is now to be granted amnesty.

Michael Dixon, former British soldier and member of the IRA, is wanted for questioning about an attack on the British Army base in Germany and for the bomb attack on Thiepval barracks in Lisburn in my constituency, in which one soldier died in 1996, and is to be granted amnesty. Charlie Caufield, wanted for questioning about the explosion in Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday—the poppy day bombing—in which 11 innocent people were murdered, is to be granted amnesty; and so the list goes on. The other day I read in the Belfast News Letter that Dermot Finucane, the brother of Pat Finucane, has just been granted his freedom after 20 years on the run—granted amnesty.

We come to another individual, Joseph Patrick Blair, known as "Mutch" Blair. Mr. Blair is an interesting character. He was the main IRA bomber operating in the south Armagh area for a number of years. He is a lifelong friend of Thomas "Slab" Murphy, who is also known as the current chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. Together, they have been involved in terrorism since the early 1970s.

Blair was involved in the making of the mortars that were used in the attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary station in Newry in 1985 in which nine RUC officers were murdered, including, tragically, my cousin, Chief Inspector Alexander Donaldson. Blair was also involved in the murder of three police officers, who were gunned down in cold blood in the centre of Newry as they sat in a police car, by IRA gunmen dressed in butchers' clothing. I could go on.

Blair was also involved in the death of Constable Colleen McMurray in a landmine explosion in south Armagh which resulted in injuries to Constable Paul Slane. I should tell those Members who do not know of Paul Slane, one of my constituents, that he was the police officer who received the George Cross from Her Majesty the Queen at Hillsborough. Blair was responsible for that bomb.

I come to a more recent incident: the Omagh bombing. Blair is a member of the Provisional IRA and that bombing was carried out by the so-called Real IRA. The Secretary of State will be aware of a recent report by the police ombudsman on the police investigation of the Omagh bombing. In that report, there is mention of a police informer called Kevin Fulton. Fulton asserted that he met a senior republican in Dundalk a few days before the Omagh bombing. He further asserted that he smelt explosives on the person of that individual. I can tell the House that I am being informed by security sources that that individual was Joseph Patrick Blair, the IRA bomb maker. One therefore has to make the assumption that Blair, as a Provisional IRA member, was involved in the construction of the Omagh bomb.

That is why decommissioning is so important. These weapons have been and still are being used in Northern Ireland. I join those who have condemned the violence today in north Belfast. We all condemn it. Tonight, on the streets of north Belfast, weaponry is again being used. That is why decommissioning is essential. However, what is the message that is coming from this House tonight to people such as Joseph Patrick Blair, a member of the Provisional IRA who used his Semtex from the IRA arms dumps to give the Real IRA the capacity to explode the Omagh bomb that killed 28 innocent people? That is why decommissioning is so important.

I want to conclude with the words of Victor Barker, the father of James Barker, a young boy who lost his life in the Omagh bombing. Recently, Victor Barker, out of sheer frustration with some of the things that are happening, sent to the Prime Minister coroner's photographs of his dead son. Why would someone like Victor Barker have to do something like that? I shall explain why. He said:

"I have written to the Prime Minister about what I regard as the scandal of giving Sinn Fein offices and funds from the British Parliament. Whilst seeking to have that facility, these people specifically refuse to encourage any of their supporters to give information concerning those responsible for the Omagh bomb. The people who did that are their former colleagues and to pretend that they have no association with them is absolute nonsense."

That is why Victor Barker sent those photographs—to remind the Prime Minister. The association to which he refers is there in the person of Joseph Patrick Blair, a man who is a member of the Provisional IRA and who helped to construct the Omagh bomb.

I conclude by saying that that is why decommissioning is essential and must happen now. It should have happened and would have been completed by now if the agreement had been followed, but like the extension of the deadline and the amnesty that has been granted to IRA terrorists on the run, it seems that certain aspects of the agreement are flexible and can be changed as we go along. The problem is this: the IRA and the other terrorist organisations know that. They know that they have only to hold out and they will be let off the hook. We must not let them off the hook, for the sake of people such as Victor Barker, the families of the people who lost their lives in the poppy day bomb in Enniskillen and all the innocent victims on both sides in Northern Ireland. If we are to build a real and lasting peace in Northern Ireland, we owe it to them to ensure that the gun and bomb are removed from our politics. I am afraid that by taking the actions that we are taking tonight, we postpone the day when that will happen.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:48 pm, 9th January 2002

I am pleased to follow Mr. Donaldson. I thank him and the previous speaker, Lembit Öpik, for their brevity and for allowing some time for others to contribute.

Mr. Davies made a plea at the end of his speech for the Government to listen to at least some of the points made by Opposition Members. I must say that I doubt whether the Government will respond to that plea, given that they are not prepared on many occasions to listen to the views of the people of Northern Ireland or, as has been demonstrated, to those of the majority of the Unionist population. On this issue and many others relating to the Belfast agreement, they have steadfastly turned their face against the democratically expressed wishes of the majority of the Unionist population, even though we were told that this process was based on having the consent of both communities, nationalist and Unionist.

We are debating deadlines tonight, and one of the problems that we have with deadlines in Northern Ireland is that they have been patently and blatantly ignored and cast aside. We were told by the Government and by the pro-agreement leaders and parties in Northern Ireland that May 2000 was the deadline not for the start of decommissioning but for its completion—the handing over and destruction of all illegal terrorist weapons, particularly by those who had a part in the government of Northern Ireland.

Let me say categorically that we want to see both loyalist decommissioning and republican decommissioning. The reason why there is so much focus on republican decommissioning is that although republicans still hold on to virtually all their weaponry, have their total terrorist machine intact, and still target, intimidate and maim people on the streets, they are still part of the government of Northern Ireland. That is what the people in Northern Ireland find so unacceptable.

We have seen the decommissioning deadline cast aside in May 2000 and again in May 2001, and if the House votes that way tonight, we are about to cast another deadline aside. Yet at the same time, a series of measures have been delivered to the republican movement according to a strict timetable—the release of all terrorist prisoners, for example. We have also seen the dismantling of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and a series of other concessions, one of which—the introduction of an amnesty for terrorists on the run—was highlighted by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, who powerfully described the sort of people to whom that amnesty will apply.

In contrast to the way in which the so-called decommissioning event was carried out, we have seen the open and transparent dismantling and pulling down of security installations along the border, in total opposition to the wishes of many people living there, who feel that their security has been denuded and reduced.

Lembit Öpik asked why we could not trust General de Chastelain. One of the reasons why it is difficult to proceed on the basis of the event that General de Chastelain told us had happened is that we saw a previous event of decommissioning, carried out by the Loyalist Volunteer Force, as part of the process. That was done quite openly, and I dare say that the weapons destroyed amounted to a greater proportion of its total weaponry than the proportion involved in the IRA's event. Yet where does the LVF stand now? Its ceasefire has been declared to be over. Why was that event not considered significant in the long run, as something that could be built on? It was because it was a one-off event, and not part of a timetabled sequence or programme leading to complete and verifiable decommissioning.

Yet nothing that we have heard thus far in relation to the IRA's so-called act of decommissioning gives that impression, and nowhere have we been told that there is any programme or timetable that would lead to the total and verifiable destruction of all IRA weaponry—which we, the people of Northern Ireland, were told would have happened by May 2000.

One of the reasons why people are so disillusioned, angry and frustrated in Northern Ireland tonight is the series of concessions that have been granted. How else can we describe the release of all terrorist prisoners, the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the granting of amnesties to terrorists on the run? While that series of concessions takes place, in this House tonight we are to have the Third Reading of a Bill that will allow the IRA off the hook on decommissioning again.

Finally, I want to mention the events in north Belfast. In my constituency, we have seen in recent months a series of troubles in various interface areas. It is fair to say that people in north Belfast do not recognise any sort of peace process. They see paramilitary organisations holding sway on the streets in many areas. They see men of violence who previously used guns continuing to hold sway, and holding on to and using those weapons. All hon. Members will deplore and be dismayed by the upsurge of violence on the Ardoyne road today. I am dismayed that there seems to have been a major setback after all the hard work that went into trying to make progress.

I call on everyone in north Belfast to exercise calm and restraint, and not to engage in violence. It is clear that some people are prepared, for propaganda and political purposes, to undo some of the hard work that has been done, and are not content to see progress being made. But we need to be careful with the language that is being used in relation to the Holy Cross dispute. The events that were taking place as of 20 minutes ago were happening away from the Holy Cross school altogether, in the republican Ardoyne area. That is where the rioting is going on, so let us be careful that we do not fall into the trap of saying that everything is to do with the Holy Cross school. It is not.

We need to ensure that the measures that were agreed as part of a package to try to make progress are implemented speedily and seen to be delivered on the ground. Not least, we need to ensure that the right signal is sent out to people in north Belfast and across Northern Ireland that security will be provided to the ordinary decent residents. The proposals for the removal of two police stations in north Belfast are opposed by everyone in the community. They are opposed by the SDLP as well as by the Unionist parties, and by the clergy, community workers and others. I urge the Minister to make representations to ensure that those police stations are kept open, particularly in the light of today's events and of recent times.

The Bill will send out the wrong signal to the paramilitaries and to those engaged in violence. It will encourage them in their belief that violence pays and that violence works, and I trust that the House will vote against it tonight.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 9:57 pm, 9th January 2002

Our debates on Second Reading and today have given us the opportunity to use the vehicle of a very short Bill to discuss some serious issues. They have been a useful two days and I am grateful to everyone who has participated.

The Bill does one thing only. It extends by one year the period during which a decommissioning scheme may provide an amnesty for those decommissioning weapons. It provides for the possibility of further extensions, subject to parliamentary approval. I will not use words such as "credible", "significant" or "important", but we have seen a start to decommissioning. I do not think that anyone expects all paramilitary organisations to have completed decommissioning by 28 February.

May I say to Mr. Davies that, although he and his hon. Friends cannot agree with the Bill in its entirety, I am grateful to hear that he has committed his party at least not to vote against it? The Bill will provide the continuing framework for further decommissioning, and it is right that we should expect that to happen. The event that happened on 23 October was an historic move forward, but it would not have been possible had not the scheme designed by his hon. Friends in the last Conservative Government, and the regulations, provided an amnesty for those decommissioning weapons.

If we are to fulfil the promise of the Belfast Good Friday agreement, it is essential that we continue to provide the means by which weapons may be put beyond use. The mandate of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning—the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms—comes from the Good Friday agreement, and the pursuit of that objective must continue. The Bill is critical to that, and I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 357, Noes 6.

Division number 126 Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill — New Clause 1 — Commencement

Aye: 357 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.