Northern Ireland

– in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 11th February 2003.

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Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 3:09 pm, 11th February 2003

I beg to move,

That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2003, which was laid before this House on 23rd January, be approved.

The order appoints 26 February 2004 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme. The amnesty provides immunity from prosecution for the offences set out in the schedule to the 1997 Act—offences that might be committed during the decommissioning process. Most such offences are possessory in nature, but others concern offences that may stem from a person's participation in decommissioning, not necessarily centred on the weapons involved but centred on the behaviour that may accompany participation, such as the withholding of information or making arrangements with terrorists.

Section 2 of the 1997 Act, as amended by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Act 2002, requires that a scheme must identify the amnesty period, and that it must end before 27 February 2003 unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day. The purpose of the order is to extend that period until midnight on 25 February next year.

In April last year, shortly after we renewed these provisions, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported witnessing an event in which the IRA leadership had put a varied and substantial quantity of ammunition, arms and explosive material beyond use. The Government welcomed that news because it showed that the decommissioning act during October 2001 had not been an isolated event. However, over the last year most of the news has been less encouraging. The Colombian episode continued to unfold, and paramilitary violence on the streets, consisting of both assaults and shootings, has continued unabated. The break-in at Castlereagh and the intelligence-gathering operation at Stormont further contributed to the general loss of confidence among the parties.

Unionism needs to be confident that republicanism is fully committed to peaceful and democratic means, and nationalists need to know that Unionism is genuinely committed to making the institutions work. It was against that background, that, regrettably, my right hon. Friend Dr. Reid decided to suspend the Assembly.

The Government remain totally committed to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear in his speech in Belfast last October that we had come to the fork in the road. It is time for everyone in Northern Ireland to choose the peaceful and democratic path. It is time for acts of completion. There must be an end to all paramilitary activity. If that commitment is given we can implement the rest of the agreement, including normalisation, in its entirety, and not in stages but together.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been working tirelessly with all involved to try to find a way to restore devolved government as soon as possible. Tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will be engaged in bilateral discussions with the parties, with a view to moving the process forward. No one believes that that will be easy: the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando have suspended contact with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. We regret that. It is not the way in which to secure progress and I urge those organisations to re-engage with General de Chastelain at the earliest opportunity: it is essential that this vital aspect of the agreement be honoured in full.

We have said many times that it is time for violence and the threat of violence to be taken out of politics for ever and for all sides to demonstrate that they are totally committed to peaceful and democratic means. That process has begun and, although it is currently in a difficult phase, the Government must continue to provide the legal framework necessary to make full decommissioning a reality. We will do that through this order.

The House will know of the so-called 'loyalist' feud that has claimed eight lives over recent months, and of the misery and suffering that it has inflicted on the local community. That too only serves to underline the need to make real and substantial progress towards a peaceful society in Northern Ireland where weapons no longer circulate freely. We need to see the end of the mindset that says the retention of arms provides a useful lever in negotiations. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out, that simply makes it impossible for others to engage.

What stands in the way of the fulfilment of the Belfast agreement is the threat of violence. Remove that—end the activity of paramilitary organisations completely and for good—and we can begin to rebuild the trust and confidence necessary to restore stable and inclusive institutions, so that the democratic vision of Northern Ireland that we all share can become a reality. There are even signs from within the Democratic Unionist party that in such circumstances the party would feel able to do business with Sinn Fein. That is surely a measure of the potent appeal of devolved government.

As always at these times, I want to pay tribute to General John de Chastelain and his colleagues in the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, whose persistence and dedication have been instrumental in bringing us this far. Their commitment to this process has been extraordinary and we all owe them a considerable debt of thanks.

The Prime Minister has called for acts of completion. We in Government stand ready and we are holding the door open, as the order shows. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 3:17 pm, 11th February 2003

Let me begin by endorsing what the Minister said about General de Chastelain. I have got to know him quite well over the past year and a half, along with his two deputies—one American, the other Finnish. I formed the highest regard for them. They are men of fine professional standing, who have been prepared to give up much of their lives to contributing to the attempts to solve the often apparently intractable problems of Northern Ireland. We are all very much in their debt.

Obviously, we will not oppose the order. I cannot imagine any sane or rational person wanting to do so. We support decommissioning. It is clear that in a decommissioning process there must be provision for people to take part in that process, and to hand over weapons without immediately suffering penal consequences. We want, above all, decommissioning: we want the achievement of the peace process. It would therefore be perverse to deter people from handing over weapons by allowing them to feel that they might immediately be subject to arrest and personal prosecution on some related matter.

Nevertheless, as the Minister says, it is very disappointing that we must renew the existing legislation. According to the Belfast agreement, the whole process of decommissioning should have been completed within two years—that is, by 2002. We are now in 2003: it is three years late. That is an extremely unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Of course the moral responsibility lies with the paramilitary organisations. On one side is the IRA. Sinn Fein-IRA is a party to the agreement. The Sinn Fein section of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement formally signed up to it, but the whole purpose of the agreement, and of treating Sinn Fein as a kind of proxy, was that it stood for the republican movement as a whole. So there is no doubt whatsoever that it has defaulted on this major, absolutely key undertaking in the agreement. Indeed, it continues to default on it, despite two acts of decommissioning that, as we all know, add up to only a small fraction—nobody knows quite how small—of the total armoury. On the other side, there has been only one, purely symbolic act of decommissioning by any of the loyalist paramilitary organisations. Those that signed up to the peace process have been in breach of it by not carrying out decommissioning. Frankly, those that did not sign up to it have betrayed the people of Northern Ireland by not contributing to what is clearly the best chance for a peaceful and normal future for Northern Ireland that any of us have seen, certainly in our lifetimes, since the troubles began.

The moral responsibility clearly rests on the shoulders of the paramilitary organisations, republican and loyalist. However, as I said yesterday—I hope that the Minister will recall it all too clearly—the Government bear a large burden of responsibility because of the many tactical errors that they have made. They simply have not used the leverage available to them. They gave away the prisoners without any decommissioning at all. Giving away such a major card without anything to show in return was extraordinary. It was an absolutely shameful act of negligence on their part.

As I said yesterday, what was equally extraordinary was giving concessions to people who had not fulfilled their obligations under the Belfast agreement. They were rewarded by being given more goodies and benefits. For example, special status was granted in this place for Sinn Fein MPs. There was the promise of an amnesty—even though we managed to prevent its being implemented—for on-the-run terrorists. As I said yesterday, thank God we succeeded in opposing that amnesty, because as a result that important card remains in the Government's hands. However, we should give no credit to the Government for that. Indeed, they have made a whole series of mistakes, and they should acknowledge that fact. I hope that they will not continue to make them and, above all, that we will now see a greater degree of clarity and decisiveness on their part. There should be no more talk of inch-by-inch progress, as if one can somehow make progress in implementing Belfast in a partial way. The mechanism whereby it was deemed sufficient to secure partial acts of decommissioning or other partial acts, to which the Government respond with a concession of their own, has not worked at all. As I said yesterday, it is clear that we now need a global, comprehensive and definitive settlement.

In Belfast before Christmas, the Prime Minister apparently talked bravely about a fork in the road, but so far that fine rhetoric, which I welcomed at the time, has not been reflected in action. I was particularly concerned at the Minister's response when I asked her yesterday, across the Dispatch Box, whether she would define the "acts of completion" that the Government talk about. I asked her to call a spade a spade and say that those acts of completion have to be nothing less than the completion of decommissioning, as provided for in the Belfast agreement, and the disbandment of the IRA by Sinn Fein-IRA. She simply said that she could not offer a better definition than the Prime Minister did, when he used the phrase "acts of completion". Well, she could define it better than the Prime Minister—by speaking of decommissioning and disbandment.

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

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman now.

The fact that the Minister will not use the phrase "decommissioning and disbandment", and prefers the vague euphemism "acts of completion", is very worrying. What is more, I have noticed that the Government have slipped from using the definite article to using the indefinite form. Instead of speaking of the "act of completion" that is required, they speak of "acts of completion". If she thinks about it, that is not entirely logical. There must be one act that completes everything—there cannot be several different acts of completion. By using such a vague term, she implies a certain flexibility as to what might ultimately be considered as falling within that category. So when she should be sending a signal of clarity to paramilitary organisations, and to Sinn Fein-IRA in particular, she is sending one of ambiguity.

There may or may not have been a place for ambiguity in the Belfast agreement itself. Without some degree of ambiguity and fudging at that stage, the agreement may well not have been secured in the first place. Nevertheless, it is the seeds of ambiguity and the lack of clarity in the Belfast agreement that have led to many of the disappointments of the past five years. What is absolutely clear to the Opposition is that if there ever was a time for ambiguity, it has now passed. Now is the time for complete clarity. Now is the time to carry out decommissioning and disbandment.

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

No, I will not give way for the moment.

Now is the time for the Government to use the phrase "decommissioning and disbandment", and they should not be afraid to use it. As I said yesterday, if they want to use another word for "disbandment" I am perfectly happy with that, as long as it has the same degree of finality. The Government must now say what they mean. We do not want camouflage words, as I call them, which try to cover up the exact definition of the terms of the agreement. We must be absolutely clear about that.

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

No, I am sorry but I am not going to give way at the moment.

The second thing that we really need is a timetable. Indeed, we called for one some 18 months ago, when I first talked about a programmed process, leading to full decommissioning. It is clear that if we get the comprehensive and definitive settlement that we need in Northern Ireland in the next few weeks—in fact, we only have the next few weeks in which to achieve that—we will not be able to carry out everything in that package overnight. For example, it would not be possible to decommission entirely overnight. A reduction in the British military presence in Northern Ireland would be perfectly reasonable, provided there is a corresponding improvement in the security situation; however, that, too, cannot be carried out overnight.

It is in this regard that we will need a set timetable, and we will also need interlinkage. It must be made absolutely plain that if one party does not deliver what it is supposed to deliver under that timetable, other elements that that party might have been looking for will also not be delivered under that timetable. It must be made absolutely clear that such strict interlinkage will continue until the final and complete implementation of Belfast. We should not have any fudges about that, nor should we have any of the resistance that the Government have so far displayed towards the whole concept of a timetable. When Dr. Reid was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I used to use the word "timetable", the Government would often object and say that I was completely wrong. They said that we should not have timetables because they are inimical to progress in Northern Ireland. What nonsense! Of course, we would not have secured the Belfast agreement without a timetable, as I often told the right hon. Gentleman. I hope again that the question of the timetable will be clarified in the Government's mind. We need a timetable.

Thirdly, if the peace process is to be successful, what we do must be transparent. Nothing less will create the necessary confidence among other parties. People will not deliver their side of the bargain if they do not believe that others are going to deliver theirs. People need to feel confident that there has been a qualitative change in the situation in Northern Ireland, and that the peace process has come to a successful conclusion.

In the context of decommissioning, transparency means that acts of decommissioning will be more transparent than hitherto. I have discussed that with General de Chastelain in private. I shall not say what shape that conversation took, but I am sure that many people in Northern Ireland agree with that principle. If the Government are to succeed in negotiating what I described as the necessary, comprehensive and definitive deal, that deal must provide sufficient transparency in implementation so that public confidence can be maintained. Indeed, there is a statement on the record from the IRA itself saying that that organisation wished to decommission in a way that maximised public confidence. We should hold it to that. The same thing applies to the necessary decommissioning that must take place on the loyalists' side.

The other word beginning with "d" that the Government do not like is disbandment. That should also be subject to some sort of monitoring. Given the suspicions and difficulties evident in Northern Ireland, and the lack of performance, perhaps especially by republicans, we need more than a statement. Of course, we want a statement that the armed struggle is over and that the IRA has been disbanded. That is essential, but we also need assurance and some independent verification. We need verification of more than the decommissioning provided for in the Belfast agreement. We also need verification of disbandment.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem is verification? What does decommissioning or disbandment mean when there is no trust in the political atmosphere in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that a Privy Council committee made up of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the General Officer Commanding and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland should be constituted to verify that decommissioning and disbandment had taken place? Would not that mean that hon. Members could then believe that it had taken place, and that we would not be misled by what is, at present, a con job?

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

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in the fundamental sense that there is a need for verification. I am glad that he used the word that I used just a few minutes earlier. We are at one, therefore. We accept the same concept, and use the same word to describe it. He should be very satisfied that we are in agreement. We need transparency and verification—the word that he and I both used. The necessary confidence will come only if we have transparency and verification. He has proposed a mechanism to provide that verification, and the House will listen with interest on that. I hope that we can discuss similar interesting new ideas in this afternoon's debate.

I was about to make another suggestion in respect of decommissioning. I do not for a moment want to change the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, the de Chastelain commission. As I have said, I have the greatest confidence in General de Chastelain, and I think that that is shared across the political spectrum. In addition, it is clear that we need professional military officers of considerable standing to undertake what is a professional military task. The IICD provides that, and politicians would not make good substitutes for soldiers in that role. Moreover, the de Chastelain commission gives us an objective mechanism for determining whether decommissioning has taken place. That is vital.

As David Burnside will be all too well aware, we could otherwise argue until the end of time about whether decommissioning had taken place. Without the IICD, people could always claim that weapons were being kept somewhere. They would not produce evidence, or say where the weapons were being kept. That could go on forever, and the position would be hopeless. However, thanks to the IICD, we now have an objective mechanism to determine such matters. If de Chastelain says that decommissioning has taken place, we can take it that there has been decommissioning. If he says that half an arsenal has been decommissioned, we can take it that only half has been decommissioned. If he says that decommissioning has been substantially and materially completed—that is what we want to hear, the end of the process—we can accept that.

I have that confidence in de Chastelain, and I believe that it is shared by people across the political divide in Northern Ireland. It is difficult to imagine that the views of anyone else would have the same weight in making such a determination. That is common ground, which is good. As I saw the Minister nodding a few moments ago, I hope that that common ground is shared with the Government.

My suggestion is made in a helpful spirit; no personal or political ego is invested in it, so if somebody came up with a better one I should be only too happy. Because, as the hon. Member for South Antrim said, we must all have the same confidence in the objective verification of disbandment as we require in decommissioning, we should use the same commission and extend its remit to verify disbandment. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that disbandment will certainly need verification.

Disbandment means winding up military structures. At present, those structures are not engaged in active military operations but, as we know, they are engaged in training and targeting. They have certainly been engaged in buying arms, in breach of the agreement and the ceasefire—that was what Florida was about, and there may have been other cases. They are engaged in logistics, personnel management and all the other functions associated with such organisations. Their disbandment will be a military procedure. Professional soldiers will be able to get to the bottom of things and verify that disbandment is actually occurring. They will be able to find out what is happening not only to weapon stocks but to logistics, procurement and training.

We should use the de Chastelain commission and expand its role. If someone has a better suggestion, that is fine, but we need some form of independent verification.

I hope that the effect of the debate will be to make the Government go the whole hog in frankness, clarity and decisiveness in the use of language. I shall be most disappointed if the Minister again shelters behind the acts of completion formula. We do not want a theological formula; we need pragmatic facts. We need full disbandment and full decommissioning. Nothing less will do. I explained last night that we have only a few weeks to achieve it, so that we can reach a settlement on all the interlinked aspects, put the power-sharing Executive back, restore the momentum of the Belfast process and, indeed, save the Belfast process. Lord knows that we have only to look at what has been going on in Northern Ireland during the past few weeks—the bomb in Enniskillen and the disorder in west Belfast—to realise what the stark consequences of that highly volatile situation could be if we miss this vital opportunity.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 3:38 pm, 11th February 2003

If we were not so short of time, I might be tempted to reflect on the history of decommissioning as it is more than nine years since the Government introduced the concept. I shall restrain myself from going back over the whole period, but it is worth making some reference to the past couple of years.

Mr. Davies referred to the fact that the agreement sets out a two-year period for the achievement of complete disarmament. Members will recall that, before the agreement was made, the Government gave us their authoritative interpretation of that part of the agreement. Their view was that the meaning of that part of the agreement was that decommissioning should begin immediately. That was the intention as far as the Government were concerned. Indeed, that was also the case for us and for those people who followed our lead in voting for the agreement in the referendum. We did so in the belief that decommissioning would begin that summer and be completed in 2000. But it was not.

I find it very strange that, over the past three years, the Government have sat and allowed themselves to be lectured about the need for full implementation by republicans when the people who have been most guilty of default are republicans. Instead of getting down to examine each jot and tittle of alleged default by the Government, the republicans should contemplate their comparative complete failure to fulfil their part of the bargain.

The Government should never have tolerated a situation where the people who were so grievously at fault themselves lectured them about full implementation. Equally, of course, the Government should never have tolerated that situation developing. There was linkage in the agreement, but, unfortunately, although the then Secretary of State talked about the linkage, she failed to ensure that linkage was, in fact, occurring, so, consequently, we saw the situation deteriorating.

The Government's approach was seriously flawed in the aftermath of the agreement, and I wonder whether they would ever have exerted themselves to try to bring about decommissioning if we had not insisted on it. It was wrong in a sense that it was left to me and my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party to insist on that, but we did. Of course, as the House knows, that led to the suspension of devolution, and then to a promise by the republican movement itself in 2000.

Whatever play of words they might have had about the agreement being endorsed only by Sinn Fein, on 7 May 2000, those in the republican movement unequivocally promised to put their weapons completely beyond use in such a way as to maximise public confidence. It is important to hold on to the fact that a clear promise was made that has not been kept. That promise was made in the form of a statement by the IRA's alleged army council. It is important to bear it in mind that the very clear promise that it made has not been kept. Of course, as a result of that, I and my colleagues resigned office in 2001, which led to the beginning of decommissioning in the autumn of that year.

The Minister has already said how that beginning was not followed through, but there is also the very drawback to which my hon. Friend David Burnside referred: the way in which the form of decommissioning was self-defeating. It should have been visible and it should have spoken for itself, but instead we simply had the rather opaque statement from the independent commission. I understand why those on the commission adopted that course. I advised them against doing so, but I know the reasons that they had on their minds. I am sure that they were well meaning, but they were wrong. The mistake that they made has had a significant impact on the credibility of the IICD. That is a simple fact. They made a mistake—a well-intentioned, honest mistake, but it was a mistake, and we live with the consequences of that mistake. That is significant for the future, too.

The question is what is needed in terms of the current situation. Clearly, we want to see all the paramilitaries decommission. I emphasise the word "all". We have had a small act of decommissioning from a loyalist paramilitary organisation—indeed, the first act of decommissioning came from a loyalist paramilitary organisation—but we want to see all the paramilitaries decommission. No doubt, many of the calls made this evening will focus on republicans, but I want the House to understand the fact that we are just as anxious to see decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries as well.

We cannot make any reference to loyalist paramilitaries without recording again our horror at their behaviour in recent weeks. There is some hope that the situation in Belfast will quieten down, but I wonder whether that it not just because the slightly more intelligent elements in loyalism are realising that there is a need to clean up their act, rather than through any genuine change of heart. Although there might be a slight improvement on the ground, it does not cure the underlying problem that loyalist paramilitaries have behaved very badly over the past four years, and the calls that are made for paramilitaries to decommission and go away—for them not to be there any more—apply to them just as much.

I return to the question of verification in relation to decommissioning. My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim mentioned an idea that he has mentioned a number of times before, although I would have quibbled slightly with the composition of the committee that he mentioned, but that is a minor detail. He was making the serious point that the present arrangements for verification will not be sufficient. There is a clear need for the Government to consider how the IICD can have its credibility reinforced.

We need more than just the verification of acts of decommissioning. Even if, for the sake of argument, we had a situation in which the paramilitaries announced that they were disbanding—perhaps they will decide to adopt the word on which the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is so keen—and made a statement to that effect, would that statement have any credibility? I doubt it. How could we prove whether a secret army had disbanded?

The Government have focused on the need to see a complete cessation of all forms of paramilitary activity—no more shooting, beating, recruiting, targeting or gathering of intelligence. However, the absence of those activities can be judged only on a daily basis. Just because we have had a week, a month or two months of complete absence of paramilitary activity, can we be assured that the paramilitaries have genuinely disbanded and gone away?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

While both sides of the House want complete implementation of the Belfast agreement and, ultimately, the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that—contrary to what Mr. Davies said earlier—such disbandment of the paramilitary organisations, especially the IRA, does not feature in the Belfast agreement?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

The focus of the agreement was placed on decommissioning, because if a private army had completely and genuinely disarmed—with no element of rearming taking place—the question is to what extent it still exists as a private army. We are in the territory of euphemism, and decommissioning was a euphemism for disbandment at one stage.

Even if someone from an organisation said that it had disbanded and we saw a complete cessation of all forms of paramilitary activity day by day, I still wonder how we could be sure. We need verification not only of acts of decommissioning, but of the absence of paramilitary activity and the status of those who had hitherto been part of a paramilitary organisation. Of course, that would involve more than just people who could give the public authoritative information about what was going on.

I refer the House to the comments by Lord Kilclooney last night. He said that we need

"not only decommissioning but real sanctions if those who decommission break the peace."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 10 February 2003; Vol. 644, c. 544.]

To have any form of verification with no sanctions linked to it would not be worth while. We have lacked sanctions throughout the process, and we have made that criticism time and again in the past four years. The Government's approach, since the agreement, has been all carrot and no stick, and that has not worked.

My hon. Friends and I, and those whom we represent, see the contrast between the vigour with which the Government pursue the disarmament of Saddam Hussein and the sanctions that are being brought to bear to achieve that. The Government are making a focused attempt to achieve his disarmament, by means that are primarily sanction-led, with any inducements coming a long way behind, which is a considerable contrast with the situation in Northern Ireland. Added to that contrast is the fact that between 1,200 and 1,500 servicemen who are natives of Northern Ireland are deployed in, or are on their way to, the Gulf. They will be asked to risk, and possibly sacrifice, their lives to achieve the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. The Government expect them to do that willingly while, at the same time, looking over their shoulders at their homeland, where the Government are adopting a radically different approach. While the character of those paramilitary organisations is different in quantity and perhaps different to some small extent in degree, is it really such a different situation? Are the terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland radically different in nature from the state-sponsored terrorism on which the Government are focusing? They will not think so.

Until the Government have more coherence in their approach on these two matters, they will be exposed to the charge of hypocrisy. As we have said to the Government over the years, there is a clear need for them to rethink their approach, to move away from a policy that focuses purely on carrots and to consider the sanctions that they will bring to bear now and in the future on paramilitary organisations to ensure that the agreement that they say that they endorsed is implemented fully by them.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 3:51 pm, 11th February 2003

It is with some regret that we all see this debate running from year to year. I listened with interest to the Conservative spokesman, Mr. Davies, although I differ on the importance of the Government's use of the definite or indefinite article. I do not accept that that is at the core of this discussion. It is perfectly obvious what is the important word in the statement; it is not important whether it is one act or a number of acts of completion. It is also pretty obvious that whether one reckons that there is more than one act or a single one is simply a semantic difference of definition.

I sought to intervene on the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, although he would not accept my intervention, to ask him, as he is so full of criticism of the Government's current policy, what he would do differently if he were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In fact, it could not be substantively different because we must remember that the order before us today is the consequence of a Conservative Government policy that was passed on 27 February 1997, before the Labour party had taken over the Government Benches.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, who refused to give way to me, I am happy to give way to him.

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

That is very gracious of the hon. Gentleman, but he did refer to me. Simply, were I Secretary of State, I would not have released the prisoners without decommissioning. I would not have given Sinn Fein additional bonuses, special status here or an offer of amnesty. I would have responded to breaches, starting from Florida, which the Government did not do, and I would have excluded it from Stormont rather than suspend the whole of Stormont after Stormontgate, as I explained to the House in advance last July. As Secretary of State, I would now be talking about decommissioning, and the need for complete decommissioning and disbandment. I would not be using mealy-mouthed, indirect terms.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

In terms of the hon. Gentleman's comment that I am gracious, I simply say that I am happy to give way. As we have heard before, the fact that someone has a past does not mean that they cannot have a future, and I would apply that to him this afternoon.

In terms of the hon. Gentleman's list of action steps—the things that the Conservatives would have done differently—I would surmise from that that they would have had a different policy: tough talking, quick to react to apparent breaches and probably wrong. One judges the future behaviour of a political party or a Secretary of State on the basis of past performance. I recall that, on a number of occasions, the Conservative party has predicted the collapse of the process, the reinstigation of violence in Northern Ireland and various failures and obstacles that would be insuperable to the process before us. On each successive occasion, its predictions have turned out to be unfounded. I make that point because it is important that we do not play party politics with Northern Ireland. I would love the Liberal Democrats to be on the Government Benches, but not so much that I am willing to try to score opportunistic points against the Minister. She has pursued a policy that few could deny has taken Northern Ireland closer to a sustained peace and a normalised situation than anything in the past three decades.

Let me remind the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that what we are discussing today is not a radical departure from anything that his party did when in government. On 27 February 1997, the Conservatives instigated the Act that we are discussing. The hon. Gentleman said that, if he were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a core element of his programme would be to set a timetable. However, the Conservatives already gave us a timetable of 10 years. I do not think that things had to be renewed over the first five years, but every year thereafter, up to 2007, they had to be renewed. We are therefore following the spirit of what John Major instigated.

We should acknowledge that much of the progress has been as a result of pragmatic decisions by John Major. He was a tremendous instrument for peace and, in the histories of Northern Ireland politics, he deserves always to be given credit for what he did. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford criticised the Government for being mealy-mouthed and for lacking frankness and clarity, but John Major did not tell anybody that he was talking to the terrorists. It just slipped out. It was a leak. At the time, people across the parties said that they understood the importance of what was happening and therefore supported it. The Liberal Democrats have been consistent on that.

The Liberal Democrats support this order and, by and large, its implications. We have not finished work yet and the kind of negotiations that have gone on before—in public and behind the scenes—will be necessary to make progress. I respect the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford for holding different views, but I do not feel able to accept views that do not accord with my non-party political analysis of decommissioning.

Mr. Trimble was right to say that he and his party have exerted considerable influence in the achievement of some of the decommissioning that has taken place. That decommissioning may have been symbolic but we all know how important symbolism is in Northern Ireland politics. He was also right to highlight the dissatisfaction that we all feel about how little has been done. We are a long way from total decommissioning. The right hon. Gentleman's colleague, David Burnside, spoke about the difficulty of verification. Just as the Inland Revenue has trouble in verifying the details of some self-employed people's tax returns, the Decommissioning Commission will have difficulty in verifying what arms have been handed in by individuals and organisations who were outside the rule of law in the first place.

I do not get hung up on the issue of verification because what we want is decommissioning that will materially weaken the ability of the paramilitary organisations to restart trouble. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that we have not seen a great deal of decommissioning. I may share some of the frustrations in his soothsaying, but I will not repeat them other than to say that I agree with what he said about the signal lack of progress of the IRA and some of the key loyalist organisations.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

The hon. Gentleman accepted that a person with a past must have a future; but, surely, performing symbolic acts of decommissioning at the same time as commissioning new weapons in Florida gives the lie to any intention of going down the road of peace.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

It depends on how far one wants to go with the analogy. For example, I have met people who want to give up smoking. They keep saying that they want to give up smoking, but they still go out and buy a packet of fags for weeks after they have made their new year resolution. There is probably a similar tendency towards the use of violence and towards holding on to the means of violence. Decommissioning is such a big step for people who have become used to using violent methods to achieve their objectives that I am not surprised that there are probably significant internal arguments and divisions within such organisations. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but I hope that he will also accept that it is in the nature of the human condition to take time to move away from things that were closely cherished as weapons, tools or modus operandi in the past.

The other interesting point that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann made was to highlight the contradiction between the Government's approach to disarming Iraq and their approach to disarming the IRA and loyalist organisations. He drew the conclusion that this inconsistency meant that perhaps there needs to be a tougher policy in Northern Ireland. I suppose that I would take another view. I suggest that the great irony in this situation is not the approach taken in Northern Ireland, but the approach to Iraq that has apparently been foisted on us in the United Kingdom by the Prime Minister and others.

We have learned in Northern Ireland that negotiation and shouting is a more effective means of progress than threats and shooting. It is a terrible tragedy that, despite the laudable achievements of this Government and, to some extent, the previous Conservative Government in achieving peace through peaceful means and through the threat of violence but not its application, we may be thrust into a war that is based on the exact opposite principles. It is a terrible inconsistency and it might be worth the Prime Minister looking at the recent history of Northern Ireland and learning that one does not make progress in reducing terrorism or international threats by waging war oneself. If I say any more about that, you, Madam Deputy Speaker, may rule me out of order. However, I ask the Minister to consider whether she can act as a useful conduit between the wise sages from Northern Ireland in this Chamber, those who take an interest in the subject and the Prime Minister, who seems to forget the lessons of history.

I also want to highlight the importance of the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning. We have already heard praise of General de Chastelain, who has the unenviable job of trying to make sense of the subject in a practical way and—this may sound familiar—of issuing reports to Government about the degree of decommissioning that has taken place. I am interested in some of the suggestions that we have heard in the debate about how things might be done better. The Government need to remain flexible, because improvements could be suggested by any side. They could come from the Conservatives, Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionist party or others.

At present, however, we have the least worst way of approaching the matter. It has delivered some progress and, although there is a depressing underlying level of violence in Northern Ireland, there has been a measurable decrease in violence overall and in the numbers of bombings and shootings that have been carried out in the name of the causes that the paramilitaries claim to hold. I am optimistic that we have made progress, and I would be loth for a dramatic shift to take place that led to the hardening of policy or to the withdrawal of opportunities. We are making slow progress.

The Liberal Democrats will support the order. However, as I said last year, I hope that we will not be here again next year doing the same thing. However idealistic it may be to believe that decommissioning will happen in the next 12 months, we have to assume that even most of those involved in the paramilitary organisations have realised that their representatives have made far more progress in the interests of their respective causes and the people whom they purport to represent through peaceful means than they ever will by using the arms that they seem so loth to give in.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 4:04 pm, 11th February 2003

Madam Deputy Speaker, you are most fortunate to be presiding over your second Northern Ireland debate in a short period. You must be the Speaker's favourite to be appointed again.

There are some common strands between this debate and last night's debate, because the issues have a common source—the Belfast agreement. I feel the same exasperation as the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who referred to the ritual of coming to the House to debate these issues. It could be described as a Westminster farce that runs and runs. It is a timely and periodic reminder of the failure of the Government's policy and the process in which they have invested so much. It is right that periodically we see the embarrassment not just of the Government but of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. Although he may be trying revisionism today, having told us about all the mistakes and errors that everybody else has committed, he failed to tell us that it was he who accepted them all the time, did not point them out at the time, and tried to sell them to the people of Northern Ireland. That suggests that he was suckered at the time. Having dismissed the advice of other Unionists in Northern Ireland, including some members of his own party, he now finds out that they were right and he was wrong, and is seeking to retrieve from the ashes a semblance of dignity. However, the Northern Ireland electorate have caught on to him, both on that and on many other issues.

While I have some respect for the Decommissioning Commission—those of us who have met its members recognise that they are genuine and want to do their job—I question the Government for handing out money week after week for it to do absolutely nothing. It must be frustrating for people to hang around the not very salubrious building in which they are housed, hoping that someone just might give them a phone call one day and tell them that they can come along and spot something for themselves. I agree with the shadow Secretary of State that we are witnessing the result of sloppy negotiations. There was no direct tie between decommissioning and the important issue of prison releases. There was a clear comparison, as both were to take place over a two-year period, but there was no requirement that one should be linked to the other.

If that was the result of incompetent negotiations, it was also the result of ensuing incompetent action by the Executive. The Government had it within their power to ensure that the two were linked, and that action on prison releases was linked to a requirement that the republican movement hand over its illegal weapons, which it is still using in Northern Ireland. There has not been enough recognition in this debate that the Provisional IRA is still an active organisation and is still shooting. One has only to look at the statistics in the Chief Constable's report to see just how active those guns are, even in current circumstances. We had better remember that those are not symbolic items, as the Liberal Democrat spokesman told us; they are lethal weapons, used to kill and threaten and to extract concessions from the Government.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

Does the hon. Gentleman set any store by, or place any value on, IRA and other paramilitary ceasefires that have been in effect both before and since 1997? Does he accept that, internecine warfare in those paramilitary groups notwithstanding, the quality of life of the people whom he represents is materially better and more secure as a direct result of the Government's policies and the Belfast agreement?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I wish the hon. Gentleman would come to Northern Ireland with my hon. Friend Mr. Dodds or me. I would take him to Cluan Place in my constituency and my colleague would take him to a number of spots in north Belfast so that he could ask the people there whether life has improved for them.

We are speaking of an illegal organisation that should never be rewarded for stopping, slowing down or pausing from doing that which it should never have been doing in the first place. The number of acts of terrorism has been steadily increasing since the signing of the Belfast agreement. The statistics are there for the hon. Gentleman to see. Although the propaganda might suggest that he is right, the facts on the ground tell a very different story.

The propaganda exists because of how much is invested by political leaders in the process—by the Prime Minister, who made pledges. He came to Northern Ireland at the most critical period of the referendum and personally signed large billboards pledging that certain things would not happen until decommissioning occurred. Those pledges were broken. He came to the Dispatch Box in the House and made it clear to the then Leader of the Opposition that decommissioning was a requirement before various things would happen in terms of Sinn Fein being rewarded. Again, that undertaking was broken. Those undertakings were passed on to the people of Northern Ireland, and on that basis many of them may have supported the Government's policy.

The Leader of the Ulster Unionist party, although he did not exactly use the words, admitted that he had been suckered as well, and that he had taken the commitments made by Sinn Fein and retailed them to the community in Northern Ireland. Many of us will recognise now—I shall come to the Minister of State's remarks about the DUP's position in relation to Sinn Fein—that there is one certainty: no one should ever take the word of Sinn Fein-IRA about anything that they might do. They have promised much and delivered very little; some say nothing.

There is no requirement whatever on Unionists to say what they might do for Sinn Fein until Sinn Fein has done it. It is up to them to take the actions necessary to meet the Government's criteria, set down not just by the United Kingdom Government, but by the Government of the Irish Republic, even before the Belfast agreement, when they said that for anybody to be involved in the political process in Northern Ireland, there was a requirement for them to be committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. That is a requirement placed on Sinn Fein, not on others. The pledges of the Prime Minister and the promises of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party were broken.

As regards decommissioning, all we have had from the beginning of the process are two acts—of quite what, nobody knows, because nobody has been specific about it. The first event, on 23 October 2001, was described by the decommissioning body in the following terms:

"We have witnessed an event we regard as significant."

Following that statement, my colleagues and I went to meet General de Chastelain and his team and asked them whether they regarded their meeting with us as significant. He said that he did, so that might give the House an indication of the significance of the event that he had witnessed involving any weapons being put beyond use. But it was enough for the leader of the Ulster Unionist party who, with the broadest smile that any of us have seen from him in many years, came out to say:

"This is the day some people said would never happen."

He heralded it as a great day and a great beginning. Now—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North is right. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party at least recognises now that that and the further act that occurred on 8 April 2002 were simply stunts and gestures by the Provisional IRA.

Rev. Martin Smyth put his finger on the key issue. If decommissioning is a matter of confidence—if it is to give people confidence that the IRA and Sinn Fein have put violence behind them and want to walk a democratic path—the key issue is whether their stockpile of weapons has reduced since the beginning of the process. Although in October 2001 and April 2002 something occurred—quite what we do not know, because it has never been specified by the decommissioning body—the reality that we are all certain of is that the IRA and Sinn Fein have brought more weapons in. A body that on the one hand says "We have got rid of some of our weapons", but that on the other hand is bringing them in, not just from Florida but from elsewhere, and ends up with more guns than it had at the beginning, is hardly likely to bring confidence to the Unionist community.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that even the Florida escapade came to light as a result of an envelope breaking in a post office sorting room? From that we gained much information, and, thankfully, the authorities have managed to do a great deal to protect us.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The hon. Gentleman is right. He and I are both on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. We have looked at this matter, and the disturbing factor for us and for others is that it was discovered accidentally. For how long before it was discovered had this been going on? How many guns got in before the accidental finding at the post office sorting room? We know that some 150 weapons were discovered at that time. How many previous occasions were there? Would the decommissioning body consider that to be a substantial amount of weapons? If so, is it more substantial than the number of weapons that it saw being put beyond use?

As the shadow Secretary of State said, it is not simply a matter of decommissioning; it is about the organisation disbanding and dismantling, putting a line behind all its violent past and making it very clear that it will not pick it up in the future. It has to be a total end to the paramilitary organisation.

Those of us who read in today's issue of The Times accounts by leading members of the Provisional movement will see that there is no intention on the part of that organisation to put violence behind it. Its members want to keep their organisation in place. They want to hold on to their weapons. Whatever verbiage the Prime Minister might use in any statement over the next number of days, the reality on the ground is that their organisation will remain intact and their guns will remain in their bunkers.

Against that reality, for the Minister of State to indicate in the House that the Democratic Unionists might in some way view differently how they deal with Sinn Fein is absolute folly. Why would any party want to change its attitude to Sinn Fein, when Sinn Fein has not changed its attitude to violence? It is clear that nothing in Sinn Fein's behaviour in the past or in the present, or indeed as far as we know in its future intentions, suggests that it is an organisation about to change. The Government are deluding themselves if they believe that the Provisional IRA will divvy up and become full-blown Democrats in the near future.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Does the hon. Gentleman think that not a single member of Sinn Fein genuinely believes that a peaceful solution would be a better approach?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

All members of Sinn Fein might fall into that category, but a peaceful outcome for them is everybody else surrendering, and that will not happen. The people in Northern Ireland will not surrender to terrorists now, even though they may use the pinstripe suit more than their balaclavas at present. The reality is that the only kind of peace they want is peace on their terms.

What annoys the Unionist community most is the fact that the whole political process has to be held back because of Sinn Fein, the fact that the Government do not have the courage to say "Here are the rules of entry into the democratic club. If you do not abide by these rules, you are not part of that club, and the club will continue in existence." The Government instead tell them "If Sinn Fein do not meet the criteria, we shall not have any democracy in Northern Ireland." That is the Government's response—everybody in Northern Ireland must suffer if the IRA does not divvy up. That is not the way forward. If there are no acts of completion, even though they are poorly defined—if they are defined at all—by the Government, it is clearly their intention that the democrats should suffer along with the terrorists.

I should like to say one word about loyalist paramilitaries. We are inclined to spend a lot of time discussing the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA because there is a direct relationship between it and the Executive in Northern Ireland, of which its representatives are a part. Of course, that is not the case with regard to loyalist paramilitaries, but they fall into exactly the same category in every other respect. There is no case to be made for allowing loyalist paramilitaries to hold on to illegal weapons. That needs to be clearly stated and they must give up their weapons in precisely the same way as the Provisional IRA and other republicans. If there is any evidence of the need for that to happen, it has been seen in Northern Ireland in the past few weeks and months, when the paramilitaries have turned their weapons on themselves. We have seen areas of north and west Belfast, as well as areas further afield and even in my constituency, being turned into a battleground where bodies have been found on the street, people have been forced from their homes and the general community has been left in terror. Decommissioning must therefore begin with loyalist paramilitaries, just as it must take place in the republican movement and among those on its fringes.

I sit down giving one word of notice to the Government. They have committed themselves to following a course in which acts of completion are necessary. By their very nature, acts of completion must take place over a relatively short period. It would not be tenable for the Government to come to the House in a year's time to extend the legislation. They should be making it very clear that acts of completion are required now, that the opportunity to carry them out with an amnesty will end with the order and that if those involved do not complete within the specified period, the full rigour of the law will be brought against those who represent them and the organisation itself. Unless the Government get tough, there will be no action from Sinn Fein-IRA. Sinn Fein-IRA have managed to lead the Government by the nose year upon year. Every time they misbehave and bring institutions into suspension, the answer for the Government is to make more concessions to them. That is not the way forward. Unless there is a punishment for Sinn Fein-IRA, they will never meet the requirements that the Government would have for them.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim 4:23 pm, 11th February 2003

In the next two or three weeks, I hope and expect that this House will meet to authorise the sanction against the international threat from Saddam Hussein. From all parts of the House, with very few exceptions, we will support and follow the Prime Minister in the strong stand that he has taken.

The Minister will understand why we do not understand how the Prime Minister's strong stand against international terrorism—the good from the evil of 11 September—is translated into Northern Ireland. When Gerry and Martin, the two members of the army council, come to Downing street, sit on the other side of the table and stare the Prime Minister in the eye, they say "We are committed to the peace process" and he believes them. They then go home, authorise spying in the heart of government, steal the documents and write on the margin, referring to the Prime Minister as a naive idiot. I do not believe that the Prime Minister is a naive idiot, but his eyes seem closed in his negotiations with the terrorist leadership in Northern Ireland. Why does he not invite Saddam Hussein to Downing street, look him straight in the eye and say "Saddam, are you coming into the peace process?" I know that Saddam would say, "I am committed to the peace process, and I've got arms inspectors all over Iraq inspecting this, that and the other while representatives are at the United Nations. We're trying to get a peaceful solution." Would the Prime Minister do that with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness?

The key to decommissioning is verification and sanction. At a much earlier stage of the peace process, I suggested—this went through the Ulster Unionist party to Downing street—helpful and constructive methods to try to restore confidence in a political process in which the Ulster Unionist people no longer have confidence. I suggested a Privy Council committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable, which, adhering to the Mitchell principles of non-violence, could produce a report. We know how many weapons and explosives are there, so why do we fudge the issue? Decommissioning means the handing over and destruction—the non-use and non-availability—of thousands of guns and tonnes of explosives. If the Minister speaks to the Chief Constable and the GOC, they will verify that that is the volume of armaments within the provisional IRA. They will also give an evaluation of the armaments that are held by the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Red Hand Commando, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, or whatever name one wants to give to the loyalist paramilitary organisations. The international commission knows the amounts.

If that committee was set up, it could restore the confidence of the Unionist and law-abiding community in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister could come to this House to tell us that he has had a report from the Chief Constable and the GOC saying that the armaments have been handed over, that there is no evidence of the importing of arms, that there are no punishment beatings, and that there was no cover-up on Castlereagh or Stormontgate—that we were wrong about that, it was all mist in our eyes and it did not take place. If he could convince us that the terrorists have moved along the road from terrorism to democracy, that would restore confidence in the process.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Minister (Defence), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I propose an addition to my hon. Friend's committee—someone who would command respect right across the community in Northern Ireland. He is a Privy Councillor and my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Lagan Valley, and he now sits in the other place. I am referring to Lord Molyneaux.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

The message has been passed to the Front Bench. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend.

Such an organisation for the purpose of verification would restore confidence, but we also need sanction. The sanction of war is about to be carried out against Saddam Hussein. What sanction will be carried out against Sinn Fein if it does not decommission? It wants to be at Stormont; it wants to use the institution that it once hated; it wants to be in the forum of local government. There are elements within Sinn Fein who want to take the democratic route, but they are being allowed to get away with playing as terrorists and democrats at the same time. We should take away the democratic benefits from Sinn Fein—that will really exercise sanction and pressure against it—and reward the democratic parties in Northern Ireland with a forum of local government at Stormont that is answerable and accountable to the people. If that means that Sinn Fein has to be marginalised and isolated from the process for a period of time, so be it. I do not believe that Sinn Fein-IRA, with their terrorist organisation, want to go back to a full-scale war, but they want to play it both ways, and have suckered the Government into allowing them to do so.

The Government are the sovereign power in the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister has the power, the authority and the majority in this House to make his international stand against terrorism a domestic stand against terrorism, and he would receive widespread support in the House for doing so. Decommissioning has become a farce because the Government have let the provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries off the hook by not verifying the decommissioning and not exerting sanctions against the terrorist organisations. It is time that the Government acted, in the way that they act internationally, against the domestic threat of terrorism.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 4:29 pm, 11th February 2003

We have held a serious and constructive debate about a serious and sobering matter. I agree with all hon. Members who said that it is a disappointing day. It is disappointing to have to move such an order in such circumstances.

I am grateful to Mr. Davies for his constructive approach to the order and for saying that he would not divide the House. I am grateful to Lembit Öpik for similar indications.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and several other hon. Members questioned our definition of acts of completion. There has been no lack of clarity. We may debate the terms that we use but there is no lack of clarity about what is necessary to restore the confidence that has been lost. We are discussing giving up violence completely and in a way that satisfies everyone. I refer specifically to the IRA because of Sinn Fein's association with it, and Sinn Fein's responsibility in its partnership role in government in Northern Ireland.

We want a move of such significance that it satisfies not only me as Minister with responsibility for security, but hon. Members and the public in Northern Ireland, that the IRA has ceased its campaign. That will enable us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules.

The IRA needs to disappear as a terrorist organisation. I leave the exact detail to that organisation to determine. However, it must be done in a way that gives confidence to the public in Northern Ireland and to hon. Members.

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

The Minister said that the IRA needs to disappear as a military organisation. That is the best formulation that the Government have made. Although we all agree with a phrase such as "everyone must abandon violence", it is such a general aspiration that it cannot be defined or verified as a specific act. We need verifiable, specific acts if we are to say that the Belfast agreement has been implemented. That is why I set such store by the word "decommissioning".

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. That was rather lengthy for an intervention.

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

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention because it leads to my next point. Mr. Trimble and the hon. Members for South Antrim (David Burnside) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) also alluded to the visibility of the process and the ability of all sides to say confidently that they believe that the move has been made. In that context, we are not simply considering the IRA, but all the organisations that need to put violence behind them.

I listened with interest to the suggestion that the hon. Member for South Antrim made for the Committee and to other contributions about its membership. We shall reflect on that. I shall not respond definitively today, but it will form part of the discussion that we shall all hold. I cannot emphasise too strongly that transparency is required to restore confidence among political parties that are engaged in the great project in Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann rightly drew our attention again to the aspirations that people had when they voted in favour of the Belfast agreement. I agreed with a large part of what he had to say. He talked about what is needed, and, although we are talking today within the narrow confines of renewing the provisions that will allow decommissioning to take place, I hope that I have given the House a clear indication that decommissioning on its own is not now enough to restore the confidence that we are seeking to rebuild.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

The Minister could say exactly the same thing about the debates that we are having about Saddam Hussein, so before she finishes, I hope that she will address this serious question: why are the Government taking such a totally different approach in Northern Ireland from the one that they are taking on Iraq? I suspect that a number of hon. Members might think that we should take an approach to this question more like the one that is being taken on Iraq. There is definitely a contradiction.

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

I shall resist any encouragement to go down that route, not out of any lack of willingness to debate the point but because the issue that we are discussing today is a narrow one, and the Government's position on Iraq is a matter for debate on another day. I do not accept the proposition that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and other hon. Members have made that the situations are comparable. We are dealing here with a process in which, for a significant period of time, we have been engaged in a partnership with political organisations that have been undergoing a political process—however limited it may be, and however critical people might be of it. We must consider that if we are serious about returning to a situation in which we can restore devolved government.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East talked about the failure of the Belfast agreement, but devolution is the real prize that we are striving to achieve. It was about local people making those decisions, and it worked. It resulted in energetic, cross-community government bringing solid benefits for the people of Northern Ireland. We saw a degree of co-operation being delivered that was unthinkable until a few years ago, and in Northern Ireland there is a strong wish, which we share, to return to that.

A number of hon. Members talked about sanctions, but I do not believe that this is the time to be talking about sanctions in Northern Ireland, given the engagement that we are seeking with all the parties. For there to be a return to devolution—with the sustained effort on economic and social problems that we saw developing under the Executive, and the everyday issues being dealt with by local politicians in a way that matters to ordinary people—there must be an end to violence. What we need now is the definitive step that we have been talking about here today. It is clear that we have reached a crunch point at which Sinn Fein and the IRA—I am not talking about them exclusively—must commit themselves exclusively to a peaceful and democratic path.

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

Does the hon. Lady agree that Sinn Fein-IRA must be well aware of the malcontents within their organisation who have gone to the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA? It would demonstrate a commitment to a peaceful future on the part of Sinn Fein-IRA if they did more to ensure that those criminals were behind bars.

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

I have no disagreement with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is a very valid point indeed.

We cannot now carry on with the IRA being half in and half out of the process towards peaceful and normal society in Northern Ireland. If there is real movement, however, we can move quickly to implement the outstanding parts of the Belfast agreement, including the provisions on normalisation. We can implement the provisions in their entirety—not in stages, but together. If we can do that, it is my fervent hope that I shall not be standing here at the Dispatch Box this time next year speaking to the same motion.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16.

The House divided: Ayes 404, Noes 8.

Division number 87 Northern Ireland

Aye: 404 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.


That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2003, which was laid before this House on 20th January, be approved.