Clause 23

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 25 April 2006.

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Arms decommissioning: extension of amnesty period

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 4:30, 25 April 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in clause 23, page 16, line 5, leave out ‘2010’ and insert ‘2008’.

In this most miscellaneous of miscellaneous Bills, we are now moving on to something completely different. This clause takes us away from donations to political parties, away from the Chief Electoral Officer, and into part 6 of the Bill, which is headed “Miscellaneous”. The first of the miscellaneous items that appears under clause 23 is arms decommissioning. I say with some sadness that once again we are being asked to extend an amnesty period.

I wish to bring to the Committee’s attention the words of a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland:

“In the face of IRA decommissioning, I cannot see what possible reason loyalists now have for retaining their weapons. They certainly need not do so for the protection of their communities, which is the rightful preserve of the police and the security forces. They used to argue that they would decommission if the IRA made the first move. Well, the first move has been made: the crucial act has been carried out. It is now up to loyalist paramilitary organisations to demonstrate their support of peaceful and democratic ideals.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 45-46.]

I am sure that every single person in this room would say, “Hear, hear,” to that. Was that the current Secretary of State? No. Was it his immediate predecessor? No. Those words are in fact five years old. They were delivered by the current Secretary of State for Defence over five years ago. On that occasion, the House was being asked to consider, yet again,the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill to extend the original decommissioning period for five years.

Five years ago, the then Secretary of State made it quite clear that in a democracy politics and violence do not mix. He insisted that if the IRA had moved on decommissioning—and it had at that stage—then loyalists had no excuse for not doing likewise. I am exceedingly concerned and disappointed that the Government now choose, under clause 23, to send completely mixed messages to loyalists.

The Government, the Northern Ireland Office and the current Secretary of State all love to quote from the Independent Monitoring Commission report when it suits them; if I might, I shall refer to the IMC’s eighth report, published on 1 February 2006. I know that there is another current IMC report involving both Governments, but it has not been published and made available to the wider world in time for our consideration.

Let me just remind Members about the activities of loyalist paramilitaries. Where do I start? There are so many—the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Red Hand Commando, the Loyalist Volunteer Force. They were responsible for the feuding that led to the deaths of four individuals. East Belfast members of the Ulster Defence Association were responsible, in the view of the IMC, for the murder on 4 October of their fellow member, Jim Gray, who was on bail following his arrest. Unfortunately, the litany of carnage caused by loyalist paramilitaries continues, according to the IMC, and the statistics are well known.

The current Secretary of State challenged loyalist paramilitaries on 21 September 2005, when he said:

“The choice for loyalist paramilitaries is clear: play the political role that you claim as your motive, or face the rigour of the law as the mafia organisations into which you seem to be degenerated. You will not be allowed to terrorise your own community”.

If that is what the Northern Ireland Office really expects of loyalist paramilitaries, why in heaven’s name is it at the same time sending out the contradictory message to them and others—the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA—that a deadline for arms decommissioning is not really a deadline and that there will continue to be an amnesty not just for five years, and then another five years, but right up to 2010? I am sure that, at that stage, the Secretary of State, whoever it is, will bring more legislation before the House to extend the amnesty.

For once, could the Government just mean what they say? Pledges were given to the people of Northern Ireland not so long ago that the amnesty period had a cut-off time of 2007. Instead of now extending it to 2010, let us just delete the reference. I know that my amendment substitutes the date 2008, which tries to find a middle way, but I just want a clear message to be sent, particularly to loyalist paramilitaries: “Enough is enough; get on with the decommissioning.”

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I admitted earlier that I was pleased to serve in the Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson.

We in the Social Democratic and Labour party share the frustration of the hon. Member for North Down that decommissioning has been such a long drawn-out process. We are outraged that many of the groups have not decommissioned at all. Dissident republican factions justify their refusal to end violence and destroy their weapons, based on a fairly warped understanding of Irish history which Irish people do not generally share. They claim that in making their bombs, as they did last week in Lurgan, they are somehow upholding the will of the Irish people.

The people of Ireland, whether nationalist or Unionist, want and deserve a peaceful future. If dissident republicans care anything, or have any respect for what they claim to be the will of the people, they have no option but to destroy their weapons now and go away.

As for loyalist paramilitary groups, as tomorrow’s IMC report will doubtless make clear, they remain active and, to my mind, dangerous. They are dangerous to themselves and each other, but far more importantly, to the general public. The UDA and the UVF have yet to decommission a single bullet. Their spokesmen openly say that that is not even on their agenda. It is disgraceful that the Democratic Unionist parties and the Government have, at best, not put them under any serious pressure to get rid of their arms and ammunition. In some cases, they have offered ready-made excuses for them.

I shall give an example. Last February, after a meeting with the international decommissioning body, the DUP leader predicted that the IRA had held on to some guns and said that loyalist people should be forearmed to meet what was going to happen. In other words, he predicted that there would be a further outbreak of IRA violence. Whatever was meant by that, those who carry guns and call themselves loyalists will have only one interpretation of it: “Hold on to your guns, guys, because you’re going to need them.” Such inflammatory remarks have shown a serious lack of leadership on the part of the leader of the DUP and a reckless disregard for the safety of the public.

There is only one message that needs to be given to the loyalist paramilitary groups, and I appeal to hon. Members on the other side of the Committee to give it. It is the same as the one that we are giving and have given loud and clear to republicans and to dissident republicans. We loudly, clearly and unambiguously say: “Wind up all your activity. Destroy your guns now, and leave people in the island of Ireland, both nationalists and Unionists, to the peaceful and democratic future that they all deserve.”

I have a lot of sympathy with the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for North Down. 2010 is a long time for the amnesty to continue, but as I understand it, just because the option is there to allow an amnesty until then does not mean that it will be allowed to go on until then. Is the Minister prepared to give some sort undertaking that, even though there is an option to keep the amnesty until 2010, it will not necessarily be left until that very backstop position? Such an assurance from the Minister would go a long way. I would find it difficult not to support the  Government. But 2010 is a long way off and we need a strong reassurance that that is the final backstop position and that there will be no further extensions and excuses and that no further allowances will be made.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The hon. Gentleman makes a vain request. My whole frustration on the previous amendment was that the Government do not really take the red line sufficiently seriously. We know already that whatever deadline they impose will be extended, such that the Minister passionately argued for the Secretary of State’s right to do so in our previous substantial discussion on clause 17 and again on clause 18. I have one question for the Minister. Given that once again we are discussing something that sets a deadline, why should we even bother to pretend that that deadline will be taken seriously? Is there anything that the Minister can say that would make the deadline any more plausible than all the other deadlines that have been breached, including this one in 2002?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I want to respond to the atrocious comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South. It is appalling that any hon. Member of this House would deliberately attempt, in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), to recast the words that he used on that occasion and to put some military or violent connotation on them.

Not only was the position abundantly clear in the context in which my right hon. Friend made his remarks, but because the hon. Gentleman and his party at that time made similar comments to those that he makes today, it was explained over the airwaves so that everybody could hear what the clear intention of his remarks was. The history of decommissioning has been a very long and tiring one for the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. All the people of the Province have suffered in one way or another from the existence of illegal weaponry. We have lost thousands of our fellow citizens. Tens of thousands of them have been maimed and mutilated by those weapons.

We are not talking about some academic issue here. We are talking about the equipment that killed and injured many thousands of people in Northern Ireland to the extent that barely a family was untouched by the impact of those weapons. There is an urgency about the matter. It is important that those weapons are taken away from those who hold them and are destroyed. As far as the IRA is concerned, my party and I regretted the cavalier fashion in which the SDLP regarded the IRA’s weaponry. It regarded it as being all right for the IRA to hold on to its weapons and still to have its representatives in government. That is not a position that my party holds or will ever hold.

Our view was consistently that the IRA should not allowed into government until there was complete decommissioning. Regrettably, the SDLP and others took representatives from the IRA into government while it still held on to its weaponry and took away the urgency that was required for decommissioning to take place. That urgency still eludes the Minister, as he wants to stretch out into the far distant future the limits on when it might be possible to have decommissioning.

My party and I see no moral distinction between the IRA holding on to weapons and a loyalist organisation holding on to weapons. There is no distinction whatever: all those weapons should be handed over. All of them should be destroyed at the earliest moment. I do not take the view, which some hold, that we no longer need to look over our shoulders at the stockpiles of the Provisional IRA.

I immediately indicated that I considered the decommissioning act that took place recently to be substantial decommissioning. There is no doubt that the IRA substantially decommissioned on that day. Two witnesses saw the event and, in very vague terms, reported the fact. General de Chastelain saw it and, in imprecise terms, reported the fact, but it is at least clear from what those witnesses said that a large quantity of weaponry was destroyed. However, General de Chastelain and the two Church witnesses immediately embarked on a spinning operation, telling the community that the IRA had completed decommissioning and destroyed all its weapons. When asked to produce some evidence that all the IRA’s weaponry was involved, they relied on the fact that the IRA had told them that.

General de Chastelain and the two Church witnesses might satisfy themselves with the word of the IRA but my party leader quite rightly did not, and nor did the IMC, which, on obtaining evidence that the IRA still held on to some weaponry, reported it in its eighth report. The IMC indicated that, although the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning had been prepared to turn a blind eye to the IRA holding on to its weaponry, it was not. The IMC noted the fact that weaponry had been retained and also gave some descriptive terms, indicating that the IRA had held on to a range of weaponry.

I cannot predict what the IMC report might say when it is published tomorrow, but as always the two Governments have been attempting to get their retaliations in first and spinning the report as best they can in the hours leading up to its publication. One of the leaks of the report seems to indicate that the IMC will hold to its position that the IRA still has illegal weaponry. If the report is accurate, it will indicate that the IRA leadership did not sanction the holding of that weaponry—I am sure that that will bring some comfort to people who will face the barrel of one of the guns—and that it was held by local cells, organisations, quartermasters or whatever grand title they give themselves.

That being the case, the book is not closed on Provisional IRA decommissioning. More has to be done. If some cells or units have held on to weaponry and that was not sanctioned by the IRA, the IRA has to deal with that issue. It is responsible for decommissioning all its weapons.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer PPS (Malcolm Wicks, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry 4:45, 25 April 2006

If the IMC, either tomorrow or at some future date, said that it believed that the process had been concluded, would the hon. Gentleman regard it as credible?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I do regard the IMC as a credible body. I have the highest respect for it, in spite of the  fact that although there is a republican on it there is no Unionist, nor anybody with whom the Unionist community in Northern Ireland would readily identify. I have met the IMC, and it has issued reports that I am sure the Government did not like and which they would have preferred to be put in a different way. I understand that they will indicate that there has been some measure of progress. No one would be happier than my colleagues and I if there were progress in the reduction of paramilitary and criminal activity in Northern Ireland. That is what we want, but it has been painfully slow. However, the body that is charged with the decommissioning of weaponry is not the IMC, but the IICD and it is regrettable that, rather than admitting that it was wrong when it indicated that all weapons had been destroyed, it still wants to cover up the fact that some weapons are still being held.

I turn to loyalist paramilitary organisations. Apart from a very small decommissioning exercise on the part of the LVF, which was the first decommissioning of guns that had had their best days, there has been nothing on the part of loyalist paramilitaries, nor has there been any indication of intent by the loyalist paramilitaries to decommission their weapons. It is unfortunate for loyalist paramilitary organisations—I point this out to the hon. Member for Belfast, South—that whereas pressure can be put on the Provisional IRA to decommission in that the party that represents it is of a size that merits positions in government under the d’Hondt system and the existing structures, there is no such enticement for loyalist paramilitaries. Concessions were given hand over fist to the Provisional IRA to hand over its weapons, but nothing of the sort has happened for loyalist paramilitary organisations, nor do I ask the Government for that. I do not believe that they should have bought guns from the Provisional IRA, nor do I believe that they should buy guns from the loyalist paramilitary organisations.

I want to put it clearly on the record that all loyalist paramilitary organisations must hand over their weapons and that those weapons must be destroyed. Our community does not need illegal weaponry and it is in everyone’s interest to destroy weapons. I must tell the hon. Member for Belfast, South that, by and large, the trend in the future will be that any weapons held by republican organisations are more likely to be used against those who live in nationalist areas than against those who live in Unionist areas. Equally, loyalist paramilitary weapons are more likely to be used against those in Unionist areas for territorial control. It is in all our interests to see all illegal weaponry out of existence.

That brings me to the heart of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Down. I presume that its sole purpose is to try to introduce some pace and urgency into the process and to persuade the Government to apply themselves tothe earliest possible date. At the moment, the Government’s attitude is that if they do not come up with the weapons they will just add on a few more years. We will never get to the end of the road with that attitude in the Government. We must apply some urgency to the matter and the hon. Lady’s amendment deserves support if it does nothing other than to persuade the Minister to roll up his sleeves and get down to work.

The Minister is pointing to the Under-Secretary who has already taken off his jacket. I hope that some urgency will be introduced into the process and that we can tackle the matter once and for all and close the chapter, knowing that the guns have gone and that the prospects for peace are heightened.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I join other hon. Members in welcoming you to the Chair,Mr. Atkinson. This afternoon’s debate reveals that your expert chairmanship is needed as we steer through these difficult waters and decommissioning.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Down rightly raises the debate and we welcome that. The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 contains order-making powers for the Secretary of State to extend the amnesty period during which paramilitary arms may be decommissioned. The amendment seeks to reduce the proposed extension of the order-making power so that the latest permitted date of the amnesty would be February 2008. We believe that retaining the option to use the order-making power for a further three years until February 2010 is a better way forward.

I am not suggesting, despite what other hon. Members have said, that we should anticipate that loyalist groups will take a further three years to decommission their weapons. If the order-making power is not needed, it will not be used. Despite the apparent differences between the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Belfast, South, they are to an extent both right. Of course the matter is urgent. In giving ourselves the power to extend the time to 2010 we still recognise that. However, we are approaching the matter realistically and avoiding the need to return for primary legislation in the event that things cannot be achieved as quickly as we should like.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

Have any discreet private overtures been made by officials in the Northern Ireland Office to members of the UVF or the UDA to try to encourage them to begin the process?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Huge progress is being made. I remind the hon. Lady that many people would, obviously, have wanted decommissioning to have happened many years ago. The fact is that it has taken a long time to get to the point that we have reached, but that does not mean that we should not have gone on trying. It is precisely such powers as we are discussing that have contributed to our making the progress we have made. We can raise all sorts of questions and judgments about the nature of the IICD, although the Government absolutely respect—and adhere firmly to—its judgments, but huge progress was made last year.

The decommissioning by the IRA was historic. It took longer than everyone would have liked—that is self-evident—but it was achieved. Yes, we should like others to make the same progress, and it may take longer than we should like, but that does not change what we want to do or our confidence that it can be done. The reason for our extending the order for three years is not that we want the process to take three  years. We do not share the pessimism of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire on the matter; we are optimistic.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was slightly mournful in his view of the prospects for achievement. Perhaps he was up a little late last night reviewing the papers for “Sky News”, but the fact is that we believe we can make progress. We are being responsible. I know that the Liberal Democrats like to keep all their options open, but we are keeping open one option, which may take slightly longer than we should like. The hon. Gentleman is desperate to intervene.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I thank the Minister for staying up long enough to watch me on Sky, but he misinterprets what I have been saying when he perceives it as a sign of pessimism. I am saying that the Government’s obsession with building in insurance policies in case of failure turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it gives those people who are sceptical and resistant to the process the assurance of knowing that the Government themselves entertain the prospect that things may not work out.

The Minister must surely accept that on several occasions paramilitaries and other organisations have called the Government’s bluff about whether they have a plan B and said, “We don’t believe you”—and the Government have given in. Does the Minister accept that my argument is that by giving themselves wriggle room all the time they end up giving the same wriggle room to everyone else?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I do not accept that at all. The extraordinary and historic decommissioning last year is evidence of why the power is absolutely necessary and that it works. Our recognition that although we should like to move even more quickly, things may take slightly longer, is simply prudent contingency planning. By fixing a three-year sunset, rather than the customary five years, we are sending a signal that we expect decommissioning to be dealt with sooner rather than later. The past years have brought about massive progress towards lasting peace and stability in Northern Ireland, following the full decommissioning by the Provisional IRA. The Government are determined to build on that progress by doing all that we can to secure the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons, and encouraging loyalist paramilitary groups to make the transition from conflict to peace.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 5:00, 25 April 2006

Will the Minister deal with the point about the NIO appearing to give conflicting signals, particularly to loyalist paramilitaries? In September, as I mentioned earlier, the Secretary of State indicated that the full rigour of the law would be thrown at loyalist paramilitaries if they did not move to begin decommissioning and co-operation. That was in September 2005. Has the full rigour of the law been thrown at loyalist paramilitaries, and if not, why not? Will it be done before 2010?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I say first to the hon. Lady that despite her observations, we believe that there are no  conflicting signals whatever. Those who retain weapons should not do so. That is the reason for the decommissioning order. Our objective is absolutely clear.

I am at one with the hon. Member for Belfast, East. He is right: there is no moral distinction to be made between republicans and loyalists who retain weapons. It is immoral and they should not do it, and we want them to hand in those weapons. The way forward is simple. Getting there will not necessarily be easy, but our objective is clear. All paramilitary groups, republican and loyalist, must commit to the peace process. That involves not holding on to illegal weapons.

The Government’s view on the matter is pragmatic, but we retain a crystal clear objective. We believe that it can be realised. For that purpose, we are extending the provision. If we do not have to use it, we will not return to Parliament every year to seek its renewal, but none the less we are making a prudent contingency plan in case we need it, based on what has happened so far and the time that it has taken. We recognise the urgency, and for that reason I hope that the hon. Lady will agree to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I have listened patiently to the Minister’s response and I say calmly to him that he will have heard the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, East. The Minister should also have noted some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, South on the Democratic Unionist party. I must say that I was most disconcerted by those remarks. However, other remarks that he made were valuable.

The Minister should listen carefully to the representatives of Northern Ireland constituencies. We are saying loudly and clearly to him that the people of Northern Ireland cannot be expected to tolerate the continuing existence of private armies, whether republican or loyalist, that are armed to the hilt and engage in serious criminal activities. In an earlier debate, the hon. Member for Belfast, South referred to intimidation and extortion, as did the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). A catalogue of illegal activities are undertaken by both loyalist and republican paramilitaries. The people of Northern Ireland are sick, sore and very weary of it. They want paramilitaries from all sides off their backs.

This Government—our Government—should send a clear message to the people of Northern Ireland, who are part of the United Kingdom. I will therefore be pushing amendment No. 30 to a Division, because I wish a clear message to come from at least the Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies. I assume that Tory and Liberal Democrat hon. Members will also support the amendment.

The people of Northern Ireland need and deserve an end through the full rigour of the law to the Northern Ireland Office’s attitude of tolerance toward paramilitary organisations. That is what the Secretary of State pledged in September. With respect to the Minister, who is the security Minister, we have not seen much of that. We would like to see more of it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 13.

Division number 5 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 23

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 13 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.