I beg to move,
That the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2004, which was laid before this House on
The order appoints
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
The decommissioning process was established under the hon. Gentleman's Government in 1995. Indeed, General de Chastelain has been committed to working on it all through that time. It is clear that we must continue to encourage decommissioning. If we are serious about paramilitaries giving up their weapons, we need to will the means to make that happen. The order does that.
Since the amnesty provisions were renewed last spring, there has been a further act of decommissioning by the provisional IRA. We debated at length the veracity of that act. On
I dealt with that repeatedly at the time. I shall not go back over old ground—we have had that debate. The fact is that arms were put aside, and General de Chastelain and Andrew Sens made it clear that the weapons that were decommissioned were significant, and that many lives were saved when they were put aside. That is important, and it is something that the House should encourage.
Naturally, the Government regret that it is necessary to continue to have such provisions at all. We understand the concerns that have been raised, but it is absolutely clear that, without them, the process of decommissioning that we all want would not be possible.
I am most grateful to the Minister for taking another intervention so quickly. Would she accept that no matter how often General de Chastelain tells the community in Northern Ireland how significant an act of decommissioning is, such acts are rendered meaningless for many people by the anonymity and confidentiality clauses? What can she say about ensuring that no confidentiality provision should be invoked for a further act of decommissioning? [Interruption.] I apologise for the interruptions from the sidelines on this Bench.
I acknowledged at the time of the previous decommissioning event that it was not sufficient to sustain confidence that the provisional IRA was committed to entirely peaceful means. In a way, we have almost moved beyond the question of arms decommissioning. We now demand of paramilitary organisations that they must put an end to many other activities. Those activities have been listed many times, and the hon. Lady will be aware of them. Training, the procurement of weapons and the targeting of individuals still go on, as do so-called paramilitary-style beatings and shootings of young men in and around Northern Ireland. People continue to be exiled by paramilitary organisations. All those activities must come to an end, and it is right to say that the debate has moved on and now focuses on them.
As I have said, the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons is only one element—although a vital one—in the process of taking violence out of politics in Northern Ireland for good. The Government remain committed to securing genuine acts of completion from all paramilitary organisations, so that we can see the restoration of confidence, and thereby of stable and inclusive Government in Northern Ireland, as soon as possible.
I emphasise that we want decommissioning to be undertaken by all paramilitary groups, both loyalist and republican. We also call on those groups outside the peace process to engage with the decommissioning body to bring about full decommissioning, because we want to see an end to all paramilitary activity and to stem the rise of the mafia-like culture that threatens to replace it.
Does the Minister agree that, at this stage of the process, it might be useful to establish some sort of hierarchy of acts of completion? Would not decommissioning be pretty near the bottom of that hierarchy, compared with the beatings and exiles enforced by paramilitaries?
It would be difficult to draw up a hierarchy such as that, and to tell people targeted by a paramilitary organisation that that was less unacceptable than any other form of paramilitary activity. The fact is that all paramilitary organisations should desist and disband: there is no room for them in a democratic Northern Ireland.
I do not want to give the wrong figures on this. The decommissioning body is engaged with some paramilitary organisations, but not all—or enough—of them. However, I shall come back to the question later, as I do not want to get the details wrong.
Decommissioning is one half of the equation, and the other is commissioning. Does the Minister have any evidence that the acquisition of weapons from other countries by paramilitary organisations has ceased totally? Have she or her colleagues had any discussions with the Libyan Government about the traditional link between that country and the IRA?
First, it is clear that paramilitary organisations continue to arm themselves. They do so by a variety of means, and they use the weapons that they procure for a range of activities—for terrorist purposes, for controlling their communities, and for criminal activity. There is therefore evidence that they continue to be well armed.
On the second point raised by Mr. Swire, I refer him to the answer that I gave at Northern Ireland questions earlier. I said that I expected that the discussions between the British and Libyan Governments would touch on the supply in the past of weapons to the IRA. I am sure that any information that we were able to obtain from that source would be enormously helpful to all of us.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the commitment, perseverance and integrity of General John de Chastelain and his colleagues at the IICD. It is sobering to note that the general's personal commitment to the process dates back to 1995, when the original group was established under the previous, Conservative Government. I want to express my thanks to them all for what they have achieved in the process to date.
The decommissioning process has begun. It may not be swift enough, but it has begun. We want it to continue and we want it to be completed, so it is essential that we continue to provide immunity from prosecution for those involved.
I do not expect the Minister to have the answer to my question at her fingertips, but I hope that an answer can be given later in the debate. There is a feeling in the community that the existence of provisions such as this order allows the police to stand back from doing the job of seizing weapons and of having them decommissioned in that way. What amount of weaponry has been seized by the security forces as a result of searches since the Belfast agreement process got under way? How does that figure compare with the amount seized in a similar period before the agreement was reached?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that I might not have the relevant information to hand. I shall see what I can produce before the debate ends. However, I strongly refute the notion that the police are holding back from looking for and seizing illegal weapons. I know that they have had success as recently as last week or the week before, when they stopped a vehicle in Belfast that contained a rifle and other ammunition. They are to be commended for the actions that they take, because they are dealing with organised, well resourced and disciplined groups of dangerous people. The police undertake a difficult and dangerous task, and I know that all hon. Members support them in that.
Let me quickly answer the question asked by Mr. Dodds. I remind him that I have been talking about the involvement of the Provisional IRA and the decommissioning event that took place on
I remind the House that if decommissioning is to take place, we need to provide immunity from prosecution for those involved. We do that through the order, and I thus commend it to the House.
I regret the necessity to have the debate and to renew the order because, as the Minister pointed out, that very fact means that the decommissioning process is still far from complete despite all the high hopes on both sides of the House back in 1997 and 1998. I believe, as I shall enlarge upon later, that the Government cannot escape a share of the blame for the failure to complete the work of decommissioning. However, I must accept where we are. In making a judgment about the order, it is better to have a decommissioning system—however imperfect it is—than for no such system to be available. For that reason, I shall not seek to divide the House at the conclusion of the debate.
We are nearly six years on from a referendum in Northern Ireland during which people believed, and were encouraged to believe, that decommissioning would start in that year and be completed at some stage during 2000. It is nearly four years since the Provisional IRA made a statement on
I acknowledge the difficulties faced by Ministers and the uncertainty of the information on which they have had to base judgments about their policies in Northern Ireland over the past few years. However, Ministers have at times thrown away some of the strongest cards that they had available to achieve the decommissioning of weapons and to bring about an end to paramilitary activity. The most obvious example was the early release of terrorist prisoners. My right hon. Friend Mr. Mackay, the then Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland, moved amendments to the Bill that became the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 that would have linked prisoner releases explicitly to the terms of the promises that the Prime Minister made to the people of Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign in 1998.
That was perhaps the most egregious example of Government misjudgment, but a further example is the special status given in Westminster to Members from Sinn Fein who refuse to take their seats. We had the proposed amnesty, which at least is now held in abeyance, for terrorists who were on the run. However, where do we go from here?
I know the views that the hon. Gentleman holds and respect his right to differ from my position. However, would he at least entertain the possibility that many of those events were matters of judgment, rather than principle? For example, when it came to giving office space in Parliament, my feeling was that bringing Sinn Fein closely into the peaceful parliamentary process would put increasing pressure on it to ensure that the paramilitaries would stay in line.
I accept that those were matters for judgment, as the hon. Gentleman said. My argument to him and others is that, at the time the decisions were taken, there was considerable debate and a division of opinion in the House over the merits of the judgment that the Government, with the hon. Gentleman's support, made. I would argue with no sense of glee but with deep regret that what has happened has vindicated the judgment of those of us who felt at the time that we were granting concessions to republican militants without any certainty that they would deliver on the pledges to disarm and to end paramilitary activity that they entered into at the time of the Good Friday agreement.
The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 established a framework for decommissioning before either the democratic parties in Northern Ireland or the paramilitary organisations had agreed to any targets or timetables. Those targets came in later, following the Belfast agreement and the establishment of the two-year time frame. So, first, we need a firm sense from the Government that there will be targets and timetables, and that the Government will exert all the pressure they can on paramilitary organisations—republican and loyalist alike—not just to decommission their weapons within a clear time scale, but to cease all paramilitary activity and to dismantle the organisations of terrorism. If those bodies or their political representatives are being honest with us all in saying that they are now committed to constitutional politics and to exclusively democratic and peaceful means, they have no need of private armies or stocks of weapons and explosives.
Secondly, we need greater transparency. I do not propose to revisit in detail what happened in October, but it is clear that the absence of transparency has led to very widespread mistrust among the majority community in Northern Ireland of the good faith of the republican organisations. I do not know whether the three acts of decommissioning by the IRA so far have diminished its net stock of weaponry, because we do not know to what extent it has been adding to its armouries at the same time. The requirement for confidentiality is not written into primary legislation. My understanding is that that is part of the subsequent decommissioning scheme—the terms of which were negotiated between the present Government and their counterparts in the Irish Republic. It is time that the terms of that scheme, at least in respect of confidentiality, were reviewed. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has such action in mind, and what her assessment is of the views of the Dublin Government about the prospect of greater transparency in the decommissioning process.
Thirdly and finally, we must explicitly link participation in the government of Northern Ireland with the cessation of paramilitary activity and organisation. The Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, has said trenchantly and repeatedly that political parties that are linked to private armies are not fit to serve in a governing coalition in the Irish Republic. We should adopt the same principle in the United Kingdom as that already followed by our European neighbours. That principle, which is good enough for Dublin, should apply in Belfast as well.
There will be very few in the House—in fact, none—who would not welcome the total decommissioning of weaponry and the disbandment of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the same sentiment would apply to the people of Northern Ireland, except to those who have the weapons. There are two reasons for the political stalemate in Northern Ireland. First, attempts to end paramilitarism, both loyalist and republican, have failed and, secondly, some parties have failed to commit themselves unambiguously to the democratic power-sharing institutions endorsed by the referendums of 1998.
Decommissioning was negotiated into the Good Friday agreement, and was agreed by the parties and endorsed by the public. It is therefore an essential part of that agreement and is important to those participating under its auspices. It is not an optional extra that democracy or the people can afford to lose. At this stage of our political evolution, decommissioning is a demonstrably significant part of the required commitment to peaceful politics that, in turn, are necessary to secure trust between participating parties and communities so that we can achieve progress and make our institutions and Administration permanent. The problem with decommissioning is that, however we legislate for it, it is voluntary. It cannot be compelled under the terms of the agreement, but the police retain powers to seize illegal arms and weaponry.
In response to Mr. Robinson, there is a feeling, without any evidence or proof, that people are going soft on taking weapons and ammunition out of circulation. Either that is the case or there is a severe lack of intelligence—that point must be underscored. None the less, decommissioning is a voluntary exercise, and it is difficult to enforce. The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 provided a mechanism to facilitate decommissioning that was independent of Government and had such a standing that it was accepted by the public, who had confidence in it. Reference has been made to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning under the leadership of General de Chastelain and the need for more transparency and less secrecy. The purpose of that body was to secure the trust of Government and the community in an independent international body, as it was known full well that decommissioning was not possible in practice if the people who were decommissioning weapons were exposed to the public eye—decommissioning under those conditions is just an idle wish. My party therefore had every confidence that the commission would act on our behalf and ensure that there was proper and meaningful decommissioning.
The primary responsibility remains, as I have said, with those who hold the weapons, although they have not excelled themselves in the five or six years since the agreement. In fact, their contribution, as we have just heard, has consisted of three acts of decommissioning, although the Minister will assure us that the last one in October was a substantive, meaningful decommissioning of light and heavy armaments. Decommissioning must be conducted in such a way that a report by the international commission can be produced to end the mistrust that has arisen. Such decommissioning can only be done by the paramilitaries, both loyalist and republican, who have the bombs, guns and weapons, and know where they are. We need meaningful dialogue to make such decommissioning imperative under the terms of the 1997 Act.
It is important that the process to re-establish the institutions in Northern Ireland, whether in the north, south, east or west, takes place as quickly as possible. That is the only way in which to pressurise the voluntary—much as I hate using that word—act that decommissioning has to be. It must be made imperative, for credibility purposes, that the paramilitaries do it. There is an obscene situation on the island of Ireland, both north and south, whereby two sovereign Governments have in their midst a paramilitary army that is fully equipped and operating within their jurisdictions. That cannot, and never should be, acceptable in any democratic institution. It behoves both Governments to pay a great deal more attention to, and thereby to place pressure on, these paramilitaries to perform to normal civilised democratic standards.
The Minister referred not only to decommissioning, but to the other elements of paramilitary activity—extortion, protection rackets, drugs and all the rest of it. She will need to take into consideration a new element—what are euphemistically called the agencies of restorative justice, which is another name for thugs carrying out kangaroo court action in our communities. It is surprising that elected Assembly Members of other parties are now instructing victims of crime in my community, including old people, not to report them to the police under any circumstances, but instead to address the issue to so-called restorative justice bodies. If that becomes endemic, we will, as I have warned time and again in this House, have fascism exploding in our community. I should like to think that the Minister who is responsible for security and justice would pay more careful attention to what is happening on the ground as regards so-called punishment beatings and so-called restorative justice.
For those reasons, and to support the political process, my party will endorse the continuation of the order.
"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."—[Hansard, 11 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 832.]
We are here 12 months to the day after she made those remarks. Others, including me, made similar hopeful comments, but sadly we seem to be living in a groundhog day environment where we discuss this same piece of legislation every year.
In the euphoria following the Good Friday agreement, there was clearly an expectation that decommissioning could occur by the latest date set down in the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. However, as it has taken almost that long to achieve the beginning of decommissioning, it will take longer to achieve total decommissioning. Logically, therefore, the amnesty must be extended.
It is worth remembering that this process goes all the way back to
The step of decommissioning weapons was a long time coming, and it is impossible to overestimate the significance of the moves that have already taken place. It has always been recognised that decommissioning is a process—no one ever expected the IRA to decommission all its weapons at once. We had some almost comical debates as we imagined large articulated lorries turning up with massive amounts of munitions all in one go. That was not going to happen, so we always expected the process to be staged. However, the Good Friday agreement mentions the total disarmament of all paramilitary groups, for which we obviously aim.
Although the decommissioning that took place before the elections last year was welcome and significant, as yet we are nowhere near the total decommissioning that we all support. At the time, it felt to me—and, I am sure, to others—that some decommissioning was prompted by political expediency because Sinn Fein felt compromised by other matters around the world and revelations about the IRA, and that it responded to the pressure through acts of decommissioning. Nevertheless, the IRA must recognise that, by holding on to its weapons, it is holding matters up in Northern Ireland and working against the interests of the communities for which it claims to fight. The same must also be said of loyalist paramilitaries. We cannot focus solely on the IRA.
That leads to my first question. Has contact taken place between the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and any of the loyalist paramilitary groups? Incidences of loyalist violence are increasing and we cannot expect genuine dialogue on loyalist decommissioning while such violence continues. However, we are aiming to achieve the total decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons.
Secondly, if the interaction between the IICD and the paramilitary organisations is unsatisfactory, what leverage can the Minister apply to the paramilitary organisations and some of their political representatives to make them understand that they are harming their self-interest by not participating actively or more actively with the commission?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the result of the recent Assembly elections sent a clear and unambiguous message from the Unionist community in that only one Unionist representative linked to a terrorist paramilitary organisation was elected? The Unionist community said, "We don't want you on our backs; we don't want terrorism and we don't want paramilitary organisations." Unfortunately, a large section of the republican community voted for Sinn Fein, which still has its private army.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Without going into a detailed analysis of the outcome of the election, support for the Democratic Unionist party suggested some frustration with the process among former Ulster Unionist party voters, some of whom probably switched. The Government's postponement of the elections was counter-productive if they had hoped to assist one party or another. I do not believe that they had a strategy overtly to help the DUP to increase its numbers in the Assembly, though I stand to be corrected if that view is cynical.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention so quickly. Does he accept that the Government threw away their major leverage over the republican movement by granting the elections last October? It is a great shame that his party and its sister party in Northern Ireland accepted that decision. [Hon. Members: "It is democracy."] With the greatest respect to others who sit on this Bench, could I please finish? [Interruption.]
I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being rescued.
How does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government can now pressurise or apply any leverage to the republican movement to decommission its weapons? I am sorry that his party supported holding elections last autumn.
One word comes to mind in defence of holding the elections: democracy. However much we may like or dislike an outcome, using the date of an election in Northern Ireland to try to achieve a specific result is an unsatisfactory strategy. I sometimes also find it frustrating that the Prime Minister can choose the date of general elections. We must clarify whether the Government achieved the opposite of what they hoped by postponing the elections. I said just that in this Chamber when the postponement was announced early in 2003.
My second point, which brings me back to what I wanted to say, is that the biggest pressure in favour of decommissioning by the paramilitary organisations is the political opportunity presented to Sinn Fein, republicans and loyalist paramilitaries through their political representatives. It is perfectly obvious that were there a significant resumption of violence, for example, by the IRA, Sinn Fein would pay a heavy price for it, and the same is true on the loyalist paramilitary side.
I can see where the hon. Lady is going with that comment, and I accuse her of being a little cheeky in trying to take the credit for her party on that basis. I shall leave it to her and her colleagues to explain why they feel that that they have had such a significant influence.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position. The Government's cupboard of creativity, however, is almost infinite when they put their mind to it, so there may also be other reasons at play.
I am encouraged by the strategic approach taken by the Democratic Unionist party, because I believe and I certainly hope that the expanded DUP will now live up to the opportunity that it has in a democratic context to participate in the resumed Assembly in Northern Ireland. Although it may find it uncomfortable to consider that it may ultimately need to negotiate some kind of arrangement with Sinn Fein, in the context of today's discussion, that kind of dialogue increases significantly our chances of getting the kind of decommissioning that we want. As has been said previously, jaw-jaw is better than war-war. If people feel that genuine concessions have been made in the past, and they are frustrated by that, I simply point out that to a large extent the fortunes of Northern Ireland lie in the hands of the elected representatives.
Clearly decommissioning is therefore in part a consequence rather than a cause of what goes on in the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. It is therefore all the more frustrating that things are not in place and operational at the moment, not least because I seem to spend half my life in Statutory Instrument Committees. I enjoy the company of Ministers and Northern Ireland Members, but 8.55 in the morning is not my preferred time to sit discussing details of orders and so forth. I would prefer to be in my office preparing for government.
David Burnside, who intervened on me previously, also made an interesting comment on
"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?"—[Hansard, 11 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 815.]
That will be an ongoing issue. I have flagged this up before, and I shall mention it again: one of the problems is that we will never know when full decommissioning has taken place unless we trust the word of the people who have the weapons. Even within that quotation, the lack of trust is evident. One imponderable for a Government of any colour is the fact that the decommissioning process requires a degree of trust that currently does not exist. That points once again to the need to have an effective political structure in which that trust is enhanced.
To respond briefly to what Mr. Lidington said on behalf of the Conservatives, I ask myself the question: what would I do to try to generate trust? In the round, we must recognise that providing Sinn Fein with office space and some of the other changes that have been made were an effort to try to build trust between this place and those who probably exert significant influence on at least some paramilitary groups.
In fairness to the hon. Member for Aylesbury, I should say that he agreed with me that whether those changes should be made was a matter of judgment; but as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I would probably have made similar decisions. The good news for the hon. Gentleman is that when he becomes Secretary of State in, say, 2035, he will not be faced with the same problems, because I will have solved them in the preceding Liberal Democrat Administration.
Surely we are not to be left to trust the paramilitary organisations on what they say their inventory of weapons and explosives may have been. We have intelligence services. The Prime Minister now has a new friend in Colonel Gaddafi, who I am sure will give him a full and frank disclosure of all the weaponry that he handed over to the IRA. Jane's Intelligence Review and a number of our leading quality newspapers have published details of the weaponry that is believed to be available to the Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitary groups. We do not have to sit back and take their word for it when it comes to what their stockpile may constitute.
I realise that dossiers on weapons are a sensitive issue for the Government, and the whole Iraq business has shown us that there will always be questions about what weapons are owned; but the hon. Gentleman has made a promising observation. If it transpires that the Democratic Unionist party and others could accept a baseline for what exists now, we may indeed have a better opportunity to determine when all that has gone. The hon. Gentleman may want to comment on that when he makes his own speech.
We do not believe that there is any place for illegally held weapons in a democratic society, and we have always called for full decommissioning by both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups. We have supported the progress made so far, but we always hoped that we would be further down the road to total decommissioning than we are now. We recognise that decommissioning is a process and that no paramilitary group will decommission all at once, but now that we have embarked on that process we cannot give the IRA, in particular, any reason not to decommission its weapons. That is why we will support the order.
I speak as an English Member representing an English seat, who has never been subjected to the pressure to which Northern Ireland Members on both sides of the House are regularly subjected, both on a personal level and in representing constituents. They have been shot at and had bombs aimed at them; they have lost relatives and loved ones. For that reason I will speak briefly. I will say, however, that I noted that the Liberal Democrats were preparing for government. Given that their contribution today lasted longer than those from the two main Front Benches, I think that should that day ever come theirs would certainly be a policy of jaw-jaw rather than war-war.
Let me pick up a point made by Mr. McGrady and address it to the Unionists in the House. We in government are lucky to have the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend Jane Kennedy, to present these measures year after year—for they will be presented year after year. She is not only one of our most able Members of Parliament, but one of our bravest. When we had our small problems on Merseyside—nothing compared with those in Northern Ireland—she was the first on her side of the river to stand up and declare her belief in the ballot box against some of the nasty practices that certain people were trying to inflict on our community in Liverpool and Birkenhead. I must ask this, however: what would happen, and what would change in Northern Ireland, if the paramilitaries—particularly the IRA—did actually agree with this policy and decommission? They have enough financial resources to replenish their arsenals quickly. I suggest that even if they were pushed to the point of being more open about decommissioning, it would make not an iota of difference. I also suggest that they will never do that. They did not do it in the 1920s, and that did not stop a basic form of peace from being established in the Province for more than 50 years.
Therefore, as the Unionist groups are now regrouping in Ulster, I make a plea to them. While it would clearly be enormously difficult to disengage themselves from the obvious agenda of demanding decommissioning, I suggest that another agenda should now take primacy over that. I do that for the reasons that I have just given: supposing the IRA did decommission, it could easily and most ably build up its arsenals, given its financial resources.
What would denote a real change of substance in Northern Ireland—nothing to do with the presentations of guns but the changing of people's hearts and minds— would be to ask those paramilitaries, but particularly the IRA, which is so near government in Northern Ireland, to change their policy on beatings and exclusions. That would be the real test of whether these people were democrats or not. Therefore, the plea I make to the Unionists of both groups is, please do not keep giving the IRA the excuse never to get on to an agenda that would test in the most effective way possible whether it is a changed creature or not.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect on the words of the Prime Minister of this country on
"decommissioning is an important part of the process, because it's not merely that you are putting the actual weapons beyond use, but it has a symbolism, which is that it symbolises the desire to conduct politics only through peaceful means."
I am very fond of the Prime Minister but I would not necessarily go to the stake over all the statements that he has made. Above all, however, I make a plea to my hon. Friends on the other side of the Chamber: when can we expect those on the Unionist Benches to decouple themselves from whatever the Prime Minister wants, wishes, says or signs up to? The plea I am making today is for the brave representatives from Northern Ireland to start making their own agenda and not to have an English agenda foisted on them.
The one way that English voters would see that there was much more than an outward visible change and that that outward visible change had inward meaning would be if the IRA were challenged on its despicable policies of beatings and exclusions. Were it to respond to that challenge it would mean that it was putting aside the use of terror as a means of controlling many of their voters and many Unionist voters in Northern Ireland. That would suggest that there had been a fundamental change in the attitude of the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. That challenge is not made to them now because both sides, with the help of the Prime Minister, are still working according to the old agenda and rabbiting on that the need is to decommission.
No, I am just finishing.
The paramilitaries will never agree to decommissioning. Why do we not get on to an agenda that is not only relevant to Ulster, but really challenges those paramilitaries effectively?
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I appreciate the thoughtful contribution of Mr. Field. I know the interest that he has taken in the plight of those who have been excluded from Northern Ireland and subjected to punishment attacks. We on this side of the House appreciate that. Nevertheless, this is about the presence of a private army, or a paramilitary organisation. It is one thing to deal with the symptoms of the problem—that is, exclusions, beatings and so on—but at the heart of the issue is dealing with the actual source of the problem itself. We have said clearly that there can be no place for a private army or a paramilitary organisation in a democratic society. Ultimately, that is the position that we are seeking to achieve.
That we are again in this House debating the extension of this order highlights the failure of the Government's policy. They have singularly failed to make any progress in removing all the illegally held arms from Northern Ireland. The Government would rather trade concession after concession to those who hold illegal weapons in some faint hope or aspiration that they might decommission. But the policy of appeasement has failed, and it is time for a fresh approach.
"Within weeks, they must actually decommission. The process is verified by an independent commission, headed by . . . General John de Chastelain. Decommissioning then continues up until May 2000. It then has to be certified as complete."
It is now February 2004, and we are nowhere near the completion of the decommissioning process. The difficulty with extending the amnesty provisions year after year is that we send the signal to the paramilitaries that we are in no hurry—that we will simply renew this provision annually, in the vain hope that some day, some year, they will deliver. That approach is folly.
The Government have tried with their concessions. There was Weston Park, and then they gave offices in this House to Sinn Fein. They agreed to further concessions on policing, and to scale down the security infrastructure. Worst of all, they granted a commitment to an amnesty for so-called on-the-run terrorists. I am not sure that the Minister fully appreciates the hurt that that proposal has caused. I spoke just last evening to a lady who lost her husband as a result of the Enniskillen bombing. She rang me because she wanted to know what was happening about the amnesty for on-the-run terrorists, and to express her hurt and concern that the person who murdered her loved one and the others who died in that tragic incident might not undergo the full process of justice in Northern Ireland.
Is my hon. Friend aware that next week, on
I thank my hon. Friend for that thoughtful intervention. I commend her work in representing the views of the victims, especially those of the La Mon bombing. The difficulty is that the Government's approach has been to grant inquiries when it is a question of putting the police and the Army in the dock, but to avoid the need for inquiries when it is a question of putting the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association in the dock. Why? It is because their policy is to turn a blind eye to paramilitary violence and excesses.
It is time for that policy to end. It is time for a new approach, and that is what we in the Democratic Unionist party are advocating. We believe that, rather than rewarding the terrorists for making some gesture on decommissioning, what we actually need is a clear mechanism to ensure that they do not access and benefit fully from all the democratic institutions until such time as we have completion—and by that we really do mean completion.
Mr. Trimble earlier spelled out the need for completion before there can be any question of Sinn Fein being in an Executive. Yet he was prepared to go back into Government with Sinn Fein last October on the basis of just one more gesture on decommissioning. His only difficulty was that that was not transparent. We do not need lectures from him about making concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA. Time after time after time, he has entered Government on the basis of false promises, false hopes and false expectations.
I am not going to give way to the right hon. Gentleman; he will have every opportunity to make his contribution. He needs to decommission his revisionism. We remember what happened over the past five and a half years, and it was not about acts of completion but accepting futile gestures from the Provisional IRA.
Lady Hermon also mentioned that people had no confidence in what the IRA has done, and she was absolutely right. Yet she supported her party going back into Government with Sinn Fein-IRA on the basis of the acts of decommissioning that it engaged in. We will not take lectures about concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA from her or the right hon. Gentleman.
I wholeheartedly agree with the Prime Minister, who on
"Those who have used the twin tactics of the ballot box and the gun must make a clear choice. There can be no fudge between democracy and terror."
"Representatives of parties intimately linked to paramilitary groups can only be in a future Northern Ireland government if it is clear that there will be no more violence and the threat of violence has gone. That doesn't just mean decommissioning, but all bombings, killings, beatings and an end to targeting, recruiting and all the structures of terrorism".
It is time for the Prime Minister to insist that his own tests are met.
It is time for acts of completion, as the Prime Minister told the House of Commons. He defined an act of completion as
"not merely a statement, a declaration or words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, and enables us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules."—[Hansard, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]
That is the policy of the Democratic Unionist party, and we endorse the Prime Minister's position. We require acts of completion by the IRA.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that quotation defined acts of completion to do with the cessation of violence, not necessarily the full decommissioning of all the weapons used for violence?
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion, but this is a matter for political judgment for the political parties in Northern Ireland, and we have made our position clear.
I acknowledge that most of what I have said has been directed towards republican weapons. Let me be clear: illegal weapons are unacceptable, and if they are held by so-called loyalist groups as well as republicans, those groups, too, must decommission their weapons. It is not a one-sided process; decommissioning must take place on the part of all the paramilitary terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend Mr. Robinson warned the Government in last year's debate that extending the duration of the legislation once again would be untenable. We reiterate that the Government must impress on the paramilitaries the fact that the time for amnesty has ended and that they will not be given any more concessions for doing what they ought to have done already. It is time to spell it out to paramilitary organisations that, unless they stop all their criminal activities, the full rigour of the law will be meted out to them.
This is not a time for further amnesties and concessions; it is time for the Government to get tough on the paramilitaries if we are ever to be rid of the violence and the exclusions and punishment attacks that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead rightly mentioned. We want Northern Ireland to be liberated from those things, but we do not believe that what the Government propose here or the rest of their current policy will achieve that. For that reason, we will oppose the order.
I parenthetically observe that it is a trifle unfortunate that, having made a personal attack on me, Mr. Donaldson declined to take an intervention, in the course of which I would have made the point that his comments were not true. I shall not elaborate on that point, and if he repeats the charge, I shall endeavour to intervene again and we shall see whether he displays greater courtesy.
Reference has been made in the course of the debate to what happened in 1998 and 1997, but the issue did not begin then. Indeed, the Downing street declaration was made on
I appreciate the points made by Mr. Field. It is a truism that the decommissioning of mindsets is more important than the decommissioning of weapons, which is why so many people in Northern Ireland have focused on whether republicans are prepared to say that the campaign in all its meanings is over. It is a matter of historical record that Governments—plural—decided to focus on that particular measure because there could not be arguments about whether it had happened. I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman's view about the importance of ending exilings and beatings, but hitherto it has not been easy to attribute responsibility for those matters. We hope that the independent body that has been established to monitor paramilitary activities will bring about much greater transparency on paramilitary activity and consequently greater pressure on paramilitaries.
I want to make a few points, and I shall make them as briefly as I can. My first point is simple and is addressed primarily to the Government: is the achievement of decommissioning still a Government objective? With respect, the Secretary of State was not explicit in his response to me at Northern Ireland questions, so I hope that the Minister can be explicit. Is the Government's attitude passive? Are they merely hoping that decommissioning will happen at some stage and making provisions such as this to facilitate decommissioning if the paramilitary organisations want it to happen, or are they actually trying to pursue and achieve that objective? That question is crucial, and it addresses the Government's attitude and mental state.
Other parties must also consider whether the achievement of decommissioning is an objective. Those parties that have introduced proposals that would bring an Assembly involving Sinn Fein into existence to exercise power without decommissioning are making a huge concession to republicans. In a speech earlier this week, my fellow Assembly Member, Sir Reg Empey, advised the Sinn Fein leadership to grab the Democratic Unionist party proposals because they offer better terms to republicans than they would get from the previous policy of this Government or from my party.
I shall extend to the hon. Gentleman the same courtesy that he extended to me, but if any of his friends want to intervene, I shall take an intervention. Nobody else wants to come in; that is interesting in itself.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that our position would be better secured if there were single-minded consistency on those matters. Like me, he has been involved in the past in united Unionist approaches and he will remember when, unfortunately, he and I found ourselves excluded from those arrangements—but that is to delve deep into history. I recall that matter fondly and I am sure that he does, too.
Many of us on the Labour Benches also think that the democratic voice of Northern Ireland would be stronger if there were one Unionist party rather than two. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, whoever the democrats facing negotiations in Northern Ireland, their position would be strengthened if they did not face an Irish Prime Minister who has one view about those near to arms being part of the Government in Northern Ireland but has made it plain that he will not have such people as part of the Government in southern Ireland?
I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, although I think that it was progress when the Irish Government clarified their position. Until then, there had been a degree of ambiguity about their intentions in that respect, so I am more inclined to build on that clarification as movement forward in the direction that he suggests—that the same principle should apply elsewhere. Of course, his party leader might reflect on whether that principle should also apply in the United Kingdom, so that the message goes not only to us but to his right hon. and hon. Friends, too.
I was questioning whether it was part of the Government's objective to achieve decommissioning and the question that obviously follows is, what are the Government doing to achieve it? That is crucial. I do not want to go back over our arguments in October and November, but I endorse what my hon. Friend Lady Hermon said earlier.
We are deeply disappointed at the failure of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. We had great hopes for it at the outset, but although we are so far into the process, the IICD continues to be passive. As I pointed out at some length last November, it was in a position of considerable power and influence, yet declined to exercise it. That failure at that stage has produced a situation in which we consider the commission—regretfully—in slightly different terms from before.
Other pressure points are available, however. In some quarters, it is believed that the reluctance of republicans to decommission, and to do so transparently, largely stems from those elements in the republican movement who are deeply involved in racketeering and want the cover and weapons of the private army to pursue their criminal objectives. If that is the case, and there is every reason to believe that it is, other agencies of the state should be particularly active in the matter—a point that has been made regularly about the Assets Recovery Agency.
I appreciate that the agency was responsible for the recovery of a significant sum of money recently, but that was from loyalists. That relates to the point made by Mr. McGrady. There appears to be reluctance in some quarters and in some Government agencies to act in a way that might cause discomfort to the republican movement. That appears to be the case for the Assets Recovery Agency, too, and it is something that the agency should take energetic steps to dispel. The Government should reflect on that point.
I am not sure of the full reasons why some agencies, and perhaps even some elements of Government, behave in a way that gives rise to the impression that my hon. Friend describes. I am not sure that they intend that result.
I suspect that in some cases, particularly with regard to agencies, those involved are anxious to do what they think the Government want. They may not have any instruction, advice or hints of that nature, but they are anxious to anticipate what they think the Government would want. I hope that they get that wrong.
Whatever the reason, in my view there is no cause for anyone to be concerned about whether their actions imperil what is called the peace process. As I pointed out elsewhere just the other week, republicans did not call a ceasefire out of the goodness of their hearts or because they had had a conversion. They called it because circumstances left them with little alternative. That should be the basis on which the Government approach the matter. They have approached it as if all the cards, or most of them, were held by other people, rather than themselves. That is not the case. The Government should and could put on much more pressure on these matters.
This is a technical measure. If there is to be decommissioning, as we hope there will be, the order is needed. But this process has been going on for 10 years. One has to question the extent to which the Government are committed to it. I shall listen carefully to what is said in the reply. While, strictly speaking, we would favour this technical measure because it is needed, the debate gives us an opportunity to display our displeasure. So we shall listen.
In view of the lack of time, I shall be ultra-brief and very selective.
I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Donaldson and regard the order as a monument to a failure of policy. It is just one manifestation of a wider approach to the problems of Northern Ireland that has become so discredited over the last years. Not only has that approach failed to deliver, but many of us predicted that it would fail to deliver.
I find it hard to imagine a more depressing or shameful sequence of events than successive Westminster Governments' abject mishandling of the decommissioning issue and the contributing role played by successive Irish Governments and the Ulster Unionist party. The entire so-called peace process was built on the mistaken and discredited belief that, by granting concessions to them, those who should rightly be marginalised by civil society could be brought centre stage and participate in democratic government.
The Minister would have us agree that we should accept the order because without it there would be no reasonable prospect of further decommissioning and no final act of completion. That is a fallacious argument. It is to continue to slide down the slippery slope of surrender and appeasement.
This is the sixth time we have been asked to renew the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. It has delivered virtually nothing of significance. Quite simply, it is the wrong approach. The provisional republican movement and others have had their opportunities to demonstrate their commitment to exclusively democratic means. They have rejected those opportunities, and they have failed to deliver. The Act should be allowed to lapse. In the event of the provisional republican movement or others indicating a change of heart, its powers could be re-enacted in a few hours if the Government and the House wish.
To accept the order is to send out entirely the wrong signal. It is politically and morally wrong for the Government to perpetuate a position of conciliation, as the order does, when terrorist organisations are persistently and consistently choosing to maintain and practise the option of violence.
Over a period of 10 years now, the communities in Northern Ireland have become accustomed to hearing promises and assurances that the decommissioning of weapons would, first, begin, secondly, continue and, thirdly, conclude—and they have waited and waited. In 1998, the Belfast agreement was signed, and they received further assurances that the decommissioning of illegal weapons from both republicans and loyalists was essential and would be concluded by 2000. That time has come and gone, and still there has been no progress whatever.
I listened intently to what was said by Mr. Field. I hold him in high regard, and I very much appreciate his views on this and other subjects, but I disagree with his belief that there will be no decommissioning. If there is a strictly accurate understanding of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland—whether loyalist or republican—it shows that the republican violence has as its goal a political objective. Loyalist violence, which is equally abhorrent, unacceptable, immoral and unjustifiable, has as a different objective the prevention of a political accommodation coming about with the IRA. However, if those in the IRA receive, as they have done in recent years, concessions towards their political objective, they will move because they see their political objectives being realised. That is the history of the past six years.
The more the present Government accommodate the desires and objectives of the Provisional IRA, the better those in the IRA will respond. Why would they not? If they previously engaged in a campaign of murder, mass murder, intimidation, threats and arson to gain political objectives, gaining some small steps in that regard, and they can gain more concessions by retaining the threat of violence by retaining their armoury intact, while the Government hold out the carrot of the prospect of progress towards their objective via the 1998 agreement, why on earth would they not hold out the prospect of some movement? Whether that prospect is illusory remains to be seen. However, that is what we have seen over the past three or four years.
Those in the IRA make tentative steps and involve themselves in token gestures to pocket more concessions. That has been at the back of the on-the-run saga and the other concessions that the IRA is waiting to pocket yet again. At the moment and for the past 10 years, they have had the best of both worlds; they have given the intent of moving into democracy, while retaining the right to return to violence and to use violence. The community has said, "No, you must disarm. You must engage in acts of completion, and you must disappear." That is what the community now demands in Northern Ireland.
We have to be in a post-IRA era before we can engage in meaningful discussions that will lead to an Executive being formed, with all the main parties involved. If we do not get that, we will obviously have to look at other methods. I listened with interest to Mr. Trimble indicate his involvement and explain what he had intended should be the case. Yet many people in Northern Ireland see that, on three occasions, he was prepared to enter into the Government of Northern Ireland with those who represent terror, with nothing more than a promise of possible decommissioning.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because he makes a very important point. Not only have the Government played a major role in the concessions to the IRA, but the IRA could not have achieved what it has without the explicit acts of the Ulster Unionist party under the leadership of Mr. Trimble, and the role that he has played will go down in history as one of arch-capitulation to the IRA over the past 10 years.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Indeed, I am reminded of an interview and a quotation that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann gave in September 1998, when he said that we have to stand "rock solid" and that
"decommissioning must start before an Executive is formed."
I could not agree more with those comments, but the right hon. Gentleman did not stand by them.
Would not the future of Ulster be better served if its Members did not keep looking backwards and giving such quotations, but accepted the judgment of the ballot box, which makes it quite clear what ordinary voters think, and moved the agenda on?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but we have to remember what the ballot box declared on
I do not believe that the current position, which the Minister has described, is likely to lead to that progress being made, because we have been waiting and waiting. Lembit Öpik pointed out that 12 months ago, the Minister said that she hoped not to be back here today; but here we are. Will we be back again in 12 months' time—or in two, three or four years' time—still awaiting the movement that will not come about unless we apply the pressure that will ensure that it does?
I can tell Mr. Robinson that I do not have to hand the figures that he was seeking earlier, but I shall write to him with the detail and place a copy of my letter in the Library.
This has been a typically thoughtful, challenging and—for the Government—punchy debate, and I have listened to the many points made. I can well recall making the comments that I made last year, and I shall not repeat them this year—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend Angela Smith, says from a sedentary position that she hopes that she is not here this time next year.
It is important that we constantly bear in mind the bigger picture and the objectives that we are striving towards, which I know are shared on both sides of the House. Mr. Lidington mentioned the confidentiality that surrounds the acts of decommissioning. It is enshrined in the scheme published back in 1998, to which Lembit Öpik referred, and it is probably still the case that we would not get acts of decommissioning without the confidentiality arrangements. However, they impact significantly on people's confidence and trust, and on the veracity surrounding the decommissioning process.
We can sometimes, on these occasions, become stuck in a doom-laden debate about the state of affairs in Northern Ireland, but my normally happy disposition leads me to remind the House that matters have improved and that there has been progress in Northern Ireland recently. Economic progress is self-evident: employment is at an all-time high, and Belfast city centre is a joyous place to visit these days, full of life and activity. Young people can go about their business there and visit restaurants, pubs and clubs without the constant fear that they have experienced in the past. It is true to say that a whole generation has grown up in a more peaceful environment.
I thank the Minister, and I shall be very brief. The majority of people in Northern Ireland would like to agree with her happy, optimistic view of the future, and that is how we should all look forward. However, does she not realise that it is the base of criminality growing in the loyalist and republican communities, which cannot be touched, beaten or destroyed, that has disillusioned people so much with the whole decommissioning and political process called "the peace process"?
I do understand that, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House of it. It is because I am aware of that matter that I bend so much of my energies to working with the law-enforcement agencies to interrupt and prevent the development of that sort of culture.
In a light moment, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire talked about going back to his office to prepare for government. I pay tribute to his diligence. If I were in his place at five to nine in the morning, I would have gone back to my breakfast. I shall have to read the Hansard account of the debate, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman, when he talked about trusting the paramilitaries, was inviting us to do so.
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. The fact is that we cannot trust the paramilitaries. That is why we have the IICD, and why the role that it plays is so important. I think that that was the point that the hon. Gentleman was making.
Mr. Trimble challenged the Government, quite properly, about what we are doing to maintain pressure on paramilitary organisations, and especially on the paramilitary organisation that has the greatest responsibility in these matters, given that its political representatives have participated in a power-sharing Government in the past. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government believe that we must maintain the pressure, and that we must therefore continue to provide the means by which decommissioning can be carried out. We are, with the IICD, resolutely determined to continue to complete decommissioning by all paramilitary organisations. One of the ways to achieve that is through dialogue, but there are many other ways. They include using the powers of law enforcement to interrupt, arrest and challenge the activities of the organisations on the ground.
All paramilitary organisations must give up violence completely, in a way that satisfies everyone and enables the people of Northern Ireland to move the democratic process forward. Every party that wants to be in government must abide by the same democratic rules.
I end by reminding the House of the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. McGrady, who said that decommissioning was not an optional extra. He is absolutely right. Decommissioning has to happen, and we must continue to work towards making it happen.